Friday, December 20, 2013

Merry Christmas, Mr. Steinhafel

It took nearly 14 years, but Target Corporation is having a true Y2K problem:
Anxious consumers besieged Target Corp. on Thursday after the company acknowledged that hackers may have gained access to credit and debit card information from 40 million shoppers.

The swarm of people who tried to access their Target Redcard account information online or who called customer service overwhelmed the company’s systems, piling frustration on top of the questions surrounding the brazen attack.

Target confirmed early in the day that a data breach had potentially exposed card information from shoppers who made purchases in the company’s nearly 1,800 U.S. stores between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15. Online transactions weren’t affected, the company said.
I'm not surprised that this happened; the means available for hackers to cause mischief are always expanding and the resources available to fight them aren't usually commensurate to the threat. What is surprising is Target's ineptitude in responding to the issue. Target usually does a very good job of controlling the narrative surrounding its business; I worked there for nearly a decade and it was always a primary consideration.

It's tough not to be a Target customer ("guest," as they call it) in the Twin Cities, as the company is headquartered here and the stores are ubiquitous. We're starting to see Walmart make inroads in this market; there is a giant new Walmart that will be opening soon in Roseville, about 2 1/2 miles from here. We already have a smaller Walmart nearby in St. Anthony, only about a mile away. The competition only gets tougher and Target's store performance seems a little less, well, robust than it used to. The customer service standards have noticeably decreased in recent years, especially in the number of available cashiers. What set Target apart from its competitors is that the stores seemed organized and that help was readily available. Target is still much better at that than Walmart; the cashier lines at the St. Anthony Walmart are often horrendous. We tend to shop the SuperTarget in Shoreview and while the lines aren't as long, the old standards have certainly been relaxed since the early 2000s. People notice that sort of thing, even if they don't spend a lot of time discussing it. And if you combine the subtle erosion of customer service standards with fear of identity theft, we're talking about a major problem for the ol' Bullseye.

I'm not the only person who has noticed these trends; while I don't spend a lot of time talking to people about Target and its overall performance standards, you do hear a lot people saying that Target seems to have lost its edge in recent years. Target's business model is different from Walmart's, which relies on providing low prices by leveraging (a) unparalleled supply chain management and (b) unremitting ruthlessness with its vendors; while Target rides its vendors hard, there's still a bit of Minnesota nice in the corporate DNA over at 11th and Nicollet.

The lesson in the current predicament seems simple enough; you have to assume the worst case scenario is always imminent and prepare the best you can. There's another lesson out there, however, and it will be interesting to see if the executive team at Target sees it.

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