Target Execs Share Their Approach to Culture and Guest Experience

By Meghan Hall |  January 16, 2023

The Buffalo, New York, community experienced a harsh winter storm the weekend of Christmas, stranding motorists, burying a community, and closing many retailers’ doors. But on Walden Avenue, in a suburb of Buffalo, a store’s lights remained on; it was filled with people who had been stranded in their vehicles, in need of a safe place to stay as the snow continued to fall. 

That store? Target. 

Brian Cornell, CEO of the Target Corporation, said that the snap decision — made by a store director — was a reflection of Target’s culture and purpose, something the brand has thought deeply about and worked to implement across the corporation. 

Alexis Sheppert, Group VP of Stores for Virginia and North Carolina, said that the store’s employees turned into sleepover facilitators, working to create what she called “magical moments” for guests, even amidst a difficult situation. 

“The guests came in and had Starbucks and hot chocolate with the team; we had coloring activities for the kids,” she said. “Store director Matt Pritchard was faced with a decision. For many people, it may have been difficult, but I think he reacted very quickly to make the decision that he knew was right for his team. It was right for his guests. And it was right for Target.”

Cornell gathered four of the company’s top female leaders for a keynote address Monday at the National Retail Federation’s annual conference. Those leaders were Sheppert; Cara Sylvester, Chief Guest Experience Officer; Kiera Fernandez, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer; and Christina Hennington, Chief Growth Officer.

From left: Target executives Brian Cornell; Kiera Fernandez; Christina Hennington; Alexis Sheppert; and Cara Sylvester.

The conference, held at the Javits Center in New York City,  brings together tens of thousands of retailers to talk shop, identify partners, and develop strategies. 

The five leaders had an in-depth discussion about Target’s internal commitment to culture, and how that commitment also allows customers to understand and benefit from company culture, too — whether in their day-to-day lives, or in stressful situations, like the blizzard in Buffalo. 

Culture’s Place Internally at Target

The leaders said culture plays an integral role in day-to-day operations at Target. Fernandez said Target has thought about how it defines its culture, and came up with a simple explanation. 

“We define [our culture] very simply as the ability to care, grow, and win together,” she said. 

To arrive at that definition, the company spoke with employee stakeholder groups, asking them to encapsulate Target culture in a few words. 

The company uses that phrase as a way to steer its decision-making processes, Hennington explained. 

 “If culture is the ‘who we are’ and ‘how we work,’ then strategy is what we do,” Hennington said. “We use [culture] as a guidepost [and] as a set of filters for decisions we make in the business — both big and small. That’s all in pursuit of our purpose, which is to have all families discover the joy of everyday life.”

Advice on Caring for Your Team

Sylvester offered some practical advice for talent retention and ensuring positive guest experiences. 

“When you care for your team first, they will care for your guests, for your customers, for your community,” she said. 

Sylvester suggested three main courses of action for showing care to team members — from high-level executives, to frontline workers in stores. 

  1. “Invest in your team.”
  2. “Listen to your team.”
  3. “Actively look for ways to make your team’s job easier.”

Culture Permeates into the Customer Experience 

Sylvester, the Chief Guest Experience Officer, said that while culture is something that employees and leaders focus on cultivating, the outcomes of that work have become a part of Target’s brand identity in consumers’ eyes. 

“When you’re interacting with Target brands… we want you to feel something,” she said. “Those feelings that are evoked are because we think about designing our guest experience around a deep emotional connection with our guests, not a transactional or linear one.” 

Part of helping guests to see Target’s culture and commitment to the customer is representation. 

Hennigton explained that Target works to be inclusive with its assortment decisions to meet guest needs. She said the company’s in-house product lines use a proprietary color palette that includes colors preferred by people with a darker skin tone, among a number of other inclusivity initiatives. 

Sylvester said one particular Target customer, a Black mother, contacted her near the holiday season, sharing a story about purchasing ornaments with her daughters’ skin tones. For that customer, Sylvester said, the representation mattered — she shared that it was the first time her daughters saw themselves represented in that way. 

“These moments don’t just happen by chance. They happen because our culture of care and our core value of inclusivity run deep in all of us — and by all of us, we mean all 400,000 team members,” Sylvester said. “Our culture transcends well beyond our team and absolutely shows up to our guests.”