The Target store in Compton 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, based on her familiarity with the area and its issues.
"It takes a unique kind of person to fill that spot," said Jennifer Hudson, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based ComPsych, which specializes in providing psychologists for the workplace. "They have to have a pretty broad skill set and fit into the team atmosphere of the retail environment. She's just a good fit all around."
A former mail carrier, Edwards made her move to social work after getting promoted to manage employee assistance programs for the Postal Service. Finding she had a talent for dealing with people, she earned a master's degree in psychology from Mount St. Mary's College and was hired by ComPsych.
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 stores in Long Beach and Hawthorne.
She arrived at the Compton store at 9 a.m. that recent Monday, stopping briefly by her office near the cash registers before hitting the sales floor.
"The reality," Edwards says, "is we don't always just sit in chairs and do therapy. Sometimes our clients need a lot of other things."
She casually strolls the aisles of the store, past the beauty supplies section stocked with more ethnic hair-care products and darker shades of makeup for its mostly African American and Latino customers. Then it's on to the fresh food area, brimming with diced onions, collard and turnip greens, carne asada beef and taco shells.
She makes eye contact with everyone, signaling her willingness to be pulled over for a talk. Soon she runs into a thirtysomething sales clerk, and the two of them huddle by a rack of women's clothing.
The woman had a rough time last year when she was working at one of the other Targets that Edwards tends. Boyfriend trouble made the sales clerk fear for her safety. The situation at home caused her to miss shifts, putting her at risk of getting fired.
Edwards stepped in, finding her a space in a women's shelter and arranging a transfer to the Compton store, giving her a fresh start.
The woman is now back on her feet, reconciled with her boyfriend and, store managers say, consistently showing up for work.
"Last year was terrible and it's better now," she tells Edwards. "I didn't know who to talk to. When you're going through things, you don't want to take them to work and dump all over someone."
"Everybody needs an ear," Edwards says.
"And I'm glad you lent your ear," the sales clerk says. "And your shoulder, too."
In addition to her work at Target, Edwards has a private counseling practice in Gardena. She also works with the nonprofit Wings of Refuge, which provides social services to Los Angeles-area families who could otherwise not afford them.
She operates by a simple credo: No matter how tough the situation seems, there is always a solution.
"It's not about giving advice, it's about giving assistance," she says matter-of-factly. "Can it get overwhelming? Yeah, sometimes life is just overwhelming."
Her last visit of the day is from Gale Bates, 44, a human resources employee. Bates reached out to Edwards when she began thinking about adopting a child and buying a home for the first time.
After asking whether Bates has made any decisions yet, Edwards sternly reminds her to attend a first-time home buyers class, which she's been putting off.
Bates says she's still mulling over her options, making sure it's the right time in her life to buy a home and start the adoption process. But now, "when I'm ready, I know where to go and who to call," she says.
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% 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."