After a year’s-worth of behind-the-scenes work involving hundreds of thousands of employee-hours and tens of millions of dollars in research, conceptualizing, product development and testing, Target Corp. has quietly begun rolling out its most aggressive merchandising strategy in more than a decade, if not its entire history.
It revealed four all-new fashion brands during the Fourth of July weekend through an exclusive story in the Wall Street Journal. The move followed the quiet launch of its Art Class line in January and Cloud Island brand in May, and precedes its planned launches of more than six additional brands by the end of next year (see “Cheap Chic Redux?”).
The July story came out at an odd time for peak publicity; most investment analysts, fashion writers and business journalists were vacationing. As a result, it received only some copycat attention from other media. It also spurred a few pessimistic headlines. “Target’s New Brands Makeover: Newly Attractive or Lipstick on a Pig?” asked one investment newsletter. “Target: A Case Study in Organizational Stupidity,” said a blog post from Seeking Alpha.
Clearly not the kinds of comments Target CEO Brian Cornell likes to see. But also not all that important to the 58-year-old, who’s entering his fourth year on the job. Cornell’s been afforded a rare opportunity among larger publicly traded companies: time—and enough cash flow to repurchase billions of dollars in stock and pay out healthy dividends (estimated this year alone to reach $3 billion and $1.4 billion, respectively) to keep investors happy in the meantime. And he’s out to prove that he can turn Target around by 2020.
Earlier this year Target revealed plans to invest $7 billion to update its stores over the next three years, further improve its digital infrastructure, develop more of its smaller-format urban stores, improve its supply chain and, by the end of next year, roll out more than 12 new brands, all developed in-house and available only at Target. The most unique aspect to all of this, relative to what Target’s competitors are doing, involves those new brands.
Like businesses in other industries such as cable television (think Netflix and House of Cards or Orange is the New Black), Target understands that distribution and sales channels are only as good as the product that goes through them. And to differentiate in ways that will attract more shoppers, it needs more only-at-Target, highly appealing offerings, rather than those customers can get elsewhere.
The question is whether the changes Cornell makes happen soon enough given the pace at which Target’s competitors are advancing. He started at a disadvantage.
Once one of the hottest brands in retail, Target began losing its edge about a decade ago as the number of U.S. retailers surged, product offerings elsewhere copied Target’s stylish-quality-for-less formula, and Target leadership focused too much attention and resources elsewhere—mainly on expanding into Canada and building a substantial grocery presence in an attempt to lure more customers.
No single retailer is absorbing market share from Target. Rather, it’s a wave of online players, from Amazon to Wayfair and Hayneedle, and brick-and-mortar stores ranging from small, low-priced boutiques to behemoths such as H&M and Wal-Mart.
Target’s annual sales represented 4.06 percent of all sales amongst the nation’s 100 largest retailers in 2009, according to National Retail Federation data. That made it the nation’s third-largest retailer. By the end of 2014, it had slipped to 3.85 percent, making it the sixth-largest retailer.
The percentage of Americans shopping at Target has decreased as well, according to London-based Kantar Research. “Our latest shopper data shows they’re down to 33 percent penetration in the United States [retail shopping marketplace] today; in 2008, they were at 47 percent,” says Leon Nicholas, chief insights officer for Kantar’s retail division. “We’re in a very different place than the holiday season of 2008, when Target’s penetration was in the low 50 percent range. This year they hit the mid-30s.”
Target’s overall store traffic numbers don’t reflect the drop as much, “because the shoppers they have left are shopping them even more,” he says. Meanwhile, “only one-third of Americans shop at Target today; our data shows 37 percent of Americans are members of Amazon Prime.” Amazon overall has a 64 percent household penetration.
Target, however, maintains 85 percent of Americans are still shopping its stores.
During and after the Great Recession, leadership had also chosen to emphasize low prices and offerings in essential categories, instead of trendy clothes and housewares, which led Target to lose its “brand balance,” as Cornell has described it.
When he joined the company as its chairman of the board and CEO in August 2014, Cornell had to first tackle even bigger challenges—mainly IT protocols that had allowed a security breach involving 41 million customers’ credit card data, the botched and expensive Canada expansion, and an outdated supply chain that couldn’t keep shelves filled, especially in grocery.
