Hoty off the press: Critics miss the Target

Adrian Northrup

It’s a big-box retailer that sells everything, from food to the latest in cheap-but-chic fashions. But it all comes at a cost – outsourcing labor to underpaid workers and driving competitors out of business.

I speak, of course, of Target.

I think my love for Target started sometime around my freshman year, when I took a political science class and became convinced of the evils of Wal-Mart. I bought all my groceries at Target. I even joined a Facebook group called “Target is better than Walmart.” Somehow I convinced myself that by staying away from the store’s garish, slightly-less-expensive competitor down the street I was being socially responsible.
Call it retail cognitive dissonance for my financially challenged college-student psyche.

But, alas, as it pains me to finally admit, I was wrong.
Strip away Target’s aesthetically pleasing d‚cor, pseudo-trendy marketing and that display of enticing, ever-changing trinkets for a dollar and all that remains is a glorified, yet smaller, Wal-Mart.

They both ban unions and sell goods made with cheap labor from impoverished countries, varnishing it over with highly publicized gestures of community service. Target just has an easier time getting away with it.

This happens, mainly, because Wal-Mart is so much bigger. It runs 6,500 stores and employs 1.8 million people in 15 countries, according to its Web site. Target operates a piddly 1,300 stores and only covers 47 states.

For Wal-Mart, this translates into not only a wider influence on the business world but into lots of bad public relations. Wal-Mart has been the subject of documentaries, both for and against its business model. Groups such as Wal-Mart Watch and Wake up Wal-Mart abound. A Yahoo News search of “anti-Wal-Mart” yields 299 results. A search of “anti-Target” yields three.

Target gets to exist in this shadow, touting its reputation as the “anti-Wal-Mart.” According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Target proposed making its West St. Paul store a Supercenter in 2005 with little opposition, while residents of a town 30 miles away railed for more than a year against a new Wal-Mart Supercenter. Wal-Mart has faced obstacles in Democratic-leaning states, such as New York, that have welcomed Target. But its business practices are hardly more progressive.

Oh, and speaking of political leanings, Target donates a larger percentage of its political donations to Republicans, at 75 percent to Wal-Mart’s 71 percent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Ironic.

The Tribune reported that Target employees in some areas were actually paid less than their Wal-Mart counterparts and that they had more difficulty getting health insurance coverage. So much for worker-friendly labor practices.

Target may not have the size and influence of Wal-Mart, but it keeps growing. The chain plans to add 50 stores next year nationwide. Target’s Web site claims 96 percent of people recognize the company logo (though it doesn’t specify which people).

To Target’s credit, it does give 5 percent of its taxable profits to arts, education and social services, according to its Web site.
In the end, its all a matter of seeing beyond the happy spotted dog and the friendly PR facade. I confess, I shop at both stores quite often (chalk it up to convenience, I guess), so I can’t advocate giving them up altogether. But when you buy that hypnotic, holographic gift card this holiday season, don’t give Target credit for being any more than a Wal-Mart wannabe.