Walking into Target stores, shoppers (or “guests,” as they call them at Target), are not privy to the full depth of intention and careful planning that goes on behind the scenes to make their experience as gratifying as possible. Founded on the overarching vision of “delivering joy to all families,” Target invests in getting to know and understand their guests, and holds their wants and needs as their top values. Achieving this goal is no small feat, but as Le’Spencer Walker, their Director of Merchandising Vendor Development (MVD), explains, it is all rooted in a desire to build authentic connection between Target guests and the brands that deliver products that are relevant and essential to their lives. 

With over a decade of experience in a variety of leadership roles at Target-–he also designed and developed over 1,000 products across seven patents-–Le’Spencer now heads up a department that sits at the intersection of supplier diversity and merchandising strategy. His MVD teamleads Target’s efforts to identify, develop, and on-board women- and minority-owned brands that are aligned with Target strategies. In a recent conversation with PBFA Vice President of Marketplace Development Julie Emmett, Le’Spencer spoke in depth about how his team prepares emerging brands for mass retail and promotes equitable growth for minority business owners; the “why” that drives his passion for this work; and opportunities for plant-based brands to stand out in retail spaces. 

Supporting Emerging Brands to Build Generational Wealth

The MVD team at Target marries merchandising strategy and supplier diversity, which requires a deep understanding of what motivates Target guests to purchase products—including plant-based foods—and the ability to pair the guests’ needs with brands that deliver solutions that are relevant to their daily lives. The overall goal: To establish and grow guest loyalty, while also empowering and supporting brands’ ability to grow alongside that guest. 

“Merchandising strategy is so important because we need to have clear direction for brands and our partners,” Le’Spencer shared. “As I took a deeper step forward [in this role], I said there’s a vision, there’s a purpose behind this. And building intergenerational equity within our partners is one of our rooting purposes.” 

The role of merchandising strategy in the success of a brand is quite familiar to Julie, and underpins much of the work the Marketplace Development team does here at PBFA. Educating retailers and brands alike to ensure mutual success, while advancing values such as equity, social justice, and sustainability, are key components to building a food system that is rooted in the idea of a “triple bottom line” – where all parties win. For Le’Spencer and the MVD team, working side-by-side with brands to ensure their success in mass retail is essential to realizing their goals of building long-term intergenerational wealth and expanding equity for minority- and women-owned brands. 

“Words matter when we say [we work] with and for [brands],” said Le’Spencer. “You have to consider the human on the other side of the table: The human who owns the business, who’s dedicating their life and time and finances to this. Also it is important for them to have a real business impact and understand financial opportunities—opportunity on shelf spaces and the places they can be, and need to be, successful. So considering all those things, that’s why I dedicate a lot of my time and love this role.”

When it comes to supporting Black-owned businesses, specifically, Le’Spencer’s work and team development is informed by his leadership on the board of Target’s REACH (Racial Equity Action and Change) initiative, a committee designed to accelerate the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion strategy for Black team members and guests. “It’s a blessing to have this role leading a passionate and talented team committed to making a positive impact,” he said. “It has been a journey of learning while delivering on our purpose to build intergenerational equity with and for our business partners.”

Speaking personally and candidly, Le’Spencer shared: “I am a Black American who takes pride in who I am, while being equally passionate about advocating for others, driving genuine impact to their lives, and respecting their authentic story. So I only recommend approaching this work with balance in mind; the business importance and the human on the other side of the partnership is important. Once we are able to see the total picture more consistently, there is a room to create mutual inclusive partnership that drive success in ways we haven’t seen.” 

Authenticity as a Bridge to Connection

The retail sector is a hyper-competitive landscape for brands—particularly for companies that are just starting out—and being able to stand out and make your mark is a big part of ensuring long-term sustainability in the market. While “authenticity” has become a bit of a buzzword, Le’Spencer explains that Target’s approach has “differentiation” at its core, “but also that differentiation comes from the human.” With this in mind, telling the brand’s story—in a custom and tailored way—facilitates authentic representation on the shelf and “enables our guests to see themselves, feel they belong, and echo their lived experience.” 

The three strategic pillars that Le’Spencer and his team employ when supporting emerging brands are manufacturing, logistics, and marketing. Starting with an in-depth entry form, the MVD team is able to get a clear picture of the brands they are working with and are able to create custom support to inform and enable their success on Target shelves. Le’Spencer explains that the definition of “emerging” varies widely depending on the brand. “There might be a brand who has been in business for a decade, and from a mass retailer perspective, we may not have seen them. They may be direct-to-consumer,” he expands. “So [our job is to figure out] how we might create equitable opportunities and paths that consider their entire business, consider their authenticity, their voice, be the journey and lived experience to enable their success in mass retail.” This level of tailored planning enables Le’Spencer and the MVD team to think about not only launching, but sustaining and retaining brands—and even to consider their possible exit in the future. Whatever the pathway to success looks like to that company, they are there to support along the way. 

