New CityTarget on State Street is a hit with shoppers

Brigid Sweeney stops by Eight Forty-Eight to talk about the shifting downtown retail market

July 31, 2012

Caroline O'Donovan

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“It makes me want to live downtown.” 

That’s how one man expressed his excitement about the new CityTarget on State Street, parts of which have been open to the public since last week but which opened in full on Monday.

I spent part of Monday afternoon asking customers leaving the new Target about their experience in the hyper-sterile looking new retail establishment. Seemingly drawn to the bright white floors like bugs to a porch light, one after another, Danish tourists, groups of women on lunch break, young girls from the suburbs, and couples hand in hand were being sucked in to the store, disappearing into blasts of Arctic air.

Neat. Convenient. Above all, clean. Shopper’s praised the store’s location, selection, and even the helpfulness of employees. The CityTarget, they said, was bigger than suburban box stores, and the novelty of escalators and a cafe enticed more than a few.

Standing outside the southern State Street door, I couldn’t help but notice the dilapidated Office Depot across the street. Clearly, Target wasn’t the first big box retailer on the block, but it certainly is the shiniest. Of course, only a few months ago, the flagship Walgreen’s on State Street was a media darling; on Monday, I couldn’t get a single patron to talk to me about its sushi selection or frozen yogurt bar. Once the shopping carts scuff the floors and the staff loses its opening day vigor, what’s to keep CityTarget from becoming just another forgotten downtown discount retailer?

Well, for one thing, they won’t be selling nearly as much toilet paper. At least, not all at once. Urban shoppers, analysts say, would never attempt to carry 12 rolls of anything on a bus or a bike, so the store won’t sell them. They’ll sell goods packaged in more manageable four- and six-packs. Instead of six-piece lawn furniture sets, they’ll sell three-piece balcony sets for apartment-dwellers, because, according ot the New York Times, apartment-dwellers are the people CityTarget is for.

It is widely agreed upon among social scientists that we are seeing a trend in which young people increasingly choose to remain in the city, rather than move out to the suburbs as their parents did when they reached a certain age. For some, the decision is cultural while for others its financial, but either way, it’s having a profound effect on the way we use our urban spaces.

Big box retailers, having both realized this trend as well as saturated the suburban market, began looking to move city-ward a few years ago, but as residents of certain neighborhoods will recall, the backlash was loud and immediate. Walmart was the main culprit in these situations, seeking to corner all markets without adapting their design. CityTarget -- and the plethora of other new streamlined, sleek retail destinations -- are changing that.

Maintaining the original architectural elements of urban spaces (what the Times eloquently refers to as “weird architecture”) is one challenge. Designing stores that are not warehouses, and that cannot accommodate parking, is another. One article also points out that with the size of bulk orders at these establishments, they cannot afford to respond to local demand as quickly as can more specialized retailers.  

Whether it was new headphones, a paper shredder, pillowcases or a laundry basket, I saw only smiles coming out of Target this week. Trapped in a conversation about the merits of the place, a coworker even realized that she needed light bulbs for her kitchen which could now quite conveniently be found at Target. 

Crain’s Chicago Business retail reporter Brigid Sweeney, likewise compelled by her job to compare CityTarget’s relative merits to that of the downtown Sears, also had to admit that Target was the victor. Sweeney will stop by Eight Forty-Eight on Tuesday morning to talk about what effect the new store will have on the downtown shopping scene, and whether or not urbane retail centers are here to stay.