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Upscale, downscale: Target draws customers with collaborations with high-end brands

A pair of Hunter boots.
A pair of Hunter boots. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Not long ago, Gracie Howard got a pair of bright red Hunter rain boots. She felt good about the purchase — at least until she heard Target would soon be selling almost identical Hunter boots for a fraction of the price.

“I just wanna know why I’ve been buying $150 Hunter boots but the Hunter collection at target is $40. . . . ,” the 18-year-old from Cuero, Tex., tweeted. “I feel scammed.”

The boots aren’t so special anymore, she said — “I feel like everybody’s going to be walking around wearing Hunter now” — but that wasn’t going to stop her from heading to Target this weekend to see if she can pick up a pair or two.

“They’re so discounted that I’ll go see what they have,” she said.

And that, shoppers and analysts say, sums up Target’s high-low collaborations: There are obvious downsides, but many shoppers find them irresistible.

The retailer’s newest designer partnership, with iconic British brand Hunter, is set to roll out this weekend (though store credit card holders got access to a few items a week earlier). It is the latest in a series of collaborations that over the past two decades have turned around the retailer’s image and helped establish it as a higher-end alternative to competitors such as Walmart. Target has rolled out limited-time collaborations with established luxury brands such as Missoni, Alexander McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier, as well as up-and-coming designers including Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung.

But retail analysts say that while the big-box chain has­­ boosted its own cachet, the tie-ups are less fruitful for premium brands looking to attract aspirational shoppers. Sure, partnering with Target may boost brand recognition and awareness in some circles, but to what end? Once the items sell out, often in days or weeks, it’s unlikely, industry insiders say, that Target shoppers will suddenly begin buying Victoria Beckham trousers at Saks Fifth Avenue for 25 times the price. (A version of the designer’s flared trousers sold for $40 at Target last year. A similar item at Saks Fifth Avenue is marked $1,010.)

“I’ve never seen a collaboration between a truly luxury brand and a mass retailer have much of an impact,” said Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a New York-based research firm and consultant to luxury brands. “The only benefit here long term is to the mass retailer, which gets a halo effect from having a top brand on its shelves. But long term, the democratization of a luxury brand rarely works.”

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Target, which has rolled out more than 175 such partnerships since the debut of its Michael Graves Design Collection in 1999, has been successful in creating buzz around many of its collaborations. And once shoppers are in the retailer’s stores, or on its website, analysts say they’re likely to make additional purchases.

“These types of lines actually drive little in sales, but the real win is to drive people to stores and have them buy everything else they need,” said Sucharita Kodali, an analyst for the market research firm Forrester. “It’s perfect for Target.”

The partnerships have made high-end pieces more affordable to a mass market — if customers can snag them in time — and helped kick off a frenzy of high-low partnerships. Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney have designed collections for H&M, as have Versace and Balmain. Vera Wang now sells clothing at Kohl’s. And “Project Runway” winner Christian Siriano, whose dresses typically sell for thousands, has a line at Payless ShoeSource, the discount retailer that filed for bankruptcy this month.

Target’s annual sales have more than doubled since 1999, from $33.7 billion to $71.9 billion.

“These collaborations give our guests the opportunity to get their hands on incredible design at an affordable price,” said Mark Tritton, Target’s chief merchandising officer. “With each partnership, whether it be with a designer or brand, we want it to feel unique and special.”

Not always easy to buy

By the time Catherine Donovan logged on to at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, the $35 Hunter backpack she’d been eyeing had sold out. The Target credit card-holder found it on eBay — for three times the price.

“That may be part of the plan — to create hysteria — but it’s become a complete bloodbath,” said the 34-year-old from Des Plaines, Ill. “I’m not going to turn my back on Target, but you have to wonder who they’re selling to.”

Longtime shoppers say scoring designer merchandise at Target can be a frustrating experience. Collections usually sell out on ­ within days, if not hours, and the retailer offers few details on exactly when online sales will begin.

