In what it characterizes as an abrupt switch, the Associated Press reports that the retailer Target will be adding its name to a legal defense of same-sex marriage in a case before an appeals court in Chicago after opposing the policy only a few years earlier. Target will be joining other companies such as Starbucks, Intel, and Apple, who have already publicly endorsed same-sex marriage. Target’s choice to throw its weight behind gay marriage is already being challenged by opponents of same-sex marriage as a “risky business decision.” It’s a good question: What will Target’s customers think of this move?
Most are likely to applaud it. A survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute found that more than 6-in-10 (62 percent) Target shoppers favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. Only about one-third (34 percent) of Americans who prefer shopping at the Minneapolis-based retailer say they oppose same-sex marriage.
It might be a while before we see Target’s chief competitor, Walmart, follow suit. The Arkansas-based company has deep roots in the South and in rural regions where opposition to same-sex marriage tends to be stronger. It would also run afoul of its customers who largely oppose gay marriage. The majority (54 percent) Americans who prefer shopping at Walmart report that they oppose same-sex marriage, while 40 percent are in favor of it.
The sharp difference between Target and Walmart shoppers’ perspectives on gay marriage is rooted in the very different demographic profiles of each store’s customers. One-quarter (25 percent) of Walmart shoppers are white evangelical Protestants who remain strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. A similar chunk (23 percent) of Target shoppers are religiously unaffiliated, a group that is strongly in favor of same-sex marriage. Political differences also play out among the different customer bases: Target shoppers are about twice as likely as Walmart shoppers to identify as liberal (30 percent vs. 16 percent), and close to half (44 percent) of Walmart customers are conservative.
These demographic profiles help explain why endorsing same-sex marriage could burnish Target’s image among its shoppers, but could cause problems for Walmart. But in some ways, Walmart also has more to lose by aligning its corporate image with an issue that remains controversial. Among the general public, Walmart remains more popular than Target. Nearly half (48 percent) of Americans say they prefer shopping at Walmart over Target, while 4-in-10 (40 percent) say Target is their preferred retailer.