BIZ TARGET-GENDER 3 MS

Some of Target’s latest products have a gender-neutral approach toward kids’ home decor.

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (TNS) — Last fall, Target Corp. took its first baby steps toward a more gender-neutral store when it took down the “boys” and “girls” signs in its toy and kids’ bedding aisles.

Now, the Minneapolis-based retailer is taking it further with a new kids’ home decor line that blurs the lines between what is for girls and what is for boys. The new Target brand, Pillowfort, began hitting stores this month, replacing another longtime in-house brand, Circo, as part of a top-to-bottom shake-up of the retailer’s kids’ business as Target looks to reclaim its style edge.

“It was an aisle of pink, fairy princesses, ponies and flowers,” Julie Guggemos, Target’s senior vice president of design and product development said of Target’s current offerings for children’s bedrooms. “And for the boys it was rockets and dinosaurs. Well, you know what? Girls like rockets and basketball. And boys like ponies.

“Who are we to say what a child’s individual expression is? We really wanted to develop a collection that would be universal.”

There will still be pink and blue found in Pillowfort products — just less of it. The prints and patterns are more open-ended: trees, arrows, astronauts and bicycles. And motifs that traditionally have had a more gender-specific bent, such as basketballs, hearts and alligators are more up for grabs with neutral colors such as white, black and yellow.

As she gave the Star Tribune an exclusive sneak peek at the products laid out at Target’s downtown Minneapolis headquarters, Guggemos picked up items that can appeal to either gender such as accent pillows in the shapes of a cactus and an octopus.

“All of this right here is gender-neutral,” she said, gathering up about half of the assortment of bedsheets. “This could go boy or girl.”

Target executives note they didn’t start Pillowfort with a gender agenda in mind. Rather, they say, the approach is being driven by consumers.

“It gets back to listening to mom, understanding what she’s looking for from Target and making sure we’re delivering the products and the content that’s going to be right,” Chief Executive Brian Cornell said.

It was customer feedback in the form of social-media posts criticizing Target’s gender-based signs that initially led Target to rethink those aisle markers. While that move was greeted with cheers by many, it also was met with boos from some who asserted there’s nothing wrong with more traditional gender roles. Others complained the gender-based signs helped guide them to buy appropriate gifts. In a nod to that concern, Target will still have girls and boys bedding search terms on its website when Pillowfort launches, though there will be an overlap in products under those two categories.

“They’re making bold moves,” said Carol Spieckerman, a retail consultant. “You can’t do that without alienating some people. One person’s helpful guidance is another person’s controlling prescription.”

When it came to developing Pillowfort, the yearning for more gender-neutral colors and patterns was a theme Target’s designers and researchers heard again and again.

They saw it reflected in the collages they asked kids to create of their ideal bedrooms. They heard it from families when they visited customers’ homes in Chicago and Los Angeles and from parents who asked Target to make colors more neutral when paring down the final list of prints. And they saw it when they held a kids fair and asked them to choose their favorite patterns.

“Girls were picking prints that the boys picked and vice versa,” Guggemos said. “They’re not afraid to express who they are. We picked up on that right away and decided we were getting in our own way a little bit with some of those paradigms ... It’s time to change.”

Target will begin rolling out a major advertising push to market Pillowfort that includes Pinterest pages and a TV spot, which ends with a scene of a young girl in a space-themed bedroom lying in bed dreamily looking up at the ceiling.

The next phase in Target’s overhaul of its kids’ business is a new apparel line expected to hit stores this summer. It will replace Target’s licensed Cherokee and in-house Circo brands. While the retailer isn’t going so far as adopting a unisex or androgynous approach, a spokesman said some common themes emerged in focus groups. For instance, test groups of boys and girls both liked T-shirt ideas that had a science motif.

Target isn’t the only one taking a fresh look at whether gender distinctions are still needed in certain parts of retail. Last year, the Disney Store created buzz when it began marketing its Halloween costumes for “kids” instead of for boys or girls.

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