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Target Goes Gender Neutral

My nephew’s birthday was coming up, so I made a trip to Target to purchase his gift. My sister reminded me that Jack primarily likes athletic balls (baseballs, footballs, basketballs, soccer balls, etc.) and anything made by NERF. Their golden retriever destroys his balls on a routine basis, so he needs constant replacements. And, he has an arsenal of NERF weaponry, but with two older brothers… his toys often fall into the hands of enemy forces.

As I approached the toy section of the store I noticed something different. There were no more colors to indicate toys for boys versus toys for girls. Here’s an excerpt on the matter from Target’s website:

Historically, guests have told us that sometimes—for example, when shopping for someone they don’t know well—signs that sort by brand, age or gender help them get ideas and find things faster. 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.

We heard you, and we agree. Right now, our teams are working across the store to identify areas where we can phase out gender-based signage to help strike a better balance. For example, in the kids’ Bedding area, signs will no longer feature suggestions for boys or girls, just kids. In the Toys aisles, we’ll also remove reference to gender, including the use of pink, blue, yellow or green paper on the back walls of our shelves. You’ll see these changes start to happen over the next few months.

The point of in-store signage is to make shopping easier and to enhance the shopping experience. With the absence of the blue aisles indicating “boy’s toys,” it took me a little longer to find that gift for Jack. Then I thought: “Why would Target change their store design to reflect a gender-neutral toy department?” Don't boys tend to play with cars, and footballs, while girls tend to play with dolls? Am I perpetuating stereotypical gender roles?

So, I did a little research. Traditionally, sociologists believed gender-based toy preference was a result of socialization. Girls and boys were encouraged to play with certain toys by their friends, parents and environmental factors (TV, movies, retailers, etc.). However, recent studies have shown that these preferences may be linked to hormones. In 2009, Professor Gerianne Alexander and her colleagues found a correlation between the testosterone levels in boys 3 and 4-months old and the amount of time they spent looking at toys traditionally associated with boys. These boys were too young to be properly socialized into traditional male gender roles.

Two different studies involving monkeys have shown that male monkeys prefer male-typical toys, while female monkeys prefer female-typical toys. Obviously monkeys can’t be socialized to take on specific gender roles—outside of Hollywood that is.

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle: nature + nurture. That said, is an ideal world one in which society allows each child to discover his or her own truth without prompting?

Regardless of what causes this behavior or how society feels about it, research supports that today’s reality is boys tend to play with “boy” toys and girls tend to play with “girl” toys.

While all of this is fascinating and worthy of debate, this blog is more concerned with how businesses meet the changing demands of their customers. Target is a for-profit mass merchandiser. As a retailer, they face formidable competition and an ever-changing marketplace.

So the question is: Should for-profit retailers feel obligated to design their stores for an ideal world or for the world that exists today?

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