There Are Psychological Reasons Parents Are So Obsessed With Target

Marketing experts, therapists and parents weigh in.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the face of the chaos and confusion that come with raising a family today, parents across America turn to a very specific place for sanctuary and relief. While it may not be fancy or private, it’s got an air of sophistication and serenity.

What is this magical place? Well... Target, apparently.

It’s no secret that parents, particularly moms, love to love Target. They write rhapsodizing blog posts, create fan Instagram accounts, draw comics and tweet endlessly about their Target obsessions. At least one mom chose to take her maternity photos at a Target store, and another even gave birth to her child in one (albeit unintentionally).

But what exactly is it that makes Target so appealing to moms and dads?

We spoke to marketing experts, therapists and parents themselves to find out.

A Sense Of Escape

“I never thought dashing to Target without kids would feel like a mini-vacation, but it does. And sometimes that’s all a mom of little kids needs to recharge,” mom and blogger Jennifer S. White told HuffPost.

Indeed, many parents find that Target offers them an opportunity to escape the chaos and stress at home without feeling guilty … because, after all, they’re running errands and buying necessities (and some non-necessities, too) for their families.

“Target is close by and a more socially acceptable place for parents to sneak away to solo than, say, a bar,” said mom and blogger Samantha Taylor, who also told HuffPost she sees solo Target trips as “mini-vacations.”

Jennifer Cutler, an assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, believes Target offers a sense of “whimsical escapism” that particularly appeals to parents.

“I never thought dashing to Target without kids would feel like a mini-vacation, but it does.”

- blogger Jennifer S. White

“Part of its brand is trying to make the shopping experience a treat. One thing that parents have in common is a shortage of time. Being able to reframe the drudgery of running errands as whimsical escapism is really powerful,” she told HuffPost, pointing out the colorful ― and even magicalimagery in the brand’s marketing materials.

“It’s saying, ’Come to this magical place where you can get whatever your heart desires; a clean, friendly place with Starbucks coffee and popcorn waiting for you,’” Cutler added. “I think that really resonates because it joins a productive activity with something whimsical and almost vacation-like in the experience.”

The Sheer Convenience

The convenience and affordability of a big-box store are undeniable as well.

“Target is so addictive because it has everything you need: from batteries, to groceries, to cat litter. And it has a bunch of stuff you don’t need but really want when you see it, like super-cute earrings for you and cheap, adorable outfit separates for your kids,” Taylor explained. “We feel guilty about going on a frivolous shopping binge but not about throwing a $5 pair of clearance earrings in with the cleaning supplies inside our cart.”

George Frey via Getty Images

Still, it goes beyond the convenience and low prices, which many major stores offer. The physical experience of being in a Target store is another reason parents give for their fandom.

“Walking into a