Signage for Target Corp.’s “#TakePride” initiative sits above products displayed for sale at a company store in Chicago, Illinois.

Christopher Dilts | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Target CEO Brian Cornell defended his decision to pull some of the retailer’s Pride Collection merchandise off shelves earlier this year, saying backlash against the items led to the most serious safety threats that he can recall in his decade with the company.

In an interview aired on “Squawk Box” Thursday morning with CNBC’s Becky Quick, Cornell said employees dealt with “very aggressive behavior” in stores, including threats, destruction of merchandise and disruptions at the cashier area. He said some people yelled at employees and “threatened to light product on fire” in stores.

“I’ve seen natural disasters,” Cornell said. “We’ve seen the impact of Covid leading into the pandemic. Some of the violence that took place after George Floyd’s murder. But I will tell you, Becky, what I saw back in May is the first time since I’ve been in this job where I had store team members saying, ‘It’s not safe to come to work.'”

Target has sold merchandise timed for Pride month, which celebrates LGBTQ+ people and issues in June, for more than a decade. Yet the Minneapolis-based discounter faced sharp backlash this year to items in the collection, which included swimsuits and other items for transgender Americans.

The response coincided with laws across the country that restrict medical care, bathroom access and more for transgender Americans and set guidelines for the social issues that children learn about in certain classrooms.

In August, Cornell said the strong reaction to the Pride collection added to the company’s challenges — and disappointing sales — in the quarter.

In the interview aired on Thursday, Cornell said he made the call to remove the controversial merchandise, despite knowing it would create even more of a reaction.

“We had to prioritize the safety of our teams,” he said. “And I knew personally this was not gonna be well received. But we had to prioritize the safety of the team.”

This story is developing. Please check back for updates.


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