Target’s CEO says its mask-wearing requirement is about safety, not politics

During this worsening pandemic, few things have created more controversy among a large swath of the population than requiring people to wear masks in indoor public places, including stores.

That controversy has placed many retailers in a tough spot, with store workers often confronted by angry consumers as they try to enforce mask use. Early in the pandemic, big chains were reticent to impose such rules; some were undoubtedly spooked by a big online campaign calling for a boycott of Costco for requiring masks. But ultimately they followed suit, as Target did in July.

It was no longer enough for the discount retailer to impose safety measures on its 300,000 store workers while merely asking, but not requiring, customers to comply, Target CEO Brian Cornell told the Fortune Global Forum on Monday.

“We recognized that we had to ask the guest to also participate,” said Cornell. And what if they don’t want to, asked Fortune’s Jen Wieczner. “We’re going to encourage that guest to use one of our other fulfillment options,” Cornell said.

Target gets about 30 million shopper visits a week. In its most recent quarter, Target’s comparable sales rose a record 24%, helped by the fulfillment options Cornell spoke of, which include curbside pickup of online orders and same-day delivery.

Target has in the past found itself at the center of social controversies, involving its stances on bringing gun into stores and providing bathrooms for transgender customers. But Cornell said his considerations here were practical.

“These are not political statements. They’re just the right thing to do,” said Cornell, who took the reins six years ago. The CEO added: “This is about the right safety messing during a time where we’re still pacing a pandemic and we have months ahead of us.”

Last week, Target announced it would set up a reservation system for days during the holiday season when shoppers might have to line up to avoid crowding.

Race relations is another arena of controversy that Target has been pulled into. In May, after George Floyd was killed by a policeman in Target’s hometown of Minneapolis, a Target store near the site of Floyd’s death was destroyed. The company ended up closing 200 of its 1,900 stores temporarily as a result of the ensuing nationwide unrest.

“Watching what happened to George Floyd, watching his murder, my first reaction was, that could have been one of my Target team members, it could have been one of our leaders,” said Cornell.

Target, which according to a Bloomberg report had only two Black executives out of 51 in June, last month pledged to make moves to increase racial equity in its ranks, including increasing the size of its Black workforce by 20% over the next three years and adding more Black vendors to Target’s rosters.

“At Target, we absolutely don’t tolerate racism,” Cornell told the Global Forum.

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