A backlash could be brewing against Target Corp. after it decided to ban Salvation Army bell-ringers and their red kettles from its store entrances this holiday season.
The company announced the decision months ago, but the criticism didn't start to mount until Salvation Army officials recently noted the problems it could cause to their fund raising plans, and shoppers noticed the bell ringers' absence.
The latest reaction has come from several national Christian groups, who are denouncing Target's decision.
"For Target to say that the Salvation Army is no longer welcome at the inn should send a message to Christians that perhaps they'd like to do their shopping elsewhere," said Robert Knight, a spokesman for Concerned Women of America, a Christian activist group that claims more than 500,000 members.
The issue dates to last January, when Minneapolis-based Target told the Salvation Army that it would no longer allow its kettles and bell-ringers outside Target's nearly 1,200 U.S. stores.
The Salvation Army has said it raised about $9 million last year from Target shoppers nationwide. But Target felt it no longer could make the Salvation Army the sole exception to a rule banning solicitation at its stores, spokeswoman Carolyn Brookter said.
"It's unfortunate that this is being looked at as something against the Salvation Army," she said. "That's not the way we intended it to be. It's really about us trying to make our policy consistent. We have always respected the Salvation Army's mission and their goals."
Also figuring in the decision, she said, was Target's desire to protect its customers from the potential discomfort of being asked for donations.
"Part of what we offer as a brand experience is a distraction-free shopping experience, and I think that's one reason people like to come here," Brookter said.
What Target is striving to avoid is the "gauntlet effect," said James Tenser, a retail consultant and author in Tucson, Ariz.
"Do you make some customers more comfortable by taking away this gauntlet effect?" Tenser said. "Or do you offend others by taking away from the Salvation Army's goals? They're in a tough spot."
The American Family Association, a Christian activist group based in Tupelo, Miss., this week sent an "action alert" to more than 2.2 million people on its mailing list, alerting them to Target's decision.
While not calling for a boycott of Target, the association asked its members to consider shopping at retailers that support the Salvation Army — such as Target's chief rival, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which allows bell-ringers at its stores as an exception to its own no-solicitation policy.
"It's very discouraging when a multibillion-dollar organization with millions and millions of dollars of profit to be made won't give one month of their storefront to the Salvation Army," AFA spokesman Randy Sharp said.
Brookter said Target donates more than $100 million a year to charity and already contributes to the Salvation Army through the United Way.
In addition, Target is a member of the Salvation Army's Web shopping site, which generates donations to the Salvation Army based on purchases from participating retailers.
"In the end, we would still like to find a way where we can partner together, but it will have to be in a different manner," Brookter said. "We do that with other nonprofit organizations."
Brian LeVoir of Minneapolis is volunteering as a bell-ringer this year for the first time. A single parent of four boys, he said his sons all took part in recreation programs sponsored by the Salvation Army, and he wanted to give something back.
"The donations have been good," LeVoir said, ringing his bell outside a Cub Foods grocery store. "But I'm hearing a lot of hardhearted comments about Target."