As important as it is for guests to see and recognize themselves in brands, there is also a need for the people behind those brands to find community and networks of support, as well. Le’Spencer highlights a collaboration with the National Minority Supplier Diversity Council (NMSDC), which serves as a growth engine for NMSDC-certified minority businesses while also fostering connections between minority business enterprises and the public sector in alignment with their mission to “grow wealth for systemically-excluded communities.”

Understanding the Plant-Based Shopper

While Le’Spencer and his team work with brands in categories across the store, his interest in developing and engaging with plant-based food companies shines through. Honing in on the plant-based landscape, Julie asks him: “How do you view the role of plant-based within your work, specifically around supplier diversity and the success of the whole sector?” 

Without a moment’s pause, Le’Spencer references his experience at last year’s Plant Based World Expo and how getting to see the interaction of the plant-based foods industry and the broader community opened his eyes to the possibilities. “Seeing the community together, the community of business owners, the community of retailers looking to explore and be more engaged, was inspiring. Not only is the industry showing us [growth is happening], but the market is showing us that Target is a part of [that growth].” Specifically, he references how plant-based fits into Target Forward and the retailer’s broader ESG and sustainability efforts.

According to data, the Target plant-based shopper resonates with healthy living and lifestyle choices, but there is also opportunity to connect with their authentic values and provide brands that are able to lead with transparency.

“Plant-based food, plant-based ingredients will enable us to not only produce good products, but also dig deeper into the supply chain,” he said. He then cited an example from a project he worked on with Black cotton farmers in Alabama, who were able to show the entire ecosystem of their production line, from soil to shirt. This level of detail and care can be showcased and applied in the supply network involved for plant-based foods. “Seeing that authentic story come to life can’t be ignored because it is all around us,” he said. “And so how might we learn from it to engage deeper?”

In the future, Le’Spencer envisions the development of technology that enables the guest to clearly see the full end-to-end supply chain for the products they connect with on shelves. 

Lived Experience Informing Success of Plant-Based Brands

Building off the conversation to this point, Julie then segues into a question that is surely burning in the minds of many Target shoppers: “Can you tell us about the Tabitha Brown launch?” 

There are many enticing details that remain under wraps about new products we can expect from Tabitha, but Le’Spencer’s view on what has powered the success of Tabitha’s growth and brand is simple: Her authentic voice. 

While many motivating factors drive Target guests and consumers at large to engage with plant-based foods—whether it’s health, convenience, interest in animal welfare or the environment, cost, the list goes on—the same also goes for the people behind the companies, like Tabitha. 

“From Tabitha Brown’s perspective, she had to make some changes to extend her life,” Le’Spencer says. “The reason Tabitha’s voice is so important is because she’s lived it. She’s authentic about her voice, which is authentic to the stories we want to tell. And moving into actual food was something she was passionate about.” In this way, there was a clear opportunity for a triple win, for Tabitha, for Target, and for the end consumer. “I see that same overlap with the business partners I saw and I met with at Plant Based World Expo, like GW Chew and Debora Torres. [Their products] stemmed from lived experiences.” 

In asking Le’Spencer how plant-based foods and eating informs his lived experience, he points to growing up. “I think about being Black and from the South and the amount of ingredients that I grew up eating that were plant-based; I just saw them as vegetables. I didn’t see them as plant-based.” 

He continues, “They were in my daily diet or visiting my grandmother or my favorite dish being so vegetable heavy. I didn’t know it correlated to healthier living, or at least understanding what I’m putting in my body. So I think as we think about cultural relevance, understanding what is involved in a dinner or a dish shared amongst family and friends at special traditional holidays or meetings when things are tough, what is being shared and what’s being grown. My family in Meridian, Mississippi have their own garden, which is basically their crop field. And they all pitch in and have tomatoes, black-eyed peas, string beans that they all go out and pick together.”

Food is a powerful connector and the ingredients, flavors, and memories that certain dishes evoke are closely tied to the choices we make. Merchandising strategy and supplier diversity have deeply personal roots, and as Le’Spencer’s work demonstrates, there is significant power in prioritizing the human element and creating systems of support in alignment with that people-oriented worldview.

“Being human-centric is one of the key pieces that our team is working with the entire enterprise to make sure that we have business alignment. If you show up with that human-centric approach, the full story, and being thoughtful about why the brand decided to make their foundational ingredient plant-based, the business opportunity answers itself.” 

At the end of the day, there is a thread between the consumer, the brand, and the retailer. Thanks to leaders like Le’Spencer, and his team, who are creating pathways for success and building sustainable equity for minority- and women-businesses, there is a more holistic vision for collective, community-oriented success in mass retail. 

The team here at PBFA is proud to partner with industry trailblazers like Le’Spencer to champion, elevate, and strengthen plant-based foods in the broader food industry, to create a fair and just food system for all.