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Bend And Stretch


In a partnership that was "hyped to the hilt, and wound up as a major bust," as Time noted in early January, Target officials eventually fessed up to the same when discussing the fiscal ROI of its 2012/Q4 multidesigner collaboration with Neiman Marcus. The Target + Neiman limited-edition holiday line of objets d'art for the masses — priced from $7.99 to $499.99, with most hovering in the $60 range — featured goods made from real silk, hand-blown glass and 18k gold from a range of 24 pre-eminent American designers.

While there's no denying the merits of a merchant having both snob and mob appeal, Target's alliance with the luxury retailer — which the Minneapolis-based chain told Forbes provided it with "valuable lessons … that will inform upcoming lines" — serves as a valuable tutorial for food retailers as well, not only as it relates to why retail experimentation is both admirable, but also, and more importantly, about the significance of remaining flexible and knowing thy customer above all else.

By and large (notwithstanding my general assessment of its largely aloof associate base), I like Target, in particular its seasonal home goods, HBC, cards and stationery, and a handful of its signature grocery items. Even better, I can often cajole my shopping-averse 15-year-old son to join me on a Target run, which is an invaluable bonus as both a time-saver and teaching moment, per parental expectations that he shop, at least occasionally, to observe and discuss retail trends, prices and customer service.

Upon receiving the first e-mail in mid-November hyping the pending Dec. 1 launch of the Target + Neiman collection, I was intrigued by the cheap-chic discounter's latest stroke of retailing genius. Media buzz ensued, and the special-edition line was abuzz on social media, counting down the days to liftoff. By the time I finally saw the line, during a recent pop-in visit with a colleague in Hackensack, N.J., I was underwhelmed, not only by the pricey randomness of the items, but also — and more — by how downright "out there" many seemed to be, such as the Oscar de la Renta pet bowl and pet-collar-and-leash set ($30-50), and the Diane von Furstenberg-designed yoga mat and jewelry box ($50 each).

I thought maybe it was just me, so I pledged to keep an open mind and revisit the collection at a slower pace at my local store, which I did some 15 days later, when it was front and center and marked down a staggering 70 percent. Did somebody say "unsaleables?" It was a virtually complete line of pristine, upscale inventory that, while deeply discounted, seemed barely touched.

While studying the odd amalgamation of designer goods, I spied a Marc Jacobs black wool/cashmere-blend scarf, but quickly noticed that the runway-worthy garment was visibly snag-prone, flimsy and threatening to fray. I scrapped the scarf idea and headed for the door.

Although company officials — and a flurry of critics — blamed the line's failure to launch on a slew of missteps ranging from excessive inventory resulting from overestimated demand to flagrant, full-retail price points in December, when shoppers are bent on bargains, I believe it boils down simply to the products being neither delightful nor compelling.

As noted above, being willing to innovate and take risks is vital to all retailers' long-term success, and no more so than in the hyper-competitive climate that defines the supermarket business, where creating loyal, engaged customers is more important, and more challenging, than ever.

But in retailing, as in life, I've come to find that many of the worst ideas often lead to the best, that great strides are seldom achieved without at least a few memorable setbacks along the way, and that first-rate flubs happen — even to the best people and companies — that in some cases bring forth the most astute ways to exceed expectations and stretch the brand.

Progressive grocers: Keep stretching.

Meg Major

Editorial Director

[email protected]

In retailing, as in life, many of the worst ideas often lead to the best.

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