Target Practice

By Carol Tisch Photography by Lori Sax March 31, 2009

Innovation is today’s No. 1 trend in retailing, and retailers who don’t embrace change and introduce fresh ideas and products are going to be left behind, especially in this economy.

That’s the message hammered home by Michael Alexin, vice president of product design and development for Target stores worldwide, when he traveled to

Sarasota to give the keynote speech at Ringling College of Art and Design’s latest International Design Summit.

Target lives and breathes design; it became a 1,700-store mega chain by providing “design for all.” But when Target champions dedication to good design, it doesn’t just mean how something looks. Alexin says design that satisfies a need or simplifies consumers’ lives is just as important. It’s about commitment to innovation and continuous improvement.

And you don’t have to be a giant retailer to innovate. Local mom-and-pop stores, the lifeblood of retailing in Sarasota and Manatee, are using some of Target’s ideas and keeping their heads above water as stores around them shut their doors.

The Change Game

First and foremost, innovation springs from a willingness to embrace change. “I don’t think people are ever born with something called change talent,” Alexin says. “Change agility is definitely a skill that has to be learned. We have to train our teams to expect change, to recognize possibilities, to understand the implications and then turn them into opportunity.”

Target’s premise that change produces opportunities holds true for several thriving local retailers. Until the U.S. residential real estate market tanked, the trendsetting Box Furniture Boutique in the Whole Foods Market Centre in downtown Sarasota was a successful concept, and the only showroom and retail outlet for Box Furniture. The product was sustainable and edgy in design—a winner of the 2006 Pinnacle Award, the highest honor presented by the American Society of Furniture Designers.

Box Furniture is a family business; husband and wife Maurice and Vanessa Opstal own distribution rights in the U.S. and the Caribbean; his brother and sister-in-law handle design and distribution to 32 countries. Vanessa Opstal explains that, because of the economy, she and Maurice now target only commercial customers, primarily hoteliers, and have moved their entire operation to Mexico City. “People travel to shows to see furniture in the hospitality market, so we no longer needed the Sarasota store,” says Opstal.

In the interim, Opstal purchased Simply Spoiled, a 1,000-square-foot beauty products specialty store that was around the corner from Box Furniture but now occupies the 1,700-square-foot furniture showroom space. “That move was the smartest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “No one is going to walk into a store and buy a $1,500 sofa that they don’t need in this economy. But they will spend $15 for a lip gloss and come back for a great soap. There’s so much gloom today that awesome little luxuries, the feel-good things, are selling.” 

Alexin might size up Opstal’s situation with two words: shift happens. (Actually, he borrowed the expression from one of his favorite New York trend forecasters). “We live in a world where change is really the only constant, where consumer expectations are climbing a lot faster than the stock market,” Alexin explained. “Innovation is about having the courage to seek the new, to become comfortable with change and its inherent risks. You can’t hold on to the past; yesterday’s invention is tomorrow’s obsolescence.”

Identify White Space

Opstal’s decision was influenced by firsthand observation, Alexin’s first element of innovation. Owning two stores on the same block allowed her to directly observe consumer response to big-ticket items and to respond to market conditions accordingly. “Direct observation keeps you close to the source, and it gives you insights,” Alexin reported. “It helps you accurately identify the white space that exists out there [the problems people want solutions to, but may not even know it yet].”

LeeAnne Swor, owner of the downtown woman’s fashion emporium, L. Boutique, recently opened L. Kids to fill a white space, one openly identified by her customers. “My clients would buy an outfit and tell me they wished they could get the same thing for their daughters, and when little girls came in with their mothers, they would do the same,” Swor recalls. 

The requests were not unique to Sarasota: a trend was emerging among designers of popular fashion brands for line extensions targeting the market segment called tweens.  Swor was able to stock her 1,800-square-foot L. Kids with dresses, tops and hoodies in tween sizes 7-14 in the same styles and colors carried by L. Boutique, with such coveted names as Splendid, Ella Moss, Ed Hardy, Hard Tail and Alice & Olivia. 

“Young children are exposed to so much today in the media,” Swor explains. “They wanted the looks they see in the movies and on TV; they just weren’t big enough to wear them.” The exploding tween market and Swor’s response both illustrate solutions to customer needs through innovation, which Alexin says keep customers coming back.

Relationship Marketing

But L. Boutique and Simply Spoiled aren’t taking chances: Both stores communicate directly with their customers with relationship marketing programs focused on consistent, newsworthy e-blasts. New products, store events, sales and shows or parties that benefit local charities are all announced and promoted regularly by e-mail to targeted customer lists.   

“Right now in retail, if you don’t have e-mail blasts to clients and future clients, you are really missing out,” Opstal says. “Retailers are spending their budgets just to keep going. There’s no room for expensive marketing tools. Sure, e-blasts take work, but they’re an incredibly cost-effective way to communicate with clients.”

Opstal says Simply Spoiled manager Shayna Teicher prepares the e-mails weekly, notifying customers of trendy magazines’ coverage of products and cutting and pasting photos of new arrivals. “People have always e-mailed back, asking us to hold an item or to send more information. But the responses have broadened significantly now that clients are getting e-mails on their phones,” Opstal reports. 

