A few years back, an American big-box retailer decided to open stores in a new country. Target coming to Canada was a really big deal. However, within two years, they closed their doors and moved back south, after counting a $5.4 Billion dollar loss. Since then, analysts and business class textbooks alike pointed to various reasons why Target’s Canadian expansion failed.
I was recently walking past one of the five locations they had opened and abandoned in the Ottawa, Ontario area. On my mind was a half-formed article idea about talented musicians with loyal local fanbases, but whose out-of-town tours still aren’t successful. Suddenly, a wild analogy landed on the windowsill of my mind. I’m going to explain four generalized reasons as to why Target failed in Canada, and how bands planning their out-of-town tours can learn from them.
1. Target set up shop in the wrong locations. Bands might play the wrong venue.
The big-box retailer laid claim to former Zellers locations, a move many thought was clever at the time. Zellers was kind of like a Walmart, minus the name recognition – they had gone under a few months prior, and left empty big-box stores in their wake. If Target moved in and set up in these empty stores, they wouldn’t have to build new ones, saving them time and money. Sadly, what Target failed to take into account was demographics. As Zellers had lower price points, they cultivated a customer base is lower income areas, next to other stores of similar spending ranges. Target, on the other hand, aims its marketing to middle-class households, and prices accordingly. Simply put, these new, fancy neighbours did not fit in.
These same mistakes can also be made by bands. It’s not just a matter of a heavy-metal group playing a bingo hall, though. Sometimes, bands playing right after each other don’t mesh at all, even within the same genre (loud electric guitar is not a genre). If you are in a situation where you’re offered a last minute out-of-town gig while on tour, and none of the other acts playing sound anything like you, it’s important to look past the flattery of the offer and think of how you’ll go over in that crowd.
2. Target didn’t have enough stock. Bands might not bring enough merch.
Sometimes, not having enough stock leads to a rush from customers to purchase the items before they’re all gone (see: Black Friday). But if it’s an everyday occurrence to not have everyday items, the store just misses opportunities left right and centre. On top of that, it’s kind of saddening to walk into a shop with half-empty shelves.
In this day and age, a lot of money made by performing artists in the music industry comes from live shows; may it be tickets at the door, or merch. Imagine if you played a killer show, and have the audience members clamouring to buy your CDs and t-shirts (not very hard to imagine for a lot of you). Now, imagine you didn’t have enough sellable items to keep up with crowd’s moderate-to-high demand. Oh, the horror! As a general rule, bring all your merch in every size with you to your gigs, unless you are at rock star level.
3. Target fell into the trap of price wars with Walmart. Bands are competing against everyone and everything else for attention.
Walmart had already been in Canada for about 20 years when Target joined the race. By that point, the locals were used to it being there, and many had built their regular shopping routines around going to Walmart. Now then, if a $250 Billion dollar corporation known for having the lowest prices on the market felt threatened by a new competitor, what would it do? Lower their prices even more. Target fell for the trap of competing in a sport they cannot win, and dropped their prices, losing money. Walmart, unflinchingly, dropped theirs even more, until Target could not keep up.
While an independent artist doesn’t necessarily tag their logo-ed merch at 50% off(!), they still are in competition with everything else going on the night of their gig in a new city. Did the local hockey team make the Stanley Cup Finals? Did Florida Georgia Line sell out a nearby stadium on their tour? Is it Thanksgiving Sunday, and everyone is home with their families? Bands should never wear horse-blinkers when planning shows and need to research their dates when touring. There are occasional unplanned events, such as The Storm Of The Century that can stop people from attending your concert, but usually a quick internet search will yield a result like “Beyoncé is in town.”
4. Target’s prices in Canada weren’t the same as the ones in the US. Bands might not provide the same experience on tour as in their hometown.
Perhaps the biggest reason Target failed to conquer the Canadian market was overall disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, Target has a big fanbase in my country up north. For years, they’ve been just content driving a few hours to cross the border, and get the full American Target Experience; this include products not available anywhere in Canada, at prices that are much lower. Canadians then hide all their shopping in under the seats of their car to not pay duty when crossing the border again. It’s a pretty common occurrence. When Target announced its big expansion to our country (once again, there were five stores opened in my greater city area), the locals got the impression that everything would be the same as it is in the States, American price numbers included. We all collectively sighed when we found out this was not the case. For one thing, while both of our currencies are called dollars, the American one was (and is, as of writing this) “stronger” meaning the number on the price tag for the same product in the US is a lower one. But prices weren’t only raised to adjust currency. On top of that, before-mentioned duties needed to be paid (Um… Target can’t hide merchandise under the seat of their delivery trucks), most items needed to be repackaged (in Canada, labels + instructions need to be in both English and French), and due to regulations and laws surrounding certain ingredients, some products just weren’t available here like they are down south (think, some foods and cosmetics). Target had less control and wasn’t able to provide the same experience as they could on the land they built their company.
For musicians, our performances need to be stable enough no matter where we go. Our set list might change, as can the size of the stage from venue to venue, but we need to provide something consistent with our brand every gig we play. There’s a test in top brand consultation agencies: they ask “if we took you to a fast-food restaurant, covered up every logo and name of product, would you still know where you are eating?” Think about it – can you look at a picture of the interiors of both a McDonalds and a Starbucks and know which one is which? Even without a big yellow “M” or a Siren, their branding is evident. Both of the companies, while still franchises, seek to create a similar-to-identical experience no matter where you go in the world. As should your tour.
Type “Target in Canada” into Google, and pretty much all results are business articles on why the big retailer didn’t do well in its expansion. It got a lot of coverage because of its size as a company. An independent band on their first regional tour doesn’t get that coverage. So take this, and go out on the road.