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Cheap chic, luxury didn’t blend at Target

24 light two lines goes here

A look at Target's collaboration with Neiman Marcus for niche products sold in a designated area of their retail stores.  The items sold slowly and are now marked down 50%. This shopper is browsing at the Target Store at Lake Street and Hiawatha Ave in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (MARLIN LEVISON/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

A look at Target's collaboration with Neiman Marcus for niche products sold in a designated area of their retail stores. The items sold slowly and are now marked down 50%. This shopper is browsing at the Target Store at Lake Street and Hiawatha Ave in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (MARLIN LEVISON/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

Just as Homer Simpson once yelled “be funnier!” at his TV set, shoppers looked at the holiday season’s Target + Neiman Marcus collection and wished it were cooler — and cheaper.

Target Corp. had high hopes for the high-profile collection to ignite early December receipts, but sales fizzled instead in a ho-hum holiday season. That’s one reason the Minneapolis-based retailer reported flat sales for December.

Target forgot “expect more, pay less” with the collection, said Amy Koo, an analyst with Kantar Retail consulting near Boston. Many items appeared to be too high-priced, and shoppers who were focused on getting a good deal weren’t seeing the value, she said.

“Folks were looking for a gift to share — a scarf, a shirt or a dress — but they were too expensive,” she said. “Target needs to re-evaluate the price point and the quality of the product.”

Koo calls the collection a “miss” for Target, but the retailer is not giving up on collaborations with designers, Target spokesman Joshua Thomas said. It has a number of programs planned for 2013, including a Prabal Gurung collection that will debut Feb. 10.

But working with another retailer won’t necessarily be in the mix. “We continue to redesign the formula with every collaboration,” Thomas said. “Not everything works. Each program and model is different.”

Target hoped that its collaboration with Neiman Marcus and 24 designers would duplicate the selling frenzy generated by its Missoni collection in 2011, when eager shoppers crashed the retailer’s website.

Initial indications were promising when the collection debuted on Dec. 1. Online traffic for the collection on the first day was on par with Black Friday numbers. “Millions of guests shopped this collection,” Thomas said.

As the days and weeks went on, however, few were buying from the collection. The entire line was discounted 50 percent on Dec. 20 and 70 percent on Jan. 1, prompting analysts and shoppers to wonder what happened.

Ava Beilke of St. Louis Park, Minn., said the line initially interested her, but she was put off by an assortment that seemed too frivolous (a flask) or too expensive ($50 for a picture frame) at a time when people were spending conservatively.

“The things seemed unnecessary,” she said. “Maybe they need to collaborate with more affordable designers like Coach,” said the 23-year-old social media specialist.

One change that was made for the Neiman Marcus collection may have been part of the problem. After the Missoni frenzy, where early-bird shoppers filled their carts to make a profit re-selling on eBay, shoppers were limited to five items per visit in the Target + Neiman collection. Inventory was also doubled.

Beilke felt that excess inventory was another reason the collection lost its charm. “I saw nearly 80 of the same party dress on display,” she said. “Designer clothing is supposed to be unique, not mass-produced. I don’t want to see myself several times over if I wear that dress to a special occasion.”

That’s unlikely to happen, at least for now, judging by the large numbers of party dresses by Robert Rodriguez and Lela Rose still languishing on the racks at $30 each.

While many shoppers gave the collection a big “meh” at regular price, interest grew after the line was discounted. Brent Meyers, director of the DesignWorks program at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, thinks customers buying the items at 50 or 70 percent off were getting great deals. “Maybe the average Target customer doesn’t know or doesn’t care about quality, but most of the pieces were a deal even at regular price,” he said.

The beading on the girls’ $100 dress by Marchesa, the worsted wool men’s blazer by Thom Browne for $150 and the Altuzarra tray for $80 had exceptional detail, Meyers said, but Target never explained the quality the way Neiman Marcus does.

As for Neiman Marcus’ assessment of the partnership, the luxury retailer isn’t commenting on the collection until its second-quarter earnings are released in late February, said Ginger Reeder, vice president of corporate communications.

But Pam Danziger of Unity Marketing in Pennsylvania thinks Neiman’s customers were more accepting of the program than Target’s. “It featured designer brands that were recognized and familiar to the Neiman Marcus customer at prices that were lower than typical NM products,” she said.

Danziger believes that Neiman’s had lower expectations for the program, which was focused more on the Target mass-market customer.

While the collection failed to excite Target shoppers, Meyers said the timing might just have been off.

Several years ago, Target couldn’t give away items from Zac Posen or Orla Kiely, he said. Now those items are selling for much more on eBay. “Kiely’s melamine bowl set for $3 sold for $120 on eBay. Target gets a little ahead of itself sometimes.”

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