Once again, another legendary retailer celebrates their golden anniversary. It’s none other than Target, “the upscale discounter”, which officially launched 50 years ago
today yesterday. Pictured above is the very first
Target store, located in Roseville, Minnesota, a suburb just north of the Twin
Cities. From this humble beginning came one of today’s most successful and
influential retailers, and one of the world’s most iconic
As mentioned ad nauseam on this site and in many other quarters, Target’s founding year, 1962, was the year of the discount store revolution. Walmart and Kmart, the industry’s other two key players, were also founded that year, as were a number of others, including Woolworth’s long-departed Woolco division and Big K, a southeastern chain that was eventually acquired by Walmart.
These chains and their coincidental founding year were all mentioned in our previous observance of Kmart's 50th a couple of months back, but no sooner were the pixels dry on that post (Don’t you just hate expressions like that?) than I recalled some others that trace their origin to 1962 – Shopko, a Green Bay Wisconsin-based chain, still exists. Sky City, based in Asheville, North Carolina with locations throughout the Southeast, unfortunately no longer does. I’ll probably think of some more within minutes after posting this.
Target differs in a fundamental way from Walmart and Kmart, its two key competitors over the last 30 years or so (and for the foreseeable future), and this difference can be traced back to the companies’ roots. “Kmart was founded by a dime store company (S.S.Kresge) and Wal-Mart was a variety store company (Sam Walton’s Ben Franklin franchises),” said former Target executive Norm McMillan to Laura Rowley, author of On Target, an entertainingly written history of the company, while “The background of the Target enterprise was the department store business – so that influenced our strategic planning and the way stores were run.”
Indeed, The Dayton Company, founded in Minneapolis in 1902, had long been considered one of America’s best run department store firms. So well run, in fact, that they found themselves having to fend off a good deal of flak from their prestigious department store cohorts about their decision to go slumming in the discount world. Rowley quotes Target president Douglas Dayton in a 1966 speech to the Associated Merchandising Corporation: “I start with the assumption that all of you …wish that discount stores had never been invented, and I have no quarrel with that wish. It is a perfectly natural one. The catch is that it doesn’t seem to have impaired discount stores’ progress one iota…To some I may be laboring the point; to others - and I have to be perfectly frank - you have underestimated what is going on.” (This would have made a nice extra verse for Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, don’t you think? Just need to come up with a good quadruple rhyme.) A major change in consumer buying patterns was afoot, and Dayton bravely chose to jump into the fray.
Generally conservative, the Dayton Company could nonetheless claim a pretty bold move in their recent history. In 1954, they developed the nation’s first enclosed mall, Southdale Shopping Center, in Edina, a southwest suburb of Minneapolis. Dayton took the then-unusual step of inviting a key department store rival, Donaldson’s, to join the project. They engaged Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born architect with visions of the mall as a ‘civilizing force for the sprawling suburbs’, to design the center. Southdale jump-started Gruen’s career as an architect of unparalleled influence over the ensuing decade. For Dayton, it proved to be a financial winner and an anchor for their suburban “branch store” strategy.
In one sense, however, the concept of the discount store was really just an update of a time-honored department store tradition – the “basement store”, usually a basement or sub-level of a downtown flagship store reserved for bargain and closeout merchandise. Dayton’s had one in their Nicollet Avenue home base, as did many well-known department store operators across the country. While bargain hunting has been a great American pursuit for eons, in decades past there was often a certain stigma (unfairly) conferred upon those who consistently shopped “downstairs”, whether out of need or preference, instead of on the main floor. The discount stores, having no “upstairs” per se, erased this stigma, and their suburban locations put them closer to the fastest-growing base of customers.
After some months of fact-finding “undercover missions” to discount store chains across the country by Dayton managers (Topps in Chicago, on a growth tear at the time, was one they particularly liked), the first Target store opened on May 1 in Roseville. It was a 68,000 square foot store with a surprisingly large grocery department -25,000 sq. ft., leased out to Applebaum’s Food Market of St. Paul. (Somewhere I remember seeing a photo of a very cool-looking ice cream carton with the original Target “bullseye” logo on it. Hopefully I’ll come across it again one of these days.)
