Retail

Target says it will hold your spot in line as it looks to make holiday shopping safer during Covid pandemic

Key Points
  • Target said it will add new features at its stores to make holiday shopping safer and easier.
  • Among them, the company will double the number of parking spots dedicated to curbside pickup and allow customers to use their own smartphones instead of shared scanners in the self-checkout lanes.
  • Shoppers can check on Target's website to see if there's a line outside of their store and reserve a spot ahead of their visit.
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As the coronavirus pandemic and holiday season collide, Target said Thursday is is rolling out new measures over the next few weeks to put shoppers at ease.

It will double the number of parking spots dedicated to curbside pickup. Customers can use their smartphones instead of shared scanners in the self-checkout lanes. More employees will have handheld mobile devices that allow people to skip the line and make purchases in different parts of the store. And shoppers can look on Target's website to see if there's a line outside of their store and reserve a spot ahead of their visit.

The big-box retailer usually throws a glitzy event in New York City to show off its holiday merchandise. This year, however, CEO Brian Cornell emphasized the different way it wants to stand out during the global health crisis — by besting competitors on comfort and convenience.

"We anticipate that our guests will visit our stores frequently this holiday season," Cornell said on a call with reporters. "Many will do so to pick up their online orders from the comfort of their cars and many more will come to browse our aisles for holiday inspiration."

In its holiday plan, Target is "doubling down on safety," he said.

Target's announcement comes as Covid-19 cases rise across much of the country. The U.S. is reporting roughly 60,000 new cases daily, an increase of nearly 17% compared with a week earlier, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The escalating infection rate has forced officials to plan ahead and start making tough calls to slow the virus' spread. Boston Public Schools announced Wednesday that will switch all students to remote-only learning effective Thursday. New York health officials have been responding to coronavirus "cluster zones" by tightening restrictions on businesses and social activities. Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned on Wednesday that infection rates will likely grow.

Shoppers seek out safety

Cornell said Target's changes were in the works ahead of the coronavirus spike. He said Target began planning some of the safety measures in July, and he sees them as an extension of the procedures Target already put in place, such as requiring masks and increasing cleaning at its stores.

"Our teams have continued to innovate and iterate to make sure that Target is the safest place to shop as we go into the holiday season," he said.

Target is handing out 1,000 more mobile checkout devices across the country. It will add nearly 8,000 drive-up spots at its stores. The number of spots per store varies, but each store will receive up to 12 additional spots.

It has also tweaked its same-day pickup services: When customers use curbside pickup, they will no longer have an employee scan a barcode. Instead, customers and employees can stay further apart and customers can show their app with a personal identification number through the window.

Customers can switch in real time whether they want to park and pick up their online purchases inside the store or use curbside pickup, depending on their preference.

And more than 1,500 stores — or roughly 80% of its 1,871 stores nationwide — will have fresh and frozen groceries available by curbside pickup, so customers can stock the refrigerator and retrieve gifts at the same time.

Nearly every retailer, including Target, has kicked off holiday deals early and prolonged them to prevent the usual crush of holiday shoppers. Despite the extended sales season, shoppers surveyed by consulting firm Deloitte said they plan to visit fewer stores.

On average, shoppers said they plan to visit 5.2 retail stores, down from seven last year, according to the firm's survey. About half of those surveyed said they are anxious about going to stores this holiday season due to the pandemic.

That has made it even more crucial for retailers to prove to customers that they will find stores stocked, sanitized and full of people complying with mask wearing and social distancing.

Shoppers making fewer trips

Big-box retailers like Target are banking on a few advantages as shoppers pare down their trips. Cornell speaks often of how Target is a "one-stop shop" with its mix of groceries, clothing, electronics and more. It was also among the essential retailers able to stay open throughout the pandemic, perhaps becoming an ingrained part of shoppers' routines and a place where they have grown comfortable.

Last week, rival Walmart announced its own holiday safety measures. It will ask customers to wait in a line before they enter and limit the number of people inside. Employees will hand out sanitized shopping carts to encourage social distancing between shoppers And some staff, dubbed health ambassadors, will greet shoppers and remind them to put on a mask.

For Target, the pandemic has served as a strong tailwind. It has accelerated many of the trends that the company had already seen, such as more online shopping and growing popularity of buy online, pick up in store options like curbside pickup. It created new opportunities for the company to grab market share in categories like apparel and home decor, especially as many department stores and specialty retailers struggle. And it validated some of its strategic decisions, such as launching a private activewear line and using stores as hubs that fulfill online orders.

The company's profits grew by more than 80% to $1.7 billion in the second quarter. Its same-day curbside pickup service, Drive Up, shot up by more than 700%.

Target said it plans to hire about 130,000 holiday season employees and dedicate more of them to roles that support e-commerce like working in distribution centers or fulfilling online orders in the back of stores. It said it will also cross-train its workforce so they can help with varied tasks like sanitizing grocery carts or taking a Drive Up order to a customer.

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