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For years, cheap-chic icon Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT) was a fast-growing, disruptive competitor within the U.S. retail industry. As it grew to become one of the most dominant U.S. retailers, Target gained recognition as one of the best companies in America.
By 2008, Target was ranked No. 8 on Fortune's annual list of the most admired companies in the world. Since then, Target has been on a downward slide. Target has allowed its fashion image to languish, it botched its entry into Canada, and it exposed millions of Americans to potential identity theft and credit card fraud. It also continues to pay some of the lowest wages among U.S. retailers.
It's no wonder, then, that Target has fallen to the No. 29 spot on the Fortune most-admired list. Simply put, in the last few years, Target has failed its investors, employees, and customers. Unless the company turns that performance around in a hurry, in a few more years it won't be on the "most-admired" lists at all.
Poor financial performance and weak stock returns
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Target's stellar growth caused its stock price to soar. By contrast, for most of the last decade, Target stock has mirrored the market's returns -- and in the past year or so, Target shares have plunged even as the stock market rose further.
Thus, it's fair to say that most Target investors are fed up with the company's performance by now. Most recently, Target's massive data breach -- which exposed credit card numbers and personal data for tens of millions of customers during the 2013 holiday season -- made lots of people wary of shopping at Target.
However, Target's problems run deeper than that. Even before the data breach, the U.S. business was stuck in a rut. Moreover, Target's aggressive move into Canada has completely backfired so far. Target lost nearly $1 billion in Canada last year, and it is on pace for another big loss there in 2014.
These blunders have already cost CEO Gregg Steinhafel his job. Stienhafel's replacement, Brian Cornell, certainly has his work cut out for him. After a decade of posting only average stock gains, Target has severely disappointed investors in the past year or so, and its turnaround prospects remain uncertain.
Employees aren't too happy either
Target shareholders may be unhappy, but the company's employees aren't far behind. While Walmart is the usual whipping-boy of labor activists, Target's front-line employees actually get paid less, on average: well under $9 per hour.
As a result, employees rate Target a mediocre 3.1 stars out of five on Glassdoor. (That barely beats Walmart, which gets 2.9 stars.) While Target offers pretty good benefits compared to similar companies -- it even offered health insurance for part-time employees until this year -- pay levels are frequently mentioned in negative reviews by employees.
Like many retailers, Target also demands a lot of its employees. In 2011, Target decided to open its stores at midnight for Black Friday. This inspired a Change.org petition that called on Target to "save Thanksgiving" by not requiring employees to show up at 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving. These pleas fell on deaf ears. By 2013, Target was opening stores four hours earlier, at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
As noted above, Target also has been doing a bad job for its customers lately. Last December, its data systems were hacked. As a result, Target exposed 40 million credit card numbers, as well as personal information (such as addresses and phone numbers) for 70 million customers.
Most shockingly, Target was warned about the security breach as it began, but did nothing, according to an investigative report by Businessweek. While Target has attempted to repair the damage, working with banks and credit card issuers to cover unauthorized charges, the data breach still caused huge headaches for its customers.
Target has also returned to marketing its REDcard credit and debit cards aggressively. Cashiers are supposed to ask every customer if he or she would like to sign up for a REDcard account. Not surprisingly, many customers find this annoying -- and it seems particularly insensitive given how recently the data breach occurred.
Working toward a better world?
While Target has been performing poorly for shareholders, employees, and customers, it does continue to do well in terms of broader social responsibility. Target doesn't have as many solar installations as some competitors, such as Walmart, but it focuses on sustainability in a number of other areas -- such as offering a $0.05 discount to customers for each reusable bag they bring.
Target also donates 5% of its profit to local communities each year, or more than $4 million each week. This charitable giving is primarily focused on education. Furthermore, Target REDcard users can designate a K-12 school to receive an amount equal to 1% of their purchases at Target.
Poor marks overall
Target's social responsibility efforts show that the company is still trying to be one of America's greatest companies. However, this cannot fully offset the damage Target has done to all of its other key stakeholders.
Shareholders have suffered for years from mediocre stock performance. The botched Canada launch has aggravated Target investors' woes. Front-line employees are asked to work hard for meager wages. Meanwhile, customers have been exposed to potential credit card fraud and identity theft -- and are now being asked to sign up for a new Target debit or credit card!
Target still has an opportunity to rebuild its reputation. But balancing the needs of investors, employees, and customers will be a formidable task for new CEO Brian Cornell.
Adam Levine-Weinberg has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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