Customers use Target Corp. shopping carts to move products inside a company's store in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Monday, May 16, 2016.
Photograph by Christopher Dilts—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Target’s Grocery Boss Becomes Latest Top Exec to Leave

Nov 03, 2016

Yet another Target (tgt) senior executive is heading for the exits.

The retailer's grocery chief, Anne Dament, one of CEO Brian Cornell's first appointments, is leaving the company after only 18 months on the job, a reflection of how deeply vexing fixing Target's food business is turning out to be.

Her departure, first reported by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and confirmed on Thursday by a company spokeswoman, comes just weeks after former Chief Digital Officer Jason Goldberger and Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Jones left the discount retailer. Earlier this year, there were other changes in the c-suite, including the key role of chief stores officer. Only one c-suite executive is left from two years ago, when Cornell took the reins.

Dament, a former colleague of Cornell's from his days at Safeway (swy) where he oversaw a successful re-invention in the 2000's, was brought in in April 2015 to overhaul Target's grocery. That's an area Target has never managed to nail, but generates 20% of sales, or nearly $19 billion a year.

Cornell had tasked Dament, who had 19 years of grocery and consumer packaged foods experience, with helping Target find a niche for its grocery business. The discount retailer significantly increased its grocery business after the recession as a move to generate shopper traffic. But the result was an undistinguished offering that was limited compared to what the likes of Walmart, (wmt) the No. 1 U.S. grocer.

And with competitors getting aggressive, finding Target's niche is getting harder from all quarters. Walmart has invested heavily in making its fresh food areas more inviting and cut prices aggressively, while Whole Foods Market (wfm) is expanding its low priced 365 chain. Even indirect competitors like Walgreens and CVS have raised their food game.

Target's efforts to add hundreds of gluten-free and organic items to its shelves, and items like yogurt and craft beer have not yielded much success yet. In its most recent quarter, Target's saw a 2.2% drop in the number of visits to its stores, dragging down comparable sales 1.1%. At Walmart, they were up 1.8%.

"It’s just going to take time for us to get credit for those changes," Cornell told a group of reporters at Target headquarters ahead of retailer’s national meeting in September. The lack of progress is all the more disappointing, given Cornell's experience at Safeway, but also at PepsiCo (pep) and Sam's Club.

Target has never intended to be a full-service grocer, instead eyeing stylish apparel and home goods, kids and baby goods, and wellness products as categories it wants to own. Indeed, there was scant mention of food when Target unveiled its holiday season strategy last week.

But to make sure customers notice its improved grocery offering, Target is putting greater emphasis on its food in its mid-week circular. And it is testing improved presentations with tweaks to flooring, lighting and store displays in Los Angeles, to promising results so far, Cornell claims. In seven markets, Target has created dedicated grocery teams that work just in that department and is giving those workers more training so they can better answer customer queries.

Dament's last day will be Nov. 18, and her responsibilities have already been transferred to Mark Tritton, Target's chief merchant, a former Nordstrom (jan) and Nike (nee) executive, with little food experience to speak of. The Target spokeswoman said the company was conducting a search for Dament's replacement.

It's clear food is meant to simply be a complement to what Target customers are shopping for.

"It’s not one of our signature categories nor will it be," Cornell said in September. "We’re not a grocer."

So don’t expect Target to add features like butchers, rotisserie ovens and sushi chefs.

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