Target CEO meets with Biden as the company — and the White House — try to figure out U.S. consumers

Target CEO Brian Cornell.

Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Target CEO Brian Cornell met with President Joe Biden on Thursday afternoon as the retailer — and the White House — try to figure out U.S. consumers.

Cornell is one of about a half-dozen business leaders across industries who offered up their point of view on the economy and the labor market at the White House. Other attendees at the meeting with Biden were expected to include Brendan Bechtel, CEO of construction and engineering firm Bechtel Group; Calvin Butler, CEO of energy and utility company Exelon; Kenneth Chenault, chair and managing director of venture capital firm General Catalyst; Thasunda Brown Duckett, CEO of financial services company TIAA; Arvind Krishna, CEO of IBM; and Judy Marks, CEO of Otis Worldwide, a manufacturer of elevator, escalator and similar equipment, according to the White House.

The CEO huddle was closed to the press.

In a statement, Target said it appreciated the chance to “participate in this important conversation” but provided few specifics about what was discussed.

“While they are incredibly resilient, we know American consumers still face several headwinds that are leaving them with less discretionary income and driving difficult trade-offs in their family budgets,” the statement said.

The company said it’s committed to providing affordable prices for shoppers and attractive pay and benefits for employees.

In a statement after the meeting, the White House said the president and business leaders spoke about economic growth and “underscored the importance of public sector-enabled, private sector-led investments.”

Biden’s meeting with the business leaders comes as the White House gears up for the next presidential election, a time when the president’s track record on the economy and inflation will be under the microscope. Inflation remains stubbornly high — a factor that has cut into consumer spending at Target — but Biden on Thursday cheered new data showing the rate of price increases continues to slow.

For Target, the meeting comes at a pivotal time. The retailer’s business has taken a hit from a tougher economic backdrop and the divisive political climate. It recently announced plans to close nine stores in major American cities, including New York City and San Francisco, blaming the shuttered locations on heightened levels of organized retail crime and concerns about violence.

The big-box retailer cut its full-year forecast in August, saying its shoppers have continued to watch their dollars and spend mostly on necessities even as inflation cools. At the time, Cornell cited other factors that could hurt sales in the coming months and during the critical holiday season, including higher interest rates and the return of student loan payments.

Target also got caught in the crosshairs of conservative political furor over its Pride month merchandise. It has had a collection of LGBTQ-themed items for more than a decade, but the merchandise drew backlash this year. The company removed some items, citing concerns about employee and customer safety.

In August, Cornell said on an earnings call that the “negative reaction” contributed to the company missing Wall Street’s sales expectations for the most recent quarter.

It’s not the first time the Target CEO has had an important meeting at the White House. During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, he joined Walmart CEO Doug McMillon and other top executives at a news conference in the Rose Garden with then-President Donald Trump and pledged to help ramp up access to Covid testing.

CNBC’s Emma Kinery contributed to this story

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