Why Target Is Letting Kids Design Their Clothes

Target Wants Kids' Opinions

“Children are our future” is one of popular culture’s more favored cliches. Whitney Houston sang a song about it, and “The Simpsons” has spent the better part of 30 years parodying the sentiment.

But when most people or organizations say the children are our future, they are speaking more broadly and descriptively than anything else, not so much laying out a strategy. When the team over at Target says it lately, on the other hand, it is actually being quite literal.

Children are the future at Target — but not in the “20 years down the line when they grow up and become our customers themselves” sense of the phrase. At Target, children are the immediate future, as in they are now designing some of the clothes. Specifically, the kids clothes.

Cat & Jack is Target’s newest vision — a line of baby and kids clothes, approved by kids, featuring funky colors and cooler cuts — and it is a big move on the rapidly growing market for kids clothes among newly reproducing millennials.

And of course, a big risk. Cat & Jack is replacing Circo (Target’s current in-house brand) and Cherokee (a longtime license partner), and neither brand was failing. Quite the opposite. Collectively, they brought in over $1 billion, placing Target in second place (behind Walmart naturally) in mass retail child/baby clothes, and saw very healthy growth at 1.8 percent a year. Others might have looked at the those lines and wondered, “Why fix it, if it so clearly isn’t broken?”

“That was a big decision, because Circo and Cherokee were successful,” says Julie Guggemos, head of product design and development, who’s been at Target for almost 26 years. “The kids’ business wasn’t broken. It was strong.”

Strong, she said, but indistinct and in a market that is becoming increasingly valuable and rarified. Gap, for all of its struggles, does very good business, and it is joined by Gymboree, H&M, Kohl’s, Oshkosh, Children’s Place and Zara, just to name a quick few. All in, that adds up to a $31 billion industry in 2015 and one that is expected to grow by as much as 6 percent over the next five years as millennials are coming more and more into the child-having stage of life.

And those hip moms and dads, with their painfully cool toddlers, are not the kids’ clothing buyers of yesteryear. According to Guggemos, they are looking for something different and something that Target has to be ready to supply.

“If you only put hearts and flowers in an assortment for girls and it sells, you think that’s all they want,” Guggemos says. “Girls love science. People know that, but that, unfortunately, wasn’t the take we had.”

So, Target is looking for, and rolling out, that new take. But more than what is new, what is also interesting in the Cat & Jack release is the search to regain something old — a little bit of the “Tarjay”magic.


Kid Designers 

Setting kids loose on massive closets filled with design prototypes to get their input on design might sound suspiciously like letting the inmates run the asylum to any parent that has ever had to reason with a six-year-old about why they can’t wear their Spiderman halloween costume to school on picture day, but then again, times are a-changing when it comes to the relative choice parents are giving offspring.

According to The New York Times, the parents of Manhattan have taken to allowing their children to select and vet multi-million dollar real estate deals.

When compared to a $14 million condo, how big a deal is a pair of pants or a tutu?

And as Target tries to take on the $31 billion question of capturing all those sales, the time for out-of-the-box thinking is now.

And so, Target asked about 1,000 kids, broken into “demographically appropriate” groups, to come in person and share their design insights. Loaded into something described as “a giant walk-in closet,” participants were encouraged to style headless, child-size mannequins.

What did they come up with?

In one location, boots paired with dresses, muted colors with pops of neon, graphic tees with words like “Inventor” emblazoned and a lot of “boho chic.” Described by one writer as being oddly reminiscent of Crewcuts styling — J.Crew’s kids line for the young, stylish and well-capitalized. The average little girl’s dress from Crewcuts is around $70, shorts run at about $45 and shirts run from $25–$50. A quick survey of Target’s pricing indicates it is 30 percent to 70 percent cheaper.

Which, arguably, is exactly what Target is going for — same hip look, much less spend.


The Return Of Tarjay 

In the 90s and early 2000s, Target had a pretty easily summed up niche — classy Walmart. Or as we all preferred to call it back in the day — Tarjay. Target brought big-name designers who were normally associated with big-ticket prices — think Isaac Mizrahi or Michael Graves — and brought them into the story and into a middle-class price point. The old logic was simple: Target would never be able to beat Walmart on price, but it could beat them on cool. “Expect More For Less” became very, very focused on the “Expect More” part.

Come the recession, though, “For Less” became more of an operating guideline, and customers complained that quality declined across the stores — lower quality, less selection and, for lack of a better term, no magic. Just another big-box retailer fighting on price.

And this, according to Target CEO Brian Cornell, is the essential problem, which is why he told Bloomberg that the current goal is now to inject more opportunities for creativity and risk-taking at the big-box retailer. 

Yup, Target is bringing sexy back, or trying anyway.

And that has meant many of the changes we’ve spent the year outlining — the move to include better in-store merchandising, the enhanced Cartwheel app and even the great redesign of the toy section that had playthings grouped by function instead of gender — were just different takes at the same message: This isn’t your mother’s Target.

And your mother — insofar as she is a white, minivan-driving denizen of the suburbs — isn’t Target’s entire target when it comes to customers. Instead, these days, the retailer is modifying its pitch in an attempt to hit more Hispanic, millennial and urban shoppers.

Target is one of many retailers who has hit a tough spot lately as it tries to move to the next phase of its evolution.

But it seems that Target has learned lesson one: Price isn’t a winning area if A) everyone is competing on price and B) the two leading competitors in the race are Walmart and Amazon.

But Target is betting that retail is more than what you pay — it’s also what you buy.

And what your children buy.

Since, after all, children are our future.