According to Rowley, the general merchandise mix was 65 percent hardlines (“auto supplies and appliances”) and 35 percent softlines (“clothing and accessories”). Roseville was the first of four units launched that year – three in the greater Twin Cities area (Crystal and Knollwood/St. Louis Park being the others) and one a bit further north in Duluth. This 1965 photo of the Duluth store shows just how quickly the chain’s architectural style evolved from the very modest design of the first Target.
Throughout the balance of the 1960’s, growth was “steady and methodical” when compared to Kmart at least, who were burning up the countryside with some 35 new stores a year at the time. Three years passed before the opening of the next Target in Bloomington, Minnesota in 1965. The next year, 1966, saw Target’s first expansion market, Denver (Glendale and Westland Centers), followed by two more on the home turf, Fridley and West St. Paul, Minnesota in 1967. In 1968, Target expanded into St. Louis with North and South County stores. A third store was added in Bridgeton the next year. The close of the decade saw Target stores in Dallas (North Dallas and Garland, with a Village Fair location added in 1970) and Houston (Hedwig Village and South Loop, with Sharpstown added in 1970), along with a unit in Colorado Springs.
One probable reason for the measured approach was the simple fact that Dayton had a lot of things on their plate in the late 60’s, putting it mildly. In 1969, Dayton bought out the Detroit-based J.L. Hudson Company, “the nation’s largest independently owned department store operation”, as their 1968 annual report put it. Now called Dayton-Hudson Corporation, and with more than double the department store operations as before, the acquisitions didn’t stop there. That same year they picked up Lechmere, a Boston-based electronic and appliance retailer, whose operations were lumped in with Target’s as part of D-H’s “Low-Margin Division.” These moves coincided with a major expansion of Dayton’s bookstore operations, which were launched in 1966. Bruce Dayton, the company president, decided to name the company’s bookstores after himself, substituting one letter in the last name, of course – “B. Dalton Booksellers”, a mainstay of shopping malls for decades.
Whether or not it was a deliberate part of the strategy, there was certainly an added benefit to the slower rollout of the Target stores. It enabled Dayton-Hudson to hone Target’s upscale image – the key differentiator that led to the furious post 1980-growth and high repute the company enjoys today - over time. Their faux French nickname, “Tar-zhay”, surfaced almost right off the bat, according to Douglas Dayton, Target’s original division president, who told author Laura Rowley he first heard customers using the word at the Duluth store way back in 1962. For a time, they even used “Miss Target” (actually pronounced “Miss Tar-zhay”!) for their private label line of women’s shoes.
Eventually a stronger graphic image was needed, and for that Target reached out to Unimark International, the legendary Chicago-based design firm responsible for some of the most enduring corporate identities in business history, including those of American Airlines and Ford Motor Company. (And one that many of us wish had endured - the 1971-2011 JCPenney logo.) It’s hard to overstate Unimark’s effect on the world of corporate design, especially in the late 60’s and early 70’s, when the world seemed to change overnight from a graphical stone soup to solid-color backgrounds and Helvetica.
In 1969, the new logo was introduced -a single, thicker ring around the bullseye replaced the double-ringed earlier versions, and Helvetica supplanted the multiplicity of fonts Target previously used. Another very significant Unimark contribution was the widespread use of the color red, which all these years later, Target virtually “owns” from a retail standpoint.
Gotta love those red plastic shopping carts, right? And the “Target Lady”. And those retro products (like cereals and detergent) they keep featuring. Here’s to another 50 years!
The photo above is from the fascinating book UNIMARK INTERNATIONAL – The Design of Business and the Business of Design by Jan Conradi and appears here through the courtesy of Kevin Rau, the book’s designer and archivist of the stunning collection of artifacts that illustrate the book. This book is essential for design fans and is an incredible business history as well. Forget Mad Men, this was the real thing! (Ok, don’t forget Mad Men. Sorry for even bringing that up.) Kevin has his own design firm, Rauhaus, based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he specializes in corporate identity, publication design and wonderful printed work using classic letterpress technology.
Thanks also to Michael Doty for the tip on the great circa-1970 Target commercials below. Note the combination of the new Target logo with some of the “hodgepodge” mentioned above. Fun stuff!