After a tweet showing a sign in a Target store that distinguished between "building sets" and "girls' building sets" sparked a social media firestorm earlier this summer, the Minneapolis-based retailer said Friday that it will use gender-neutral signage in its toy aisles, as well as in other areas such as kids' bedding.
The shift comes as toy manufacturers themselves have begun to move away from labeling their products as being just for girls or for boys in recent years, said Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of TTPM.com, a toy review website.
"We've seen girls that love Nerf and girls that love Hot Wheels," he said. "And there are boys who like to play with E-Z Bake ovens."
Silver, who often visits toy departments, added that he doesn't see as many gender-specific designations of toy aisles in stores these days as in the past. Rather, the signage more often relates to a category such as Star Wars or educational toys.
Target's aisles generally follow that more category-specific formula, with the exception of "girls' building sets," which referred to products such as Lego Friends. Those Lego toys include items such as hair salons and flower stands.
On Friday, Target also said it will remove the pink, blue, yellow and green paper on the walls of its toy shelves that indicate a gender and will replace it with more neutral wood paneling. These changes will be phased in over the next few months. The company said its teams are identifying other parts of the store where they could make similar changes, but added that gender-based language still makes sense in some departments such as apparel where sizing and fit are different.
In a blog post on its corporate website, Target said that in the past, shoppers have said signage by brand, age or gender helped them find gifts faster. But the company went on to say that shopping preferences change and it has heard loud and clear from customers that signage by gender in some departments is unnecessary.
"We heard you, and we agree," the company said. It added, "We never want guests or their families to feel frustrated or limited by the way things are presented."
But the change will not be reflected on Target.com, where gender is often used as a search term when people shop online, said Molly Snyder, a Target spokeswoman. So gender references will remain in those categories on its website.
Still, news that the signage in Target's stores will change was greeted with delight by Abi Bechtel, the mother in Akron, Ohio, who tweeted the initial picture that sparked the debate in June.
"That's fantastic," she said in a phone interview when she was, coincidentally, heading to Target to do back-to-school shopping for her three sons. "I think it's great they are paying attention and re-evaluating how they are doing this kind of marketing."
In June, Bechtel had been shopping with one of her sons who had birthday money to spend when she saw the sign in the aisle that called "girls' building sets" separate from just "building sets."
She tweeted a picture of the signage and wrote "Don't do this, @Target." It was retweeted thousands of times.
Bechtel was surprised it got so much attention. "I didn't expect it to become the center of this entire discussion about gender and the way toys are marketed," she said. "But Caitlyn Jenner's pictures had just come out. And the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage came out soon after. So there was a whole lot of discussion about gender and gender roles anyway. The tweet just landed at the right time."
Up until a few weeks ago, she had still seen the "girls' building sets" sign in her local Target in Green, Ohio. But on Friday, when she got to the store, she happily reported that the sign was no longer there.
Snyder said the "girls' building sets" signs were recently taken down across the chain and that the changes in the home and entertainment departments will happen in the next few weeks.
Toys 'R' Us in 2013 agreed to remove gender specific signage from stores in the United Kingdom amid pressure from groups there. It has a similar U.S. policy, a spokeswoman said in an e-mail Friday.
"There are no gender-specific toy sections in our stores," Kathleen Waugh, vice president, corporate communications, said in the e-mail. "Toys are merchandised by product category, so customers can easily see the breadth of assortment."
Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113