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Pressure Builds on Target’s Gregg Steinhafel

Data breach, entry into Canada and sagging traffic weigh on discounter ceo.

Target’s in a fix and retail watchers — perhaps even the company’s board — are beginning to wonder if Gregg Steinhafel has the solutions.

Steinhafel, chairman and chief executive officer, has been in the headlines and on TV in recent months, apologizing for the computer breach that exposed the credit card information of millions of customers to cyber thieves.

But even before that p.r. nightmare, Steinhafel’s Target, which reports its fourth-quarter results today, was feeling some serious pressure. Experts point to the discounter’s disappointing start in Canada, concerns surrounding the e-commerce business, weakening customer traffic in the U.S. and a lack of that old cheap-chic magic on the fashion front.

The combined financial toll has been acute. Analysts project the company’s earnings per share fell 26.9 percent last year as sales slipped 0.8 percent to $72.7 billion.

Now rumors are flying that the board is growing dissatisfied with Steinhafel. And that they might be looking for some of the stability of the past.

People close to former chief Robert Ulrich have been chattering — perhaps wishing — that there’s a road for Ulrich to return to the company. Target spokeswoman Dustee Jenkins said, “There’s no truth to that to our knowledge.” Neither Ulrich nor Target’s lead director James Johnson responded to queries on the topic. Some sources said there was no chance of a comeback for Ulrich, who stepped down in 2008 when he hit Target’s age cap of 65.

There’s recent precedent for former leaders riding to the rescue. Myron “Mike” Ullman 3rd came back at J.C. Penney Co. Inc., as did A.G. Lafley at The Procter & Gamble Co. and Richard Hayne at Urban Outfitters Inc.

But Ulrich as been out of the retail game for some time. And even if his return is a long shot, or just hopeful talk, the chatter underscores how severe the troubles are at the company.

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“Target seems sort of disjoined right now,” said one close observer. “It seems like they don’t have a handle on it. There’s maybe a 25 to 33 percent chance that Ulrich would come back. It pains Ulrich to see this happening. He’s very unhappy with Steinhafel and has told people that the worst thing he ever did was hire Steinhafel to replace him.”

Certainly, it’s been a slog for Steinhafel. The ceo has had some wins — he successfully fended off activist investor William Ackman for instance — but lately the troubles have been piling up.

“Target’s issues are deep and will not easily nor quickly be fixable,” said Paul Trussell, an analyst at Deutsche Bank. “There are a number of items that probably are on the desk of the management team, as well as the board, in terms of what needs to occur. One of the options may include management change. I’m not certain that starts at the ceo level. There’s other additions and subtractions that could occur, whether it’s in the merchandising operation or the online operation. It’s fair to say everything is on the table, but I have not heard of any rumblings of a ceo or management change to date.”

Trussell said the company’s most pressing issue was regaining the loyalty of its customer, which started to wane before last year’s cyber breach.

“Target is in the eye of the storm of Amazon, with a product mix that overlaps substantially with Amazon,” Trussell said. “There are other convenient small stores like Dollar General that have encroached on Target. Their mojo on the more discretionary side of the store — apparel, home and some other categories — has been lackluster as of late.”

The company had had a string of successful designer collaborations, managing to touch on just the right notes with just the right names, including Proenza Schouler and Jason Wu, and blow through inventory.

But the record more recently has been mixed. A collaboration with Neiman Marcus in 2012 didn’t take off and a hot 2011 Missoni collection highlighted weaknesses in the company’s Web site, which crashed.

The expansion into Canada has been another high-profile misstep. The company hired 20,000 associates in the country and opened 124 stores, but ended up with too much inventory and a drag on the overall company.

“Because of all the hype and excitement about Target coming to Canada, we wanted to make sure that we captured every sale and we just overdid it,” Steinhafel said during an interview with CNBC. “And, so, we have to — we have to work through all of that inventory, which is what we’re doing right now, kind of reboot that plan, and then we’re going to grow from there.”

Along the way, there’s been executive turnover in what had traditionally been a very stable c-suite.

Chief marketing officer Michael Francis had been involved with the expansion into Canada, but decamped to Penney’s. And chief financial officer Doug Scovanner left.

“The main continuity has been with Gregg and with [merchandising executive] Kathy Tesija,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners.

Johnson said Target was simply trying to do too much at the same time: rolling out in Canada, getting its PFresh grocery format concept off the ground and promoting its REDcard discounts.

“Unless you’re exceptionally skilled, you can really only do one major, big-push initiative at once and maybe two if you have a lot of good senior talent,” Johnson said. “To simultaneously do three things is a stretch for a lot of companies. The organization simply had too much on its plate. Nobody was minding the store and they took their eye off the home-court ball.”

Now, the spotlight of the data breach has focused everyone at Target — including the board — on the very big task at hand.