Late last week, Target announced a new move away from in-store gender-based signs. Starting over the next few months, the big box retailer will no longer include gendered signage for departments such as Toys, Home, and Entertainment. Gendered signage includes distinguishing products for use by a specific gender, such as “Boys’ Bedding” and “Girls’ Building Sets”. Target will also remove gendered backgrounds, such as primarily pink or blue aisle backgrounds in these departments, among the changes.
This move away from gendered signage was driven in part by consumer feedback. As Target describes in the official statement:
“[…] we never want guests or their families to feel frustrated or limited by the way things are presented. Over the past year, guests have raised important questions about a handful of signs in our stores that offer product suggestions based on gender. […] But we know that shopping preferences and needs change and, as guests have pointed out, in some departments like Toys, Home or Entertainment, suggesting products by gender is unnecessary.” (full statement)
The change comes amidst a time when the subjects of gender and gender identity have become increasingly larger topics of public discussion, from Facebook’s expanded list of gender options last year to Caitlyn Jenner’s recent Vanity Fair cover and 2015 recently declared the “Year of the Gender-Neutral Baby Name”. However, strong reactions to gendered marketing are nothing new.
From product reviews and op-eds to Twitter and Buzzfeed, consumers are vocal about unnecessarily gendered products and marketing (e.g., Buzzfeed’s generated list of “pointlessly gendered” products). These often negative reactions aren’t simply an output of having a digital soapbox, but are symptomatic of larger cultural shifts on how we treat and experience the entanglement of gender, identity, and material culture.
Consumers don’t want rigidly gendered products or retail experiences constraining their product choices. Rather, consumers want to see more nuanced and inclusive representations of the relationships between gender and identity. Of course there is no one clear path to navigate this terrain as the relationships between gender, identity, and material cultural will continue to shift and reflect larger cultural sentiments.
This means brands and their advertisers are positioned to learn and grow within and alongside this movement. Qualitative research provides the opportunity to explore the nuances of gender, identity, and material culture among consumers. While Target’s new change is only for select departments, their move demonstrates the possibilities of engaging with consumers’ needs beyond product selection into representation and retail experience.