retail in wonderland: a trip to target and what the man found there

The beans were out of overnight diapers and we needed a few other things for the house, so I braved the frigid temps this morning and headed over to my local Central Wisconsin Target.

You know Target, the beleaguered Minneapolis-based retailer, the one that had the big data breach right around this time last year. I still prefer them to the plutocrats from Arkansas, but my patience with Target as a consumer is wearing very thin.

I grow very tired of playing games with retailers. All I want is a quality product at a reasonable price; fulfill those two criteria and you’ve got a customer for life in me. Instead, retailers hit us with all sorts of gimmicks, coupons, double coupons, points, rewards programs, savings apps, doorbusters and, a week from today, the most overrated shopping day of the year. The house always wins, especially when couponing consumers drive the margins higher for the rest of us.

Target, in recent years, has gleefully played the same game: in killing off their old Target Guest Card and the Target Visa and introducing their REDcard products about two years ago, in credit and debit varieties, they offer a 5% discount storewide and free shipping online, amongst other fringe benefits. [In the interest of full disclosure, I used to work for Target Corporation–and its previous incarnation, Dayton-Hudson–managing Target Guest Cards and the partner department store cards the company then supported, about 15 years ago.]

When I signed up for the Target REDcard debt product back in Springfield, I made cordial smalltalk with the guest services associate, casually mentioning that in offering 5% off so freely, they must be planning to mark the entire store up 5%.

She smiled and replied, “It’s already happened.”

Indeed, price tags throughout the store trended higher. In using the REDcard, you’re not saving 5% as much as you’re enabling the merchant to mark everything up by at least 5%. In not using the REDcard, you’re letting the merchant diminish the value of your dollar. There is no real winning to be had.

Then, Target decided to play another game, this time in their weekly flyer: buy multiples of a promoted item and earn a gift card. Now this isn’t unique to Target; Kohl’s has been doing something similar to this with their Kohl’s Cash gimmicks for years now. It engenders repeat visits, builds value for the consumer and ensures movement of product and practically guarantees future incoming capital. It also allows price tag manipulation: have you seen how wildly prices fluctuate on items at Kohl’s between Kohl’s Cash earning and Kohl’s Cash redemption periods? (Hint: there’s a reason they use digital price tags on most items in the store, just like most gas stations have moved to digital signage.) In the same way, prices of items that are Target Gift Card eligible tend to spike during the week they are promoted.

And finally, there’s Cartwheel, the newer, social [gag], app-based [gag] gimmick where you can activate special discounts from a list of specific items. Like the old-hat grocery store key card folderol, it tracks your spending–remember what retailer informed a patron they were pregnant before she even knew!–and helps them develop price-setting strategies for the future…and gives them incentive in the here and now to spike the price on those items to create the illusion of saving money. Unfortunately, you have to play the game, lest you prefer to set your hard-earned money on fire.

Today, I went to get diapers for the girls–$25 gift card eligible when buying three mega-sized boxes–and also needed to get light bulbs–20% off on Cartwheel, plus a $2 off store coupon–and batteries–20% off 12 packs of AA/AAA varieties. Whilst in the baby section, collecting the aforementioned diapers, I happened upon a most interesting sale on Gerber Graduates pouch food:


Whoever the team member was who was tasked to apply the sale tag forgot to relabel the shelf price tag, meaning that they had intended to mark the item up $.35 to provide the sale price $.16 higher than it was in the first place!

The Cartwheel promotion on batteries was slated to expire soon, so I decided to look for these 12 packs, which may as well have been Ray Charles looking for Waldo. All the Energizer battery packs I found were either en masse or in packages from two up to ten. The 12 pack variety, seemingly cynically, did not exist, until I checked by the toy section, when lo!, I found these mythical Energizer unicthuluquatch 12 packs. I even found a 12 pack with a bonus store coupon on it! (The unicthuluquatch ness monster!)

Then I looked closer:


If you can’t see or zoom in on the expiry date on the coupon, those 12 packs of Energizer batteries were at least three years old. (Good thing they hold a charge for up to ten years!) And they weren’t the oldest batteries being sold in that section! Leaving alone the propriety of selling very old batteries, is that even safe?

Needless to say, I didn’t buy batteries at Target today.

I went to the check out, armed with my Cartwheel barcode on my BlackBerry Z10 (hey, Target, make us BB10 users an app already!), my coupon, $35 in Target gift cards earned from earlier promotions and my debit REDcard. While it seems counterintuitive to cannibalize gift cards on gift-card earning eligible items, it makes the most sense in the twisted Midway game consumers have to play: you’re protecting your own margin against theirs. I sub-totaled over $150 of stuff, used my discounts and walked out having ‘saved’ over $50, with a $25 gift card to build upon in the future.

I do not count this as a victory, because it isn’t: these things are exceedingly bloated in order to give the consumer a feeling of false virtue: saving money. Who doesn’t like saving money, right? It’s a similar straw man to efforts to raise the minimum wage: who doesn’t like a pay raise? Both are based on false premises to justify artificial actions that do not, will not and likely were never designed to actually resolve real-world issues. And Walmart’s prices are seldom any better–they’ve been getting by on a reputation for low prices without really delivering the goods for quite some time.

To enter Target’s sliding doors these days–or any store’s doors, for that matter–is to go through the looking-glass.


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