The Minneapolis-based company has also faced criticism for sloppy displays and an unstable website. And some shoppers say the marked-down designer wares are sometimes badly made.

“I feel like the quality really takes a hit in collaborations like these,” said Kate Concannon, 31, who runs the fashion blog Life Sucks in a Strapless Bra. “I mean, Hunter boots are an investment piece — I’ve had mine for 10 years — but the Target collaboration is making me scratch my head a little bit: Why are these boots $40 when they normally cost four times as much?”

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Hunter boots are typically made of natural rubber and are handcrafted from 28 parts. But the Hunter for Target line is mass-produced in a factory, using a preformed mold. There are also a few obvious differences in design: Hunter for Target boots, for example, come with calf extenders, and the top of the tall rain boots are cut diagonally instead of straight across. But other than that, shoppers noted few visible differences between the $40 boots at Target and the $150 models sold elsewhere.

Hunter did not respond to requests for comment.

It is unusual, analysts said, for a designer to offer a lower-priced alternative that is virtually identical to their legacy product. But some said Hunter, a 162-year-old brand, was likely to reach a fresh audience at Target.

“The demand for the product is limited, and they could go lower end, but that could diminish the higher-end products,” said Kodali of Forrester. “This is a way for them to dip their toes into the lower end in a brand-appropriate way.”

Pedraza, though, was not persuaded. Sure, these luxury brands attract throngs of people, “but is it profitable? Is it sustainable?” he asked. “Very often, these partnerships are a sign of desperation, and we’re starting to see brands recognize that going mass-market isn’t the best idea.”

A number of department-store brands, such as Michael Kors, Kate Spade and Coach, are struggling to turn around their businesses after flooding outlet stores and off-price retailers with low-priced wares, Pedraza said. “Once you’ve gone mass-market, it’s almost impossible to go back up.”

'Too much hype'

Amy Arbide has been scouring the Hunter for Target lookbook for weeks. On Friday, she stayed up late waiting for Target to update its website with Hunter backpacks, tote bags and fanny packs that it had promised its credit card holders.

“A couple of friends and I stayed up until midnight,” the 32-year-old said. “Nothing happened. I stayed up until 2:30 the next morning refreshing the site. Nothing.”

She finally decided to go to sleep. When she woke up at 7:30 a.m., three hours after the collection had gone live, everything was sold out.

“It made me so mad, and then my best friend calls me with the same story: ‘Oh my God, everything’s gone,’ ” said Arbide, a paralegal in Miami. “Was I supposed to pull an all-nighter for this so-called exclusive presale? It was just poorly executed — and with too much hype.” (A spokeswoman for Target said the sales typically roll out online “in the wee hours” because the company’s site is refreshed overnight.)

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Back in 2012, Arbide bought a couple of items — a zip-up clutch and a water bottle — by Tory Burch as part of Target’s holiday partnership with Neiman Marcus. She’d never heard of the brand before, but all of her friends seemed impressed.

“At the moment, I hadn’t realized what I was getting,” she said. “I was fresh out of college. But then I got those products, and I thought, you know, this is a nice brand.”

Since then, she’s bought Tory Burch items at department stores, including four purses, five pairs of shoes and multiplepieces of jewelry.

“It’s a matter of brand recognition,” Arbide said. “Because of Target, you’re going to have a broader range of people wearing items with the name ‘Hunter’ on it. That’ll get people to notice and say, ‘Where did you get that? What is Hunter?’ ”

Case in point: herself. Even though she’d heard of Hunter’s rain boots before, she had never given them much thought or been to the company’s website.

“But once Target announced the collaboration,” she said, “I began going to”

And Arbide is not giving up on the $40 boots yet — even if it stresses her out. On Saturday, when Target makes its Hunter products widely available, she says she’ll set her alarm for 3 a.m.

“I really do want to snag those boots,” she said. “You’re talking about items that normally cost $200 selling for $40. Any time you have something like that available, why not?”

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