In early 2015, he led the company’s departure from Canada, where it had recently opened 133 stores and three distribution centers, and hired nearly 18,000 people. “When we looked at it, evaluated the feedback from the Canadian guests and projected it would take until 2021, under the most aggressive set of circumstances, to break even, we made the decision to exit that market,” Cornell says. “It was the most difficult personal or professional decision I’ve ever made, but it was the right thing for the company.”
Cornell also determined within his first months on the job that more layoffs were needed: 1,700 people were let go and another 1,400 open positions were eliminated. “We de-layered the organization. We took spans of management out so we work more agile and more responsive and are closer to the front line and guests,” he says. “Those are not easy decisions to make but it provided the fuel for us to reinvest in the business.”
Some of that reinvestment went into further strengthening Target’s IT security, which Cornell says is now best-in-class, and bolstering supply chain management; the company says it has improved, but would not reveal specific data.
Cornell also promised that Target would become more responsive to its shoppers through increased localization and personalization in stores and online. Going forward, it would focus on signature categories of style, baby, kids and wellness, and reduce bureaucracy and complexity. And he launched LA25, an innovation initiative that used 25 Los Angeles-area stores to test 50 of Target’s top new ideas.
Two years later, not much has happened—on the surface—other than last year’s very successful launch of a new kids’ clothing brand, Cat and Jack. In the following months, Target said spending on kids’ apparel at its stores increased more than 50 percent. It is now on track to generate about $2 billion in annual sales, and replaced two old brands that were generating a total of about $1 billion a year.
But overall sales have flat lined, while Wal-Mart’s and Amazon’s have risen. Same-store sales for fourth-quarter 2016 fell 1.5 percent; for the year they slipped 0.5 percent. The company’s full-year sales fell 5.8 percent to $69.5 billion. The majority of that drop, however, was due to Target selling its pharmacy and clinics to CVS, which is now running them in Target stores. Adjusted for that, Target’s full-year sales were down less than 1 percent.
Target’s new concept store opening in October will come eight months after Wal-Mart unveiled its next generation of stores, also in suburban Houston.
Wal-Mart’s “smart store” offers an expanded produce section and new approaches to technology (including its new Scan and Go app), services, products and layout. As Target plans to do, the new Wal-Mart stores have a separate entrance for grocery. And like Target’s partnership with Starbucks, which is located in more than 1,000 of its stores, Wal-Mart’s new stores will house a 2,000-square-foot Chobani Café (Chobani’s second store of this kind opened in Target’s Tribeca location in 2016).
Wal-Mart plans to remodel up to 600 stores this year, and is rolling out curbside pickup of online grocery orders to 500 additional U.S. stores, eyeing busy suburban moms who don’t want to spend time searching for things in a big store.
It also plans to create a lounge-like area for shoppers picking up online orders, increase the number of fresh and organic items available (as does Target) and expand several departments—all food, except the baby department—one of Target’s four core categories.
On the one hand, that’s good; many other retailers reported worse results, and more than 20 of them are shuttering more than 5,000 stores as a result. Target’s still generating hefty revenues and good earnings (due primarily to cost cutting). But Cornell and his executive team are keenly aware that it has to do better.
Behind the scenes, they have been quietly reconceptualizing the notion of innovation. Target has conducted pilot programs and tests around the country, ranging from how stores should look to what should be on its shelves, and how things should be delivered to customers’ homes. It has re-engineered its product development process to produce new brands more quickly while incorporating more revisions. It also seems to now have a continual-learning and improvement loop. With Cat and Jack’s rollout, for example, it continued to look for ways to improve future new-brand development and rollouts.
Target’s $7 billion investment plan is expected to leverage these advancements, with more new brands and a store remodeling campaign that is expected to increase revenue per store by 2 to 4 percent—not only because of display changes, but because the stores will be more technologically enabled. That technology is expected to reach into how inventory is restocked, orders are shipped, and product development and marketing departments tweak what they’re working on next.
