This summer marked our first foray into day camp.  Coming from the UK, where the concept of camp doesn’t widely exist, I initially felt guilty about filling up my kids’ summer holiday with more routine.  But, then I remembered last summer.  June 2010 and freshly off the plane, I knew no one and had the kids solo 24/7 for three months.  By Labor Day I was ready to outsource them to a chimney sweep or rug weaver.  So this year the idea of camp was much more appealing.

We spent lots of time researching different camps.  Analysis over, we settled on a camp in Armonk, NY.  It promised to be action-packed with tennis, swimming, water slides – a kid’s fantasy, especially for those coming from the UK where any summer activity involves an interval of huddling miserably under an umbrella.  But, to my  disappointment my 6-year-old found camp to be overwhelmingly tiring and didn’t enjoy being with relative strangers.  Drying his tears each morning and wrestling with my conscience I wondered how great it would be if Target offered camp.

For my boys, despite endless complaints about going to any other shop, a trip to Target is always met with an enthusiastic response.  They love Target! The red Bull’s-eye logo, (my two-year-old can spot it on the side of a truck at 90 mph on I-684) and the big  red balls outside the store which they energetically climb every time we go.  They love that Target is that rare place that sells so much stuff for a dollar.  However, the overriding reason they love Target?  Lots and lots and lots of toys.  Once  I drag them away from the toy aisle they can look longingly at anything with a  Character on it, from multivitamins to bed sheets and soap dishes.  Here we are  in August and I already have their Christmas lists, care of today’s visit.  A  quick trip to buy toothpaste turned into an hour plus expedition and resulted  in bemusement – how had I managed to come out $200 dollars worse off when  toothpaste costs just $3?

So back to my thought about Target and day camp, it would be good value.  Drive-by drop-off would involve climbing out of the car and through the Bull’s-eye logo, and of  course it would be managed in a super speedy way.  The venue, big and very red, inside and out offers so many activities, even Barbie would get ditzier over them.  There would be Cars 2-branded slip n’ slides, Nerf gun games, Spiderman bikes and blow-up paddling pools.  The games would be fun, fun, fun.  Snack time would be kid heaven –Scooby Doo fruit sweets, Goldfish, Sponge Bob yogurts, sodas – yum!  And, no reason to call home about a sore tummy when there’s a pharmacist on site.  Bonus  idea – parents could submit shopping lists at the end of camp one day so that  filled bags could be exchanged for kids at drop off the next morning.  Too easy!

Now, the wrappings of this hypothetical summer camp experience  all sound great, but for one critical flaw. I’m not convinced the Target camp counsellors would engage the kids.  I’m imagining a Lord of the Flies-style scenario as kids rule in the care of staff who generally appear to lack warmth, initiative and enthusiasm.  Take today.  My refusal to buy my two-year-old the Batmobile resulted in a major meltdown complete with red face, runny nose and flood of tears.  As I struggled to get him into  the cart, I ended up enlisting my four and six-year-old to help restrain him.  All the while, the Target staff watched my struggle blankly with zero offer of help not to mention even a nod of understanding or encouragement. Compare a similar experience in Trader  Joe’s where the staff were nothing short of delightful.  A young man approached with a well-timed cookie before the first tear was shed and a second shopping cart.  He proceeded to load the rest of my shopping along with one of my kids, and then shuttled everything to my car.

Target’s buying, merchandising and operations’ are slick.  For this they fulfill 2/3 of their  cultural values – fast and fun.  The last third though, friendly, is limited to the look of the stores and isn’t evident in their customer service. They’d serve their customers better if they dropped the mechanical, almost robotic and impersonal way staff interact with their  “guests” and move beyond generic, polite efficiency.  When managing brands there’s a balance to be struck between being consistent enough to reinforce the brand identity yet individual enough to connect with your customer.  It’s no mean feat managing a brand like Target with roughly 1,600 outlets in a country as big and diverse as the US with a staff to match. That said, I get a sense store employees are constrained by  corporate mantras, scripts and guidelines. In my view what’s needed is more freedom for staff to show their individuality.  This would help them be more effective in building relationships with customers, help them to solve problems, and create ‘friendly’ solutions.  So while I pay less at Target (except when the kids are with me), I still expect  more.  If Target did this I might share my kids’ enthusiasm for the brand.