Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

If you have a big brand, your relationship with your customers is more precious than your relationship with your consistently capricious, torturously frustrating, optimistically maddening sports team.

(My apologies. My San Francisco Giants have been driving me toward the seminary lately.)

Please imagine, then, the synchronized mental swimming currently being performed by large retailers who depend on such delicate elements as margin and volume.

As President Trump's China tariffs begin to gnaw at their vital internal organs, retailers have to ponder whether to let their customers accept the full consequences of the fact that China doesn't actually pay those tariffs.

Yet here's Target, a company that has often used a certain marketing charm to breed customer loyalty, showing those customers exactly how it sees the immediate future.

As the Financial Times reports, the retailer has decided who will really pay the additional tariffs.

Not its customers, but its suppliers.

It seems the company sent those suppliers who bring it Chinese goods a sternly-worded email that included these businesslike words: 

Our expectation is that you will develop the appropriate contingency plans so that we don't have to pass price increases along.

Yes, dear customer, this is what cuddly Target is capable of writing to those who bring it the delightfully cheap and silly T-shirts that you can't resist, as you roll your way down the aisles.

We all harbor expectations, of course. How many do we actually end up seeing and feeling with our own bodies and minds?

Yet any Target customer learning of the company's approach may now believe that prices won't rise.

This may not necessarily be true.

How can suppliers be the only ones bearing the burden of beastly politics? 

Yet that's the problem with being a supplier and having a very big client.

The client is bigger than you are. Only your specific relationship with that big client can save you.

Just as only the specific relationship between the retailer and the customer can save the retailer. 

Especially with Amazon looming like a mongoose at a snake wedding.

Of course, Target's harsh letter surely includes a sprinkling of posturing.

At what point does the supplier just say no?

At what point does Target have to accept that some prices will rise? At what point does the supplier sit down with Target and say: "Come on, let's be reasonable here."

And at what point does Target tell its customers that prices will go up -- and, just as importantly, how?

This all might be a short-lived experiment. It might only serve to see which suppliers blink and which refuse.

Within days or even minutes, the President Trump might suddenly have dinner with the China' President Xi and the world will turn in the opposite dircection.

In the meantime, Target's customers -- many of whom haven't exactly benefited from the strong economy -- will wait and wonder.

Published on: Sep 8, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.