When she was a little girl, Erika De Salvatore fantasized about being locked in a mall when everyone else had gone home. She’d seen the 1980s rom-com Mannequin, and, after that, she imagined having free reign over the commercial space, exploring storefronts full of products after the lights went dim.
As we stroll around a huge, mostly empty retail space, she laughs about how she’s now living that fantasy. De Salvatore is the VP of visual merchandising at Target. And this is her domain: A 100,000-square-foot test store that takes up a full city block in downtown Minneapolis. You could wander here for hours and never see another soul.
I was the first member of the press to set foot inside the store while reporting a story on Target’s new Made By Design collection. Opened in 2017, it’s a place where Target’s designers, visual merchandisers, executives, and retail partners can all convene to see what products will look like when they actually hit store shelves. We couldn’t even take many pictures of the space, aside from the few tightly cropped shots you see here, as Target is highly protective of the intellectual property inside.
Before it created the test store, Target could never see how all of its products and promotions came together in one space. Signs, in particular, were digital products, mocked up on screens and greenlit on PowerPoints rather than in person. But Target has recently doubled down its efforts on store design, turning its big-box retail stores into more experiential spaces filled with high-impact displays. For this initiative, the test store is key. Target can literally see every display before it goes live in a store, debate it until everything is perfect, then photograph it for each store manager to duplicate on their own.
To construct the mock store, De Salvatore had to get approval from Target execs on the construction of this massive space within its design center. “We built out a mini-simulated version of the mock store. It was literally like a room,” says De Salvatore. “What we had escalated to the leadership team was, what could happen in here? It’s actually a ton of cost savings, believe it or not. Because we’re able to see things through a guest’s lens. So we’re able to troubleshoot a lot faster.”
Walking the aisles of the mock store today feels like a dream. The overhead lighting shines brightly onto the equivalent of a blank stage. The store is almost completely devoid of products, with gleaming white shelves that look stripped bare by some pending apocalypse. Mannequins stand in nothing but their Westworldian white shells. Only occasionally do you see one of De Salvatore’s colleagues stocking shelves with boxes that teeter inside a red Target cart.
“We use carts,” confirms De Salvatore. “It’s the non-glamorous side of the visual life.”
Navigating the space is an exercise in ethereal disassociation. This Target is a full-sized store, but because it’s squeezed into the geometric limitations of a city block, its sections have been Tetrised together, taking you from school supplies to menswear without the comforting mental layout burned into your brain by decades of visiting Target stores.
It’s entirely empty, too, until we approach a men’s toiletries aisle that seems to have apparated from thin air. It’s fully stocked with shaving kits, colognes, and deodorant–and the scent of sandalwood and musk suddenly hits my nose. It’s an oasis in the desert, or maybe a mirage.
“We’re working towards a new men’s grooming pilot,” says De Salvatore as we pass. “That goes live pretty soon. Any new testable ideas, any new innovations that we’re doing, they get [prototyped] down here.”
The grooming aisle is in its final stage of completion. It’s the last moment of a long timeline of development that Target uses to stage and develop products for market. That exact aisle will end up in Target stores within a few months of me seeing it. But most of the test store team is thinking much further out as I’m there, imagining lines for spring 2019.
As Target designers (or retail partners) develop updated lines–let’s use athletic gear as an example–they’re developing items in rooms a few floors up from the test store. Once they get a first idea of what that line will look like, they print out the designs, and put the printouts on shelves.
“We literally lay the paper out,” says De Salvatore, gesturing to performance wear–zip-up running parkas in various colorways that appear on 8 x 10 sheets of paper. “But it does the job for what it’s supposed to do right now.” Basically, it starts a conversation between different teams within Target, and allows them to figure out if they should actually manufacture something to sell it based upon how it appears on Target’s shelves.
“If [Target’s own] merchants are like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to buy all these, but this apricot color is out, because we don’t believe in it,’ someone else might be like, ‘well, this was actually the pop color from design,'” explains De Salvatore. “We can actually have a forum to sit here and talk about, is this apricot color right?”
Complicating matters, not all space is created equal. Tables drive more sales than hanging racks, so the decision of exactly what should go exactly where is more than a matter of taste–it impacts Target’s bottom line. “So when something goes into a prominent position in a store, whether it’s a key focal table or [anywhere else, we basically say that it’s got to pay for its real estate,” says De Salvatore. “So we have some financial conversations during that time, too. Visual is both math and magic.”
Over a couple of months, the products will be finalized, and eventually produced, then placed back into this same spot as a higher fidelity model. Teams will do their walkthroughs again, deciding if the items make sense alone, or should be paired with complementary merchandise. Signage is tested along the way, too, in its full form. Once all parties agree on the merchandise and layout, Target corporate shares the plan with Target stores. The plans are photographed for each store manager to duplicate on their own, but they’re also accompanied by a well-annotated plan that shares the logic behind the visual display. That allows employees at the store level to understand why the corporate office is asking for things just as they are.
“We give the stores a ton of context. Where in the past they just got an instruction like, “Do it like this,” now we tell them more of the why’s, like, ‘this is important because greenery and florals are a big idea, a big trend for all of 2019,'” says De Salvatore. “We’re giving them some of the context behind the decisions that were made, so they then understand to say, ‘Oh okay, all right, now I get it.’ Or, ‘Now I should understand why I have to support it more.'”
As I make my way back to the elevators, I’m barely sure of what I’ve just seen. The mock store is a brilliant stage for strategy–it also feels like an uncanny set from some post-zombie-uprising Hollywood yarn. If it had a few more toys on the shelves, I could see the fun in wandering the aisles at night, with or without the mannequin that came to life when no one else was watching.