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Made By Design is Target’s big bet on minimalism

Target’s latest attempt to recapture its design credibility is more Muji than Michael Graves. Will consumers bite?

Made By Design is Target’s big bet on minimalism
Julie Guggemos [Photo: Ackerman Gruber for Fast Company]

The 10-inch, stainless steel sauté pan feels perfect. It has a hollow, bubble blown handle that offers girth without weight, counterbalanced by a thick bottom. From All-Clad, this skillet would set me back $100. From Target, it’s $20.

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This is part of Made By Design, what Target deems its most audacious entrance into building its own products ever. It’s a line of 750 basic household objects ranging from bath towels to kitchen tables, designed by Target’s 300 designers and 200 engineers in-house to embody the minimalist sensibility of Muji, at a price comparable to Ikea. Items start at a $1 and range to a $260, but most are under $30 and many are under $10. We’re talking $3 plates and bowls, and $6 bath towels and queen pillows, allowing you to easily outfit a kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom for a few hundred bucks.

For Target, Made By Design is an attempt to rebirth the retailer as a design brand. The stakes are high for Target, which expects the sprawling new line to reach $1 billion in sales within a few years. The line is more than a financial bet, though. It’s a significant departure for Target’s brand and an attempt to align the company not just with trendy design, but with Good Design–that is nonetheless even cheaper than the company’s other options. That means Target is walking the line between affordability, imitation, and aspirational marketing in a way that feels uniquely Targét.

[Photo: Ackerman Gruber for Fast Company]

The original design retailer

Since the ’90s, Target has distinguished itself from Walmart as the retailer that cared about, not just democratizing deals, but democratizing design. Before Adidas brought in Pharrell and Kanye to design shoes, Target brought in Angela and Margherita Maccapani Missoni to design clothes, and Michael Graves to design teapots. These were the ultimate in cheap chic. The design was fun and surprising–even if the quality was a bit budget.

But the last decade for Target has been less than stellar. While Target survived the Great Recession, between 2008 to 2017, Target’s revenue grew only 10%. Walmart’s grew more than 25% over the same time, and the quiet giant Costco’s grew 85%. What’s more, investors were dubious about Target’s stock value.

It’s hard to pinpoint a single cause for Target’s stall. Some issues are infrastructural, and regarded to Target’s own supply chain management and ability to keep its most sellable items on store shelves. Others are related to a second tier online shopping portal. It all added up to troubling holiday sales and fewer people walking into Target stores quarter after quarter–but Target is showing signs on turning that around. 2017 holiday sales were better than most expected, and last quarter, its foot traffic saw its biggest growth in 10 years.

Target CEO Brian Cornell spotted opportunity in doubling down on what makes Target unique from its peers–an anchor in design–all over again. So he’s investing $7 billion in store remodels that turn Targets into experiential showrooms. And the company’s two-year-old design studio in downtown Minneapolis has been tasked with filling it with irresistible goods that you can find nowhere else.

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The strategy makes sense. Growth woes or not, to this day, Target’s own housewares line continue to be a booming business for a Middle America obsessed with Instagram dinners and HGTV styling. As 30 million people visit Target every week, its Threshold brand of furniture and furnishings–created six years ago–sells $2 billion in merchandise a year alone. And that’s not counting its newer spin-offs like the midcentury modern Project 62, or rustic chic brand Hearth & Hand with Magnolia, or the eclectic Opalhouse. Housewares is an excellent business to be in, as the designs don’t turn over as fast as fashion, or spoil as quickly as produce–especially if you can build it in-house for higher margins.

But competition is stiff. Amazon is the growing, omnipresent threat to anyone selling anything. Ikea practically owns the mindshare of cheap, fashionable interior decor. Walmart has a housewares partnership with Buzzfeed and Ayesha Curry. Whole Foods recently announced plans to sell housewares increasingly in stores nationwide. Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 each sell housewares to supplement their fashion revenue. And Muji’s whole pared-down aesthetic is moving into America as the Japanese retailer announced plans to double its U.S. store footprint.

In turn, Target wants to drive people into its stores with a unique, affordable line that you can’t buy anywhere else, and it wants it to leverage the physical experience of that store to sell a consumer a stackable wineglass, a gleaming aluminum curtain rod, or a set of stainless steel flatware that just feels too good to pass up. Target is setting its sights on design, literally. Made By Design will be the first Target sub-brand, ever, to feature the bull’s-eye in its packaging–a visual indicator of just how much Target is staking on this collection.

[Photo: Ackerman Gruber for Fast Company]

The mindful millennial buyer

Julie Guggemos, senior vice president of product design and development at Target, whisks me through Target’s design center. It’s a multistory city block of design studios filled with proprietary, pear-shaped mannequins that can fit the growing American waistline, artists painting watercolor pineapple prints that might become the next hit throw pillows, and scientists in lab coats reverse-engineering Cascade Platinum detergent pods. As we walk through the space, I get an idea of how Target’s glittery sausage is made. Target designs nearly 50,000 separate SKUs a year with its in-house development teams, as well as by coordinating external companies developing custom products.

