The Creepy Science Behind Why You Love Target

This article was published in Shoppist, the digital style and beauty vertical for Philadelphia Magazine.

It’s no secret Target has our hearts — with those colorful housewares, punchy desk supplies and racks of bathing suits priced oh-so-perfectly, how can we resist? Center City certainly can’t, with people nearly lining the block in anticipation of Target’s new location opening this summer. Target is what my mom calls a ‘$100 store,’ meaning you can’t just pop in for one thing — you’re definitely dropping at least a Benjamin while you’re there, even when you have no intention of doing so.

But why is it that Target has such a hold on us (and our wallets)? Is it the mascot dog with the cute bullseye? The mini sale section in the front? That deliciously sinful, buttery popcorn? We sought out local experts — retail analysts, psychologists, professors at some of the top fashion programs in the world — to help us crack the code, revealing the science behind why you love Target so much. Their answers were insightful, surprising, and, well, downright creepy. 

Why You Love Target: It’s the granddaddy of fast fashion.
Now you can’t walk a city block without walking by at least one Forever 21/H&M/Zara, but that wasn’t the case until fairly recently. “Fast fashion is where everything went,” says local retail analyst Lori Wachs. “But these guys were really ahead of the curve.” Hopping on the $15 bathing suit train before other big-box retailers made Target a go-to destination for shoppers.   

Why You Love Target: It just gets you.
Have you ever strolled past the home goods aisle at Target on your way to buy something boring like a pack of pens, and you realize you want every single item on display? That’s because the Powers that Be at Target pretty much know you inside and out. “They look at who you are tangibly (how much money you make, your gender, where you live, do you have a family) and psychographically (your hobbies, lifestyle, ethics), and mix their product, price, place and promotion in various combinations that resonate with who you are as a person,” says David Loranger, a retail and consumer behavior lecturer at Philadelphia University. Through focus groups, metadata collection, and volumes of demographic information, Target is able to understand their customer so well—creepily well—and anticipate his or her needs, hence the “never knew I needed this but I totally do” reflex.

Why You Love Target: It makes you happy. 
We all have utilitarian reasons for going shopping (I need a new toothbrush), but it’s the hedonic, sensory factors that make us linger, like the great tunes playing on the store sound system, friendly salespeople, and a clean, streamlined presentation of products. This is where Target nails it, connecting with the consumer on a subconsciously pleasing level, Loranger says. 

As far as a positive ambiance leading to actual sales and dollar signs, Sudeep Bhatia, assistant professor of psychology at UPenn points out, “Emotion and mood are influenced by environmental factors like color, music, lighting. If your emotions are manipulated, then your behavior will also change, influencing what consumers choose.” There’s no perfect formula for lighting, music and color scheme within a store to make people spend more money, otherwise every store in the world would adopt it. However, there is something to be said for a store that is well-lit and spaced out, and plays bumping good music that makes you want to shop just a little bit longer than you originally intended. And generally, the more time you spend in a store, the more money you drop.

Why You Love Target: It doesn’t feel like a low-price-point store.
While prices are comparable to an Old Navy or Walgreens, shopping at Target feels like a cut above — and that’s no accident. Joe Hancock, a fashion merchandising professor at Drexel who formerly worked for Target corporate, gave us the inside scoop on how the retailer separates itself. “Walmart’s [philosophy] is ‘stack it high and let it fly’— that’s what places like H&M, Uniqlo are all about. Target likes to borrow strategies of higher-end retailers like Nordstrom. You don’t see 50 t-shirts in Target stacked; it’s only a few in every size. It creates the notion that it’s a specialty item, giving you the impulse is to buy it because it makes you think that it’s more special than it really is.” Hancock also points out that the tech section of newer Target stores look almost exactly the same as an Apple store (minimalist, clean and simple), because the retailer actually borrowed heavily from Apple’s in-store aesthetic. 

Why You Love Target: It does collaborations right.
Long before there was Balmain x H&M, Target was co-designing capsule collections with highbrow brands. “They’re one of the early pioneers in doing cheap chic,” says Wachs. “They partnered with big-name designers early on before others started.” (Hint: Proenza Schouler for Target way back in 2007.) These capsule collections helped to solidify Target’s cachet, making their clothes an acceptable ‘low’ in high-low dressing. 

“People are comfortable wearing a Chanel jacket and Target t-shirt,” says Wachs. “But nobody would ever think of Walmart [clothes] for that.” However, as Hancock points out, “Designer collabs are all made the same [as Target clothes]. It’s not like Lilly Pulitzer is making dresses at their headquarters and taking it to Target; it’s Target clothes made for Target. The designers do approve the clothes, but it’s nothing high-quality worth breaking your neck to get.” In the end, it all comes down to marketing and storytelling.

Why You Love Target: It plays some serious mind games.
Speaking of storytelling, Target loves to make you think you’re getting a deal, when that’s not always the case. First there’s the Target red card, the classic store credit card that takes five percent off every item purchased in-store. Then there’s Target’s Cartwheel app that lets you unlock secret discounts on select items as you scan barcodes throughout the store. At checkout, the cashier adds your Cartwheel discounts to your already-discounted-five-percent total, and that number drops even more — what a rush! 

“It makes shopping a game,” says Hancock. (And make no mistake, that game is geared towards millennials.) “In reality, Target should mark things down at the right price in the first place. Instead, these discounts make you feel like you’re getting a deal when you’re actually not.” Mind blown.