“Data analytics have to fuel virtually everything we do right now,” Cornell says. “We’re putting a big premium on experience, both physically and digitally. We’re putting a huge premium on the assortment of brands, both our own and from great vendor partners. We’re obviously making a big bet on the importance of fulfillment, and all of that has to be underscored by the feedback we get from our consumers and our guest insights, and the data analytics that help us make better choices more rapidly. All of this has to come together to create a brand that is going to be preferred and relevant in today’s retail environment.”
Retailers offer products made by other well-known brands. But to differentiate and really spruce up their offerings, they can either buy brands or develop their own. Wal-Mart recently made aggressive moves into apparel with its acquisition of Bonobos, Moosejaw, Shoebuy.com and Modcloth.com—all more similar to the types of things the Target of old used to sell.
Target’s betting that developing its own brands is the way to go. And it’s amped up its product development time. It used to introduce a new product line once every year or two. Now it’s more than 12 in 18 months.
“In today’s environment, understanding what the guest wants from Target, having those unique products that differentiate us from the competition and that you can only find in our stores [or on its website] is really important,” Cornell says. There will still be limited, one-time offerings with designer celebrities, “but our own proprietary brand portfolio provides lasting benefits to us.”
One of those lasting benefits is in how each new brand is configured to help sell other products.
“We are now up to almost one full year with Cat and Jack and we continue to see double-digit [sales comparisons year over year], but more importantly what we see is our guests’ basket build, the size of their spending increases and the size of their spend, not just in Cat and Jack but the surrounding areas,” says Mark Tritton, EVP and chief merchandising officer. “There’s the value that it’s brought to our guests and there’s how it resonates through the store. So it’s not just the idea about this one area, it’s the sum of the parts.”
Developing its own brands allows Target to control the quality and costs associated with them. The new Goodfellow & Co. men’s line will replace two other brands (Mossimo and Merona). Fabric selecting and sourcing alone cost less than how it was done for the outgoing brands, according to Julie Guggemos, senior vice president of product design and development.
Target also can tap customer insight during development and after launch to continually tailor products to customer desires. Target’s old policy limited new products to only two or three rounds of updates. Its new brands are less restricted. The washed-poplin button-down shirt in the Goodfellow line, for example, went through nearly seven rounds. It also comes in two fits instead of the previous one-fit-only approach.
And it came out after some noteworthy rounds of testing. Target analyzes more than a dozen issues, ranging from category performance and emerging trends to materials, fit and what the competition is doing. “We do the right testing and science to understand what the needs are, but the art is pulling the collection together and having the confidence that it’s right from a trend perspective, industry perspective and guest perspective,” Guggemos says.
Among all the feedback loops deployed, Target set up a pop-up store where men from the Twin Cities area were asked to try on Goodfellow items and provide feedback.
“We made changes right there on the spot as we listened to their feedback,” says Guggemos. “We also use a secondary method where a proprietary app allows our designers to talk [in] real time back and forth with our guests to get feedback. You can get some voting and instant feedback on everything from the shape of collar to colors.” About 250 individuals from around the country participated in that feedback loop.
“All of this has to come together to create a brand that is going to be preferred and relevant in today’s retail environment.”
“We have 1,800 stores, so we don’t have to do the same thing in every store; we can test and iterate,” Tritton adds. “The idea is to put things out there and continue to learn and iterate quickly. It’s bringing agility to the way we’re working and responding.”
Goodfellow has five primary looks: sporty, rugged, classic, weekend casual and expressive workwear. Its merchants study their region’s needs and curate the assortment accordingly by store. Montana, for example, may be more rugged casual, while the East Coast may be more business expressive.
Men’s apparel is perhaps the most important new brand project on the list. Target isn’t currently thought of as a place for men to find fashionable attire—good for casual clothes and basics such as socks and underwear, but not sports jackets and nicer pants. But social and demographic trends show men are now buying their own clothes and shoes more often alone, or with a partner (hence the success of Bonobos). And those buying clothes for men may see a Goodfellow item and buy it on the way to purchase something else.
