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Workplace counselors help stabilize staffs in urban areas

LOS ANGELES – The Target store in Compton, Calif., has all the familiar features of the retail chain: aisles of discount merchandise, a full-service pharmacy and a small army of sales clerks and cashiers in bright red shirts.

It also has something most Targets don’t: Saundra Edwards. She’s the store’s social worker.

At least two days a week, the 64-year-old Edwards can be found walking the aisles, talking to store employees about problems large and small. One young man is battling depression; a middle-aged woman wants Edwards’ advice on buying a home.

While making her rounds on a recent Monday morning, Edwards approaches Audra Menefee, a fitting room clerk who has turned to Edwards several times for help dealing with financial and family problems. Her husband was recently in a serious car accident, sending him to the hospital with a broken hip and leaving Menefee without a car. She now walks the two miles to work.

Edwards reminds her to fill out her husband’s insurance paperwork, gives her some advice on getting a new car and provides some warm words of encouragement.

Without Edwards, “I’d be sitting here crying because I wouldn’t know what else, who else …” she says as the social worker hands her a tissue. “I’m glad she’s here because, boy, she’s been helping me a lot.”

When Target moved into Compton three years ago, the retailer knew it was taking a gamble. The city of 100,000 has a reputation marred by gang violence.

At the same time, urban areas have untapped riches: Their greater population density means a greater concentration of spending power, especially for food and household necessities.

Target and other major retailers including Wal-Mart and Costco are expanding their urban presence. Wal-Mart, for example, is looking at hundreds of locations for new, smaller stores designed for dense metro areas.

But what retail analyst Patrick McKeever calls the “last frontier” comes with different challenges, including more expensive rents and a greater risk of crime.

“Urban markets tend to be … underserved by the national chains,” said McKeever, who studies shopping trends for MKM Partners. But “there are some learning-curve issues, definitely. It’s just not as cookie-cutter as the growth in suburbs.”

When Target opened its Compton store, the company expected a higher risk of crime and took steps to address it – beefing up the store’s security detail and working with the city to get a sheriff’s substation on site. It even built the aisles lower than usual to make it easier for managers to monitor what was happening in the store.

But it didn’t anticipate that its workforce – hired locally to provide the area with much-needed jobs – would be prone to absenteeism and turnover.

“There was domestic violence, teenage pregnancy. We’ve had situations where team members were homeless and living in their cars but still coming to work,” said Alice Reyes, head of human resources at the Compton Target. “More than half of my day was dealing with team member concerns – ‘What should I do? Where should I go?’ They needed someone to talk to, someone who would listen.”

So shortly after opening, Target contracted with ComPsych to provide a workplace counselor, borrowing an idea first tried at a Chicago Target.

ComPsych gave the assignment to Edwards, a divorced mother of four who lives in Paramount, Calif., based on her familiarity with the area and its issues.

In a few short years, “Miss Saundra,” as she’s known around the Compton store, has become part of this close-knit group of 200 employees. They call her a lifesaver, a maternal figure, a confidante. Her success is such that Target expanded her duties to include more stores.

The Compton store was the second Target to have a social worker. Now 69 of the chain’s 1,752 locations have one. Those branches reported a 17 percent average improvement in attendance scores in 2009 compared with the previous year.

“Our Compton store has been a great success story,” Target Chairman and Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel said. “I’m confident that learnings from our three years in Compton will prove extremely beneficial as we continue to expand.”

New employees learn about Edwards from Day 1 – not just during the official orientation, but also from their new colleagues.

Menefee, the fitting room clerk, says her advice is simple: “Talk to Ms. Edwards, ’cause she can work it out,” she says. “She tells me to scream and let it out, and I do.”