In recent years, extremist groups like the Proud Boys have been fueling hateful sentiment against the LGBTQ+ community as they focus on cultural issues following the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. In June, the vitriol caught up to retailers attempting to celebrate Pride Month.

Boxes with rainbows sit on a store display.
Colorful string lights packaged by Target for Pride, as seen at a store in South Portland, Maine, in June 2023. The retailer’s merchandising for the celebratory month included not just apparel but also games, pet items and home decor.
Daphne Howland/Retail Dive

Most notably, Target pulled or altered its Pride displays at some locations, after people rampaged through its stores, confronting workers and damaging signage and goods.

A shelf of pet toys featuring a Pride Month selection.
Target had a mini-Pride display within its pet section that rivaled some stores’ entire Pride Month offer this year.
Daphne Howland/Retail Dive

“The state of retail is fragile and frontline workers do not get paid enough to be faced with this insanity,” Liza Amlani, principal and co-founder of Retail Strategy Group, said by email. “But the reality is that there are many unhinged people that are using Pride to unleash anger and hate on the community. Target needs to be vocal on addressing hate in all forms, and pulling merchandise gives in to the bullying.”

A small shelf of hats, small stuffed animals and other objects decorated with rainbows for Pride.
Pride merchandising at a Walgreens store in Portland, Maine, on June 20, 2023. The drugstore dedicated part of a single shelf to a random selection of Pride-themed items.
Daphne Howland/Retail Dive

Despite more than a decade of what many in the community viewed as meaningful allyship, Target fell silent in the aftermath, and has yet to affirm its dedication to the community amid calls for it to do so from the community itself and even some politicians.

An endcap at a retail store featuring colorful beach towels.
Beach towels were the main feature of the Pride Month merchandise at a Walmart Supercenter in South Portland, Maine, on June 20, 2023.
Daphne Howland/Retail Dive
A store display of items like glow sticks, with several empty hooks.
A display of glow sticks, with several empty hooks, at a Walmart Supercenter, June 2023. Pride items were featured in the seasonal section, along with graduation, Father’s Day and July 4th merchandise.
Daphne Howland/Retail Dive

Perhaps Target wanted its Pride merchandising to speak for itself. After all, as seen on a tour of retail stores in Portland, Maine, toward the end of Pride Month, even Target’s diminished collection was more extensive than most retail chains. Despite its pullback, the company offered some of the most prominent and extensive Pride merchandising in retail, both online and in stores. Signage was large, and the assortment (even after Target removed several items that caught the attention of right-wing protestors) was varied.

Indeed, at Target, at a store in South Portland, Maine, even the pet section got its own small Pride selection. The small display sported signage and merchandise that surpassed the effort at many other stores, including Walgreens and others that offered smaller, more random selections. While Walmart enjoyed some favorable press when its chief merchant promised not to alter its Pride displays or security measures despite ongoing backlash, its campaign paled in comparison to its rival.

A small display of merchandise within a department store.
At the Maine Mall in South Portland, where it is an anchor, Macy’s featured a small collection for Pride Month 2023 near the customer service desk.
Daphne Howland/Retail Dive
A sign advertising the Trevor Project is placed among racks of apparel.
Amid racks of women’s apparel at Macy’s, seen on June 20, 2023, a sign celebrated the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization focused on LGBTQ+ youth.
Daphne Howland/Retail Dive

That counts for something, according to Amlani.

“Target is the best for a reason and people have everything to do with it,” she said. “But pulling product for the safety of their guests and employees was not the right thing to do. Hiring more security and banning the bullies, vandals and terrorists would have been the better course of action.”

The mall entrance of a Lush store.
A Lush store at the Maine Mall. In June 2023, the personal care retailer was one of the few to express support for and solidarity with trans people, who have become a target of right-wing politicians as well as hate groups.
Daphne Howland/Retail Dive

However, its strong merchandising isn’t enough to make up for its ensuing silence, she warned.

“Target has some repair to do on its relationship with their communities, guests and employees,” she said. “Silence is not only complacency; it is endorsing hateful behavior.”

The mall entrance of a Newbury Comics store.
A handful of stores at the Maine Mall in South Portland, Maine, decorated for Pride Month 2023, but only Newbury Comics’ merchandising approached the depth and breadth found at Target.
Daphne Howland/Retail Dive

In downtown Portland, compared to the local Maine Mall and various strip centers, expressions of solidarity during Pride Month were commonplace and often vociferous. According to Amlani, independent retailers that celebrate Pride may have more freedom than corporate entities like Target or Walmart.

A shopper walks by a store window that is decorated for Pride Month with rainbow lettering.
Renys, a discount department store founded in Maine in 1949, decorates its windows at its Portland, Maine, location. The store was along the route of the city’s Pride Parade, held June 17, 2023. 
Daphne Howland/Retail Dive

“I believe it’s a combination of both bravery and freedom,” she said. “Independent retailers and businesses have more to lose than a large retailer. They could face hate, vandalism, or worse and go out of business.”

The window of bookstore featuring Pride-themed decorations and books for all ages.
Sherman’s, which calls itself “Maine’s oldest bookstore,” in June 2023, featured Pride decorations and books on LGBTQ+ issues for all ages.
Daphne Howland/Retail Dive

Pride Month may be over for this year, but the community and its allies are still waiting to hear from Target, according to Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, who for 30 years has specialized in LGBTQ+-related communications strategy and market research. 

“Target is witnessing the worst of any culture backlash – inflaming all sides. Target should not suffer any irreparable damage from this season, if they go forward uniting their words and deeds,” he said by email. “The market values authenticity, and this is what LGBTQ customers look for in any brand or ally. Target knows its future lies with younger generations, and that should help strengthen its backbone down the road.”