“Target is an incredibly powerful brand, a beloved brand, and we want to shape that as a brand that guests can connect with,” Tritton says. “But what we found in our movement to our own brand strategy is that, even with our own brands such as Merona and others in men’s and women’s, they were very kind of wide in scale and scope, so the meaning of that becomes very homogenized, whereas our guest insights showed they want something more definitive and special for them.”
A glimpse of what Target stores of the future will look like can be found at its Stinson store in Northeast Minneapolis. The display racks are white and moveable, lighting is brighter but still warm-toned, cosmetics and grooming products areas are more expansive and better lit, and cross-merchandising displays now present products as customers might use them, such as in a small room.
Stinson is Target’s primary test store in Minnesota. But it also tests elsewhere, most recently through LA25. The company now plans to “reimagine” 600—one-third—of its stores within three years, starting with 110 this year, using the responses it receives from shoppers in those tests.
Other changes include reducing red by as much as 50 percent, according to Mark Schindele, Target SVP of properties. Shoppers at test stores liked this change, he says. “Brands also stick out better with a neutral-colored backdrop.”
While the changes are physical, they’re being made to improve the experience in a Target store. In fact, everything the company is doing today is geared toward making every step of engagement with its brand so enjoyable that people will want to return because of it. But this has to be mixed with ultra-timely offerings.
One of the most significant changes will be swapping out displays rapidly, keeping pace with what’s trending online and within a particular store’s geography in any given week or, if hugely popular, day. The company has hired visual merchandisers, and its remodels will provide them with seven spaces throughout stores where they can present a cross-merchandised display playing off a hot fashion trend. The same will occur with its endcaps, including in the grocery area.
Target is only remodeling one-third of its stores between now and 2020 because some had recently been remodeled, Schindele says. “Primarily, we wanted to make sure the program we’re launching is successful, guests love it, and as we learn more about it, it allows us to either accelerate or decelerate depending upon results.”
Another 435 stores will receive “merchandising enhancements” or department remodels this year, a spokesperson added.
Target also plans to apply to its remodels (including its downtown Minneapolis location) what it learns after opening its first next-generation store in Houston in mid-October. “It’s our most ambitious undertaking yet for a new store—full size, roughly 125,000 square feet. It will influence all of our future remodels,” Schindele says. “The main entrance will be focused on our style businesses and inspiration; the other entrance will be focused more on ease and convenience.”
The latter is meant to serve those who want to “grab and go,” whether it’s food, an order to be picked up or something they can quickly find and purchase including offerings from its liquor store. Curbside order pickup also will be available.
The style entrance “is for trips where you have more time and want to pick up all that’s on your list,” Schindele says. Among other new elements, it will present shoppers with a large display area as soon as they walk in the door, with a special product offering or something seasonal. Corners of the stores will be visible and appealing. “Typically our corners are very closed off with high wall fixtures. We’re activating the corners, changing the orientation of fixtures and the presentation, so right when you walk in the door you’re immediately drawn to the back corner.
“Our goal when we talk about redesigning the in-store experience, it’s not just thinking about the physical aspects, it’s how our team members interact with the guests, and how we integrate digital and also our supply chain efforts,” he adds. “We view our efforts as creating a smart network of stores that allow our guests to experience Target however they want, whether that’s digital first, store first or a combination of both.”
Wal-Mart is also remodeling stores with similar goals in mind and at a similar pace (see “Meanwhile, at Wal-Mart,” below). It also is looking to integrate technology more with its in-store shoppers’ experiences, but not to the extent that Target will by the coming holiday season.
Target also is ramping up its small-format store strategy, adding 30 such locations this year—nearly double the current count of 32, which includes the well-received Manhattan location that opened in New York City in late 2016.
To make this happen, the company is merging its Cartwheel savings app with its Target app, providing customers one place where they can map out their store trips, learn about deals on in-store purchases, check out what’s in the store they plan to visit and buy them online if preferred. This should be available by the end of 2017.
For less mobile-savvy shoppers, Target is rolling out for internal use “myDevice,” a handheld device for sales clerks to help find the color or size of products that are currently unavailable in store; they can be ordered and shipped to the shopper or the store. “It’s training, in essence, to get our guests to think more digitally,” says Schindele. The approach was tested in Target’s Stinson and Edina stores, expanded to 25 locations by late June and is set to be in all locations by the holidays.
