'The opportunities and possibilities are truly boundless'
MINNEAPOLIS — Target’s stunning financial success in recent years is the fruit of several inspired strategic decisions, including executing a thoughtfully curated merchandising assortment that spans categories and has been paramount to the evolving consumer needs over the past year. Jill Sando, a 24-year company veteran and now chief merchandising officer, has played a central leadership role in the strength and durability of Target’s merchandising.
The official announcement of Sando’s elevation to the role of chief merchant for all of hard lines and soft lines last February described her as “one of the industry’s most skilled merchants, known for her eye for trend, curation and anticipating guests’ needs across Target’s multi-category assortment.”
In a 2020 interview, Sando discussed the approach that has served her, and Target, so well: “Throughout my career, I’ve continued to ground myself in letting go of good to get to great, and not mistaking performance for potential,” she observed. “That means challenging my team, and myself, to build and create what could be. When my team and I are able to successfully tackle this challenge, the opportunities and possibilities are truly boundless.”
Christina Hennington, executive vice president and chief growth officer, paid tribute to Sando’s leadership.
“Jill is incredibly business savvy, keenly attuned to consumer trends while anticipating what’s next,” she said. “Her leadership has consistently unlocked new and greater potential for Target and our guests, especially in the past two years. In everything she does, Jill continues to raise the bar, inspiring both our team and our guests every day by showing up with empathy and understanding for all. It’s Jill’s innate ability to take our merchandising game to new heights while keeping the team and our guests at the center of everything we do that is truly best-in-class.”
In recognition of her role in driving Target’s recent success and of her inspirational and visionary leadership in harnessing the lustre of Target’s unique merchandising flair while surmounting the unimaginable challenges of the last two years, MMR has named Jill Sando its Merchant of the Year for 2021.
Sando began her retail career with Younkers Department Store in Des Moines following graduation from the University of North Dakota. In 1997 she joined Target as an associate buyer of intimate apparel, and soon she began her steady ascent through the merchandising management ranks, first winning promotion to senior buyer, women’s and seasonal footwear in 2000. Three years later she moved up to director of merchandise planning, and in 2005 she entered the executive ranks when she was named vice president of hard lines product design and development, a role she held until being named vice president and merchandise manager for stationery and holiday in 2009.
In 2014, Sando was promoted again, this time to senior vice president of home. As part of a broader shakeup of the company’s merchandising function, she led a reinvention of the home business, with a particular focus on the retailer’s owned brands. Her success in that role led to her appointment as senior vice president and general merchandise manager for apparel and home in 2019.
In autumn of 2019, Target decided to try a new and innovative approach to its merchandising leadership organization. Instead of a single chief merchandising officer, two chief merchants with oversight of large nonfood segments were named, while another executive took over the food and beverage business.
Sando, who was promoted to executive vice president and chief merchandising officer for style and owned brands, leading those segments of Target’s business that have provided the retailer most of its distinctive cachet in recent decades. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that no other mass market retailer has come near Target’s success in bringing affordable style at great value to its guests.
In a role that was made for her, Sando assumed oversight and strategic direction of enterprise buying, merchandising and partnerships for apparel, accessories and home, as well as the design, development, sourcing and management of Target’s portfolio of more than 40 owned brands.
As she did while leading the home business, Sando played a pivotal role in reimagining Target’s total owned brand assortment, which now boasts no less than 48 private, or owned, labels. Among the most recent additions to the line are Kindfull, a cat and dog food brand that launched in August. The line encompasses more than 50 items, including wet and dry food, treats and toppers.
“When we set out to create new owned brands or design products in-house, our industry-leading design team focuses on how these items fulfill a guest need and complement national and exclusive brands across our total portfolio,” Sando explained. “Each of our brands plays a distinct role and anchors intently to our brand and to guest values.
“Kindfull is a perfect example of that. We heard from our guests that they were looking for high-quality pet food at a great value. We will continue to offer guests and their furry friends the national pet food brands they know and love, but through this new owned brand, we’re able to double down on the elements that are most important to our guests when choosing a pet food brand — like real ingredients and recycled packaging, no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.”
For more than 20 years, Target has been known for its ongoing series of exclusive designer partnerships, which have not only clearly differentiated the retailer but also elevated its assortment above the rest of the mass market. The most recent addition was Target’s Fall Designer Collection, which featured four limited-time design partners: Rachel Comey, Victor Glemaud, Sandy Liang and Nili Lotan. The collection encompassed more than 180 fall wardrobe essentials, ranging in price between $15 and $80, with most items under $50.
“Target has a legacy of partnering with some of the biggest names across industries on limited-time-only design partnerships, creating truly memorable and unique moments for our guests while offering products they can’t find anywhere else,” Sando remarked. “In the past year alone, Target has introduced limited-time collections across multiple categories in collaboration with plant enthusiast and interior stylist Hilton Carter and beloved children’s book author and illustrator Christian Robinson, to name a few. It’s through Target’s design partnerships that we extend beyond our everyday assortment and build upon the value we’re known for.”
Target has long demonstrated a mastery of tracking and anticipating consumer trends, but the past two years, shaped by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, presented unanticipated challenges to the chain’s merchants, who suddenly had to grasp and adapt to guests’ new needs and priorities while nonetheless keeping an eye on the future.
“Our team takes a lot of pride in curating our differentiated assortment by tapping into the art and science of merchandising — both keeping our eye on future trends and leaning on our intuition and expertise, while also anchoring to data and guest research,” said Sando. “Everything we do at Target starts with the guest, and over the past year plus, it’s been paramount for Target to continue to show up for our guests in the ways they need us most. We’ve focused on remaining agile and thoughtfully curating a magical mix of products that both meet their needs and bring them a dose of joy for all of life’s moments.”
Target’s sterling financial results are, in significant measure, a testimony to the strength of the total Target team — with the merchandising team, led by Jill Sando, playing a notable, pivotal role in the company’s growth.