Guggemos has been at Target for 28 years–what she jokes is “half her life”–and is said to have a photographic memory that would be necessary to keep the chaos straight. She spots an olive jumper that a young woman is wearing nearby. “Ours?” she asks, inspecting the material. (It is.) This millennial-approved wardrobe is proof that Guggemos is adept at her job.

Marketing to millennials may sound overplayed, but in the interior design world, there are only a few moments in someone’s life when they actually make a lot of major purchases: The move to college, the move into the first home, the onslaught of kids, and the pared-down, empty nester life.

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Millennials are currently in stages two and three–first home, first kids (what Target dubs the “adulting millenial”). They don’t necessarily make a lot of money, have a lot of space, or want a lot of things–and they definitely don’t want to have to constantly replace the things they own. They value mindfulness, simplicity, and quality.

These broad categorizations come from Target and analyst speculation, but they are proven out in data, too. Pinterest’s 2018 Home Report year found searches for Lagom–the Swedish concept of an uncluttered and curated “balanced way of life”–had risen 905% year over year. Mindfulness searches within home decor had grown 248%. “Part of it is the combination of what looks cool, what can you afford, and what allows you some self expression,” says Forrester analyst Sucharita Kodali. “This type of genre of home products delivers against that.”

In short, millennials want a lot of simple dishware, containers, and soap dispensers. But they don’t want it to be plain. They want it to be austere, aspirational modesty.

[Photo: Ackerman Gruber for Fast Company]

Building the brand

As Mark Tritton took control of Target products in 2016–after several years turning Nordstrom into an in-house brand powerhouse–Target had market data (purchased, and its own) that showed a missed opportunity. Target shoppers were going to the store and leaving to buy certain housewares at stores like Ikea. Target had the customer in-hand–or what it prefers to call the guest–in its store. But it didn’t have the minimal products to sell them.

“We weren’t losing them, because we didn’t have the sale and lost it,” says Tritton. “But were we seeing guests leave and [buy from other companies?] Sure.”

[Photo: Target]

Plotting how to capture this market, the team inside Target knew they needed to make the same basics that people were buying from Ikea, CB2, Muji, or even West Elm. The question became where to put them. Would a basic white dinner plate be part of Threshold or Opalhouse? That would be silly. Those were profitable verticals that would lose their distinct identity. “Let’s not pull it like taffy,” said Tritton of the brand lineup at the time. “Let’s make it even stronger.”

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So they created Made By Design as its own brand. And it wouldn’t be another vertical within Target’s housewares. It would be the foundation of its entire home business to woo millennial buyers. The go-to that ignored seasons and trends. If young customers wanted to pepper in an accent midcentury modern or rustic piece? All the better. Made By Design would be a low margin product to claim that $3 plate sale that would have once gone to Ikea. Then Target could double dip when the same customer plonked down $50 on a limited run barnyard table throw to go along with it.

To develop these products, Target enlisted a core team consisting of 15 designers and developers, along 100 more people across departments including merchandising, marketing, and finance. For any goods Target develops, it takes a firm design thinking approach. By spending time working with customers, the team identifies pain points, prototypes a solution, and then it iterates with wave after wave of consumer feedback.

[Photo: Target]
“When we design denim . . . we talk to moms or women. It’s about feeling confident in your clothes, and having jeans that make your butt feel good,” says Guggemos midstride–an example pulled from thin air, but also, well-grounded in the fact that a disproportionate 68% of Target’s customers are female. “That’s the common thread, whether it’s a pair of jeans, a diaper, or a piece of furniture, they all start with the guest and understanding the functional attributes. And the pieces of design just fall into place.”

In the case of Made By Design, Target’s designers performed the most extensive guest research the company has ever embarked upon through more than 1,000 distinct interactions: Its own design team entered American homes, and opened their kitchen cabinets. (The design team tells me that every customer they visited apologized for the state of their home cabinets–and took a slight step back before opening them. Which is why so much of the kitchenware is stackable.)

[Photo: Target]
It also invited hundreds of people to its Studio Connect app, which is like Target’s mini, invite-only Instagram feed, allowing designers to post questions directly to the group and get feedback in real time.

The sensation of touch became one of the fundamental design principles behind the line because in the world of physical retail, people shop with their hands. “Strength and ergonomics, the way things balance and feel, that plays such a big role in the buying decision,” says Guggemos. “If something doesn’t feel good in the hand then they aren’t going to buy it.” So nonstick bakeware like cookie sheets were engineered with carbonized steel to bend minimally with force, in part because customers complained that their own bakeware items warped, and in part because the first thing someone does when evaluating a cookie sheet is attempt to bend it.