Meanwhile, there’s supply chain. As of press time, Target had revealed little on its progress. During a February conference call with analysts, it said that out-of-stocks improved by 40 percent from fourth-quarter 2014 to the same period in 2015, and by another 15 percent in all of 2016. Without more context (including how its out-of-stocks compare with those of its peers), it’s difficult to understand the significance of this change.
Cornell says Target’s in-stocks are higher than ever, and that guest satisfaction scores continue to rise. Fulfillment is also a different game than five years ago, he adds. It “may be different for Katy on Monday than on Saturday. So when I think of fulfillment, it’s fulfillment in-store when you’re shopping and those endcaps are properly presented, the product you’re looking for is in stock, and you have a great experience. It’s ordering online and picking up in-store. It could be bringing back something you ordered and exchanging it. In the future, it’s likely curbside offering.”
The strongest sign of improvement with Target’s supply chain comes in its ability to ship directly from stores, something relatively unheard of five years ago. In 2015, 41 percent of all digital orders where shipped from its stores. In 2016, stores fulfilled 68 percent of digital orders. And there were more items to ship: Online sales increased from 10 percent of total sales to 14 percent in the same period.
Also shipped from stores are goods through Target’s new Restock program this year. Company officials say it was set up from concept to execution within a matter of weeks, not months or years. It was tested in the Twin Cities at first and is now slated to expand into Dallas and Denver later this year.
To some, Target’s foray into groceries has been as much a mistake as its Canada expansion. The low-margin category takes up as much as one-fifth of stores’ square footage that, observers say, could be put to better use.
“Our shopper data shows very few people say their last trip to Target was for food, though the goal for them all along has been to drive more trips from existing shoppers by offering groceries,” says Leon Nicholas, chief insights officer for Kantar Research. “Target confused the shopper in many cases because they started more of the front page of the circular with food and [devoting] more square footage of their store to it. It’s confusing to say to the shopper, ‘Hey, over here, paper towel for a dollar.’ ”
Another problem is that marketing and merchandising consumables is quite different than for home, housewares and apparel.
“The latter is rotational and it’s based on excitement. It changes all the time, you have a markdown schedule, it’s seasonal, it’s exciting,” says Nicholas. “A box of cereal is not. It’s replenishment and it’s kind of boring and it requires you have systems in place to replenish. The problem is a shopper who wants a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes is not going to say ‘What the heck, I’ll just get a box of Cheerios if they’re out of stock.’ They don’t want that, they want their corn flakes. Whereas with apparel, well, if they don’t have black socks, I’ll take blue. It’s more interchangeable.”
Target would be best served if it acquired a grocery chain, similar to Amazon’s bid for Whole Foods, or subcontract with one or several locally, he says.
“They ended up down this road, ultimately dedicating a lot of time, energy, floor space, resources, relationships and money toward something that was not natural to the core brand promise, and they took their eye off that ball while worrying about bananas and paper towels. And along came H&M and Amazon.”
“Certainly, the food and beverage space is very competitive,” Cornell says. “We’re fortunate in that we have this multicategory portfolio. We’re not dependent on one category or one area. We have the benefit of being a key player in apparel, in home, with baby and kids and the role we play with moms, and the sizable share we have in the toy category. We’re in electronics and office supplies. We have a very strong position in household essentials and beauty. So the diversity of our portfolio allows us to meet the needs of our guests and be competitive in multiple categories.”
Groceries are an important part of that mix, he says, because Target believes groceries are important to its shoppers. About 20 percent of the company’s annual revenue comes from the category.
Fashion and home furnishings are exciting. “A box of cereal is not.”
Wal-Mart, on the other hand, derives 60 percent of its revenues from groceries, “so that is really their principal business,” Cornell says. “We like and are fostering the diversity of our portfolio. The fact we’re a destination during key holidays, it’s where you come for back to school and back to college. We’re an important player in apparel, and in beauty. We have a great relationship with the guests when it comes to toys and great partnerships with Mattel, Disney and Hasbro. So we’re going to continue to embrace that multi-category approach.”