L. Boutique and Simply Spoiled also use e-mail to build top-of-mind awareness. “The newspaper has overstated the parking problem in Sarasota to the point where customers are frightened to come downtown.  We have to reassure them this isn’t true and entice them to shop here instead of the malls,” says Opstal. For Swor, last summer’s street construction on

Pineapple Avenue
kept drive-by traffic at a standstill.  “We got no walk-ins, and constantly e-mailed our customer base to remind them we were still here. Fortunately, our customers are loyal,” she says.   

Make Lives Easier

Loyalty is the reward for making customers’ lives more convenient, solving their problems or simply delighting them, says Alexin.

“Consumers today are time starved, savvy and demanding of instant gratification. I think they’re dealing with retail overload. With so many choices competing for their time and money, it’s really critical that retailers—both high-end luxury boutiques and discounters—find ways to meet their needs and do it really fast,” he says. “Everybody wants a deal today.”

On the luxury end, the grand prize is the greatest deal the consumer can find. Several local stores are taking this tack, among them The Sarasota Collection Home Store in the RosemaryDistrict. Owners Pam and Marcus Anast recently announced a new program that will outfit a luxury two-bedroom condo from soup to nuts for $20,000. That includes furniture, window treatments, floors, lighting, all the accessories—all in the Anasts’ great taste, and all affordable because the former fashion designers manufacture most of their stylish furniture in Peru. It’s the epitome of Target’s theory of a design deal, akin to the discounter’s private-label, limited edition apparel.

Sarasota retailer Company Outfitters (Say it With Stitches) uses another Alexin retail tip: product personalization. Everything Company Outfitters sells is high-end merchandise that can be personalized with monograms, family crests and company logos. The antithesis of the iron-on decal T-shirt store, Company Outfitters personalizes Yves Delorme towels and robes, Columbia active wear and sportswear by Gear, the brand sold in Ritz-Carlton boutiques. The result? Company Outfitters reports that sales jumped 30 percent in a down economy.

“We’re all becoming designers,” Alexin proffers. “The wave of the future for retail and e-tail is personalizing and customizing. A lot of retail is down in our turbulent times: Individuality and customization are opportunities for small stores.”


Another way to turn a negative economy into a positive is to focus on nesting. Alexin says local stores should do what Target did to boost holiday sales: look to macroeconomics and factor in the turmoil of this past election year.

“People are nesting. They want to reconnect with family, to be comfortable, cozy and safe,” he explains. “Consumers are nesting, and spending their discretionary money to make themselves and their families more comfortable.” Target’s sleepwear business reaffirms the validity of the trend, as does Rebecca Volz of Main Street Traders in Sarasota, where her best-selling item is comfy Pine Cone Hill pajamas.

Alexin says budget determines whether a customer will buy a cozy inexpensive lap blanket or pricey 500-thread count sheets in this tight economy. “The key is that it’s all about little bits of luxury now,” he says. “People were proud of luxury in the past decade. Now they are looking for guilty pleasures.” 

Target’s Seven Steps to Innovation

Observation Direct observation keeps you close to the source and helps accurately identify the white space that exists in the market—the problems people want solutions to but may not even know it yet.

Imagination The unique ability of the human mind and spirit to envision possibilities as yet unimagined and unrealized. Imagination is an intuitive process that generates ideas.

Creativity Using originality to defy habit; defying convention to achieve greatness. Creativity channels imagination and begins to propel ideas on their road to realization.

Great design Great design has inherent beauty, but it also delivers a fun experience, and must always be functional. It’s the practical side of innovation as well as the aesthetic.

Simplicity The challenge of innovation is to approach really complex problem in the simplest fashion. Not every innovation requires a radical paradigm shift; big leaps have come from very simple ideas.

Speed Businesses must be able to turn like never before on a dime to react to ever-changing trends in the marketplace. Consumers know what they want, and they want it now.

Collaboration Innovation is definitely a team sport. One person might have a brilliant idea, but it takes a whole team to distill and execute it. Collaboration distills wild ideas into marketable innovations.

Recession Busters

More local Target-style innovators.

Optional Art boosted sales by asking its vendors for close-out merchandise and holding a “get it while it’s hot” designer jewelry liquidation winter sale with once-in-a-lifetime prices.

Direct Buy of Sarasota collaborates with local fabricators to provide one-stop shopping for customers who want flooring, tile and cabinet installation in addition to significant savings on national brands.

Main Street Traders creates purchase urgency with a full-time merchandiser changing out displays and rotating stock daily to keep surprises coming and customers stopping in to see what’s new.

Dream Weaver provides a unique fashion experience with 10 trunk shows scheduled this year, and the opportunity for customers to personalize their clothing with custom tailoring, fabrics and colors.

Home Resource saves customers long trips to

Miami and Estero design centers and fills the void for upscale contemporary furniture in the region with designer brands like Knoll, Adriana Hoyos and Moooi.

Sarasota Brides’ new owner, Karis Vail Lynch, added The Karis Collection (prom gowns, homecoming and evening fashions) to the 30-year-old store’s assortment to ensure repeat business from bridal customers.

Burke & Company extended its reach beyond

Sarasota by becoming an approved vendor on the prestigious international antiques and interior furnishings Web site,

12 Boutiques in

Sarasota beat the summer sales doldrums by using creative team spirit to produce joint blow-out sales in the former Allyn Gallup Gallery on

South Palm Avenue
. The sales were so successful they were repeated in the fall.

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