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For the design team, deploying quality materials on a budget was a massive design problem, relived again and again on each individual product. Generally, it was overcome, even though you can sense penny shaving now and again, like when you hold the silverware, which is lighter than your brain expects simply because it’s thin. (Target maintains that testers actually requested lighter flatware. Functionally, it doesn’t bend–though the spoon feels a bit short when you fish it deep into a deep bowl.)

Mark Tritton  [Photo: Ackerman Gruber for Fast Company]

From Target to Targét

If Target were a living, breathing human, it would be Mark Tritton. He has the affability and family-friendly smile of an Australian Tom Hanks. And he has the self-awareness to laughingly call Made By Design’s aspirations as being less “Target” and more the ironic, French-sounding elevation of the brand you’ve heard: “Targét.” Because what Target realized early on from consumer research was that it had to build was a line of high-quality, long-lasting items that would feel a touch aspirational–but at a low cost.

Together, we peruse the Made By Design product room, which is like a 3D mood board plastered with customer faces on the walls, brand values, color swatches, and pedestals full of finished housewares products. Target uses these closed spaces to put its design teams into a shared frame of mind to keep its separate sub-brands distinguished. Months ago it would have been littered with prototypes and sketches. Today, it’s matured to a makeshift showroom, sparkling in a multitude of toned down yoga-studio-friendly hues: several shades of gray, cream, and blue.

Each item is designed to promise what Target calls a special moment of “joy”–or simple problem solving, informed by the design process, and it’s often related to the relatively high-end materials chosen for the collection. The tempered glass plates and bowls gleam with a snow white gloss, but they feature a matte underside finish that makes them easy to grip when wet. A fitted sheet is labeled “top or bottom” because people never know which way to put on a fitted sheet. The bathroom items, like a shower caddy and curtain rings, are cast from iPod-nano-esque aluminum, making them light and rust resistant. The storage boxes are specced to sizes that correlate with both furniture and closet organizers, ensuring everything is modular and interoperable. Every towel–even hand towels–include a loop so they can hang from a hook rather than a rod in small bathrooms. Even innovations that aren’t new are still welcome and serve to set the tone for the larger brands, like mugs and wine glasses that stack in a cabinet so they save room and don’t tumble out.

[Photo: Ackerman Gruber for Fast Company]

Catches and compromises

Is an object designed well because it feels like it’s designed well? Take that 10-inch stainless steel sauté pan. Yes, it feels great in my hands. But all conventional cookware wisdom suggest that Target’s version hides invisible compromises over its more expensive competition. The part of the Target’s pan that actually handles the cooking features a thin, impact bonded aluminum disc across its bottom, rather than All-Clad’s triple decker sandwich of metals to perfectly distribute a stove’s heat across a chicken breast. Target’s pan gets an A for form, but probably a C+ for function (though admittedly, I haven’t tried it out myself).

[Photo: Target]

And while a lot of Made By Design is born from design thinking, some is also pretty clearly meant to duplicate more expensive products, in a similar vein to how Target’s Up & Up line creates cheaper alternatives to popular diaper, soap, and paper towel brands. Scanning around the room, I see the 4-lock locking food storage containers that might be sold by Rubbermaid, and a pour-over coffee maker that’s a stone’s throw from a Chemex. But perhaps the most singular offender would be the tall dry goods containers that are a spitting image of OXO’s Pop line. Instead of starting at $16 for one of these containers, Target’s start at $4.

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When I broach the topic of knockoffs with Tritton and begin pointing across the room, he immediately nods and says, “I know where you’re going with this,” beelining alongside me to where they’re set up. I explain how much they appeal to me, as a budget-minded buyer who owns some OXO Pop containers but can’t afford as many as I’d like. But I also wonder what it means for the business of design, and Target’s own relationship with OXO, a brand it sells?

“So, let’s just go through it,” he says. “We do have a guest that wants to buy that OXO product, and we love that, but then there’s X amount of other guests like yourself. So, the three that do buy OXO, great. The seven that can’t afford it or don’t want to spend the money, do we just ignore them or do we meet their needs?”

“We’re saying, let’s put together a solution so you can choose,” he continues. “We don’t mind what you buy . . . but we’re not going to, like, evaporate [cheaper options] so we can say, ‘no, you must buy OXO.’ It’s also worth noting that in some cases, like that of fellow Minnesota company Nordic Ware, Target’s retail partners actually consulted on the manufacture of Made By Design products.

Target will be launching Made By Design nationwide on June 23, and the timing couldn’t be more fortuitous. The company is setting up same-day delivery through the acquisition of Shipt, which will be coming to most Targets nationwide by the end of the year. It’s easy to imagine Target becoming a go-to for ordering quick, low-cost household items. And having tested much of the line in my own life over the past few weeks, I can say that while some Made By Design products are solid, and some are even superb, they all feel like a bargain without the aesthetic compromise. In Tritton’s own words, they feel very Targét.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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