From a brand perspective, it still makes sense for Target to carry groceries, says Larry Vincent, chief branding officer of United Talent Agencies in Beverly Hills, co-founder of its UTA Brand Studio and author of two well-regarded books on branding.
“The CVS partnership was smart. I don’t think it caused any brand dilution. It was additive,” he says about Target’s move to sell its clinic and pharmacy business to CVS, which now runs those operations within Target’s stores. “Food is different. I think, if I were their brand manager, I’d be cautious about letting a grocer own that brand equity with my core customer. However, there are probably some ‘designer’ food brands that could be good for them to feature.”
From an outsider’s perspective, Target can be seen as moving too slowly relative to its competition. A June Bloomberg report stated, “By a host of measures—sales, share price, even intellectual property— Wal-Mart is besting Target with cleaner stores, lower prices and a refurbished online strategy.” Moreover, the authors noted Target’s recent negative same-store sales “aren’t likely to improve anytime soon, as the company has forecast a low-single digit decline for the full year.”
Target is also losing ground to Amazon in women’s wear, No. 8 to Amazon’s No. 1, according to a survey from British trend tracker WGSN. Kantor’s Nicholas points to declining market share over the last few years, especially during the holidays.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart is also winning the intellectual property race. In the past five years, it has taken the lead over Target in patent applications, many focused on web development and easing shoppers’ journey through the store. The company has even filed a patent for in-store drones that would ferry products from the back room to the sales floor, according to Bloomberg.
That follows Target’s decision during the past year to cut innovation projects to focus on core-business needs. Cornell says innovation is still alive and well inside Target, and it will become more obvious to outsiders in upcoming months. Innovation projects that were terminated were not core to what the company must focus on today, he says.
And he disagrees with those who say Target is moving too slowly.
“We have to re-imagine our stores, move into new neighborhoods, bring new brands forward, transition our supply chain to support our new strategy … but we also have 1,800 stores we have to run tomorrow. We also have 30 million guests who are going to shop our stores next week. We’ve got to make sure we deliver the right service and experience.”
“Would we like to remodel 600 stores faster? Absolutely. But every one has to be done correctly. We want to make sure we get the guests’ feedback, we iterate, we get the right return for our shareholders, that we create the right experience. Twelve brands in 18 months is a really fast pace. But we want to make sure there is enough time and breathing room in between each launch and make sure each one gets its time on stage, that we begin to seed those brands into the assortment, we get the right recognition from the guests, so we have to pace it out appropriately.”
l By the this year’s holiday season, Cornell expects the public to notice a new edge to Target—the retailer’s first full-throttle attempt to differentiate itself since it surprised the industry with its strategy to partner with top-name designers back in 1999. The first signs of whether Cornell’s grand vision works will show up in the company’s fourth-quarter results early in 2018.
At that point, his quest to reinvent Target also has to resonate with shoppers. This old brand has to feel new again, not only to survive, but, even better he says, to pick up a significant portion of the newly available estimated $60 billion in retail market share, as other retailers have scaled back or closed in recent years.
In the business world, this would be the feat of the century, or at least one of them. Retail carnage is everywhere as other brands have tried and failed to revitalize themselves.
Yet Cornell and team remain confident they’ll not only pull it off, but they can take the time necessary to do it while staying focused on providing good service at its 1,800 stores. They base their confidence on Target’s brand recognition and real estate presence, and leadership’s quiet deployment of new approaches that will leverage those assets in ways that competitors can’t do as well, if at all—at least, not yet.
In 2015, 41 percent of all digital orders during Black Friday weekend were fulfilled by its stores. In 2016, stores fulfilled 68 percent of digital orders during that weekend, and there were more items to ship: Black Friday weekend online sales increased from 10 percent of total sales to 14 percent in the same period.
By the end of 2018, Target plans to launch more than 12 new brands that offer boutique-like, high quality “experiences” for its customers—attractive home goods and apparel, in high-energy displays, in-store and online. To do so, it’s mixing customer insights with designs, materials and colors in unique combinations that give customers the satisfaction of buying cool new items at reasonable prices.
Dale Kurschner is editor-in-chief of TCB.