Target’s gender-neutral signage a plus for consumers

Remember "Free to Be… You and Me? " The 1972 album by Marlo Thomas and friends featured a song (based on a book) called "William's Doll?"

In short, William wanted a doll, but his parents tried to distract him with marbles, baseball and badminton. Finally, grandma steps in and buys the doll explaining to his frowning dad that Bill wants a doll so he can learn how to be a dad. That was more than 40 years ago, but last week Target made headlines by announcing it would be moving to gender neutral toy displays and signs in their stores.

Target said they thought gender-coded signs were helping consumers, but in June, a tweet from an Ohio mom featuring a picture of a Target toy aisle that separated building sets by gender got thousands of shares. Target decided to make a change.

“Historically, guests have told us that sometimes…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,” said the statement.

Customers will no longer find references to “boy”or “girl” in the bedding and toy departments, nor will they see color coding like pink or blue in the toy sections. Some shoppers applaud Target for the move, while others have threatened to take their business elsewhere.

Despite the negative backlash, retail experts say the move is mostly a plus, for consumers and Target. “The kids aren’t reading the signs, it is the parent and you are in some ways limiting yourself by saying a toy only belongs to one gender or another,” says Douglas Bowman, professor of marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. If they didn’t already, parents can now feel free to buy whatever toy they want and Target has more chances to make a sale.

Though opponents criticized Target for being too politically correct and said “androgynous” signage would make it harder for them to find what they want in Target stores, the reality is, Target isn’t the first store to move away from gender-based signage. It has been a trend among major retailers such as Toys “R” Us for the past several years. Didn’t notice? Probably because it’s pretty easy to find a doll or a truck regardless of what the signs say.

Whether it makes sense or not to gender code store aisles, research on the topic of gender-typing toys is clear. According to a study cited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, toys most associated with boys are related to fighting and aggression while those most associated with girls deal with appearance and domestic skills. Toys that are not gender-typed or toys that are moderately masculine (such as building sets or science kits) are best at developing children's physical, cognitive, academic, musical and artistic skill, the study found.

“Why do we have to label things as specific to one’s gender?” says Theresa Hwang, gender director at Care USA. “The consequences of that are quite negative in many ways.” Gender socialization is painted at young ages and store labeling may send messages we don’t want our children to get about what their skills or interests should be, she says.

“Imagine if everyone kept telling your daughter how beautiful she is and your boy how strong he is,”says Hwang.”Let’s give everyone the access and the choice to what is out there.”

Just think of Bill and his doll. He’s nearing 50 right now and he’s probably a pretty good dad.