Target's latest move on transgender bathroom policy

You may recall that Target jumped feet first into the bathroom privacy question earlier this year, announcing that customers were welcome to use whichever facilities aligned with their “gender identity” rather than their biological gender. (How did we get to the point of having to use the phrase biological gender? That’s like saying feline cat.) They probably began rethinking the plan after their stock plummeted and more than a million people almost immediately signed an online petition protesting the move. More trouble followed when a man dressed as a woman was accused of filming a teenage girl in one of their ladies rooms. Four months of having their customers experiencing everything from annoyance to alarm seems to have brought the message home to the retail giant – at least partly – because there’s a new and costly change coming to their facilities. (Washington Post)

Target said Wednesday it is preparing to spend $20 million in the coming months to add single-stall bathrooms along with men’s and women’s restrooms in its stores, a move meant to accommodate shoppers who have expressed concern about the retailers’ policy of allowing customers and employees to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender they identify with.

“Some of our guests clearly are uncomfortable with our policy, and some are really supportive,” said Cathy Smith, Target’s chief financial officer, in a conference call wither reporters…

When asked whether boycotts or other dissatisfaction over the bathroom policy had contributed to weak sales growth in the most recent quarter, Smith said, “It’s difficult to tease out one thing that’s driving results.” She added that based on the evidence the team has today, the impact of the bathroom issue has “really not been material.”

It may be difficult to “tease out” the numbers, but if their sinking sales and stock value are attributable to something else that’s one awfully big coincidence. (Then again, feel free to consider Five Reasons Fewer People Are Shopping at Target.) Still, this could provide a lesson to other retailers and businesses thinking of following them down the same trail. Target was quick to point out that there were already single user bathrooms in most of their locations, so they’ll only be forced to add new facilities in a small percentage of stores. That, however, doesn’t seem to be the crux of their problem.

The solution they’re arriving at is one which is already in place in many schools and businesses around the nation. While common sense would dictate that none of this should be necessary and everyone should use the bathroom which matches the plumbing they came equipped with (pardon the pun), Social Justice Warriors have turned it into a battlefield. But single user bathrooms in stores are a completely effective, albeit expensive solution, though it may increase wait times for patrons. It defuses the argument since there is no longer a field to fight the battle upon.

But making such a “correction” doesn’t fully bind the self-inflicted wound Target suffered in the first place. If you are operating a business which seeks to maximize its market share across the full spectrum of potential customers, jumping into a contentious social justice issue is a losing proposition no matter which way you go. This applies to every aspect of private commerce. If the nation is largely divided on a subject, be it bathroom privacy, guns on the premises or gay weddings, as soon as you choose to make a point of picking sides you’re going to tick off a significant portion of your prospective patrons. And in the era of social media you will quickly find yourself on the receiving end of a boycott or protest of some sort.

The solution for Target should have been an obvious choice between one of two paths. They could have immediately issued a statement saying that they understood some of their customers were uncomfortable with current bathroom designations and they were converting to single user, unisex bathrooms immediately. The other (and somewhat more cowardly) option would be to have said and done nothing, waiting until somebody filed a complaint about men in the ladies room. At that point the local manager can simply call the cops, let them handle the mess and tell any reporters who ask that they’re simply complying with the law. It might not make everyone happy, but it keeps them out of the national fight.

If you happen to be an active warrior in this battle on either side, that probably sounds like a weak answer. Perhaps you prefer to do business only with retailers who take a “bold stand” on every SJW debate of the day. That’s fine for you, but you should remember that retailers need to sell to everyone in a competitive market and their charter is not to settle the social issues of the day.