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Want to Keep Target Closed Thanksgiving? Get Shareholders Involved

| Wednesday November 21st, 2012 | 0 Comments

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For the second year in a row Target is targeted by an online petition calling the retailer to return to return to Friday morning opening on Black Friday. Last year, 200,649 people signed the petition and this year the number of signatures has already passed 360,000. Yet, Target doesn’t seem to take this protest into consideration and actually plans to open its stores three hours earlier this year – at 9:00 p.m. on Thursday night compared to Thursday midnight last year.

So what is the lesson from this passionate, yet seemingly ineffective, protest? Well, while we do need to admit that the online protest alone doesn’t manage to change the cost-benefit analysis of Target’s executives, it doesn’t mean that this is a fight that can’t be won. Protesters just need to start taking a more strategic approach to win this war.

How they’re supposed to do it exactly? Very simple – in the words of Target: “Find what makes Target tick.”

The starting point of this effort should to identify Target’s weak point. Every company has at least one weak point and this is the exact place you need to target if you want the company to listen. Greenpeace is an expert in finding companies’ weak spots as their endless list of successful campaigns proves. We don’t have Greenpeace at the table (at least for now), but let’s try to do it anyway.

For most companies, customers can be considered a weak point and they act pretty fast to fix whatever customers are unsatisfied with. Yet, there’s a very little chance a large number of customers will boycott Target. As the Consumerist rightly wrote earlier this week, there’s a good chance that even most of the people who signed the petition won’t boycott Target and the retailer knows it very well. It just won’t work.

Another potential weak spot is the employees. Many of them are probably unhappy with the early opening of the store, but I doubt this discontentment will be translated into a significant action such as strike. My guestimation is that there aren’t enough employees at Target who are willing to go on strike just because of Black Friday.

So, we can’t count on the consumers and the employees are probably not in a position to take action, so who is left? Well, how about the investors? I don’t know about you, but to me, this group seems to have the best chance to make Target take notice. This is what we’ve learned from the last chapters in Target’s history.

In 2010, Target gave a $100,000 contribution to an independent committee set up to support a Minnesota gubernatorial candidate known for his anti-LGBT views. This move, as Trillium Asset Management wrote earlier this year, “endured a full-scale backlash of in-store protests, a grassroots boycott and widespread media coverage.” It also drove Trillium and other social investment firms to file a shareholder proposal “aimed at strengthening the company’s internal criteria and vetting processes used to make political donations.”

“Imprudent donations can potentially have a major negative impact on company reputations and business if they don’t carefully and fully assess a candidate’s positions,” Tim Smith, a senior vice president at Walden Asset Management, one of three asset management firms that filed the resolution told the LA Times back then. Other investors, like the New York state pension fund also expressed their concern: “It’s troubling to think that they can fund controversial candidates without properly assessing the risks and rewards involved,” said Ola Fadahunsi, spokesman for New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the pension fund’s sole trustee.

That shareholder resolution is still pending, but Target was certainly more open to reconsidering its position after the shareholders got into the picture, as we see from the promise its CEO Gregg Steinhafel gave back then to “begin a strategic review and analysis of our decision-making process for financial contributions in the public policy arena.”

It’s quite clear that if you want to hear a similar statement from Steinhafel about Black Friday, you need shareholders like Trillium or Walden to get involved and even file a resolution that will specifically address Black Friday. It is also quite clear that in order to get shareholders involved, you need to show them how opening the stores early on Black Friday “can potentially have a major negative impact on company reputations and business,” just like that contribution in 2010.

To create similar, potentially negative implications that will get investors involved, you will need to have an organized multi-stakeholder effort that will include online campaigning, ask suppliers that are committed to sustainability to pressure Target, work with institutional customers like cities and universities to pressure Target, and make sure that the issue won’t get off the media radar even after November 23.

Such a combined effort can eventually convince investors that there’s a case here that justifies their intervention, and hopefully this sort of involvement can do what the petitions can’t – make Target change their position and return to Friday morning opening of its stores on Black Friday.

[Image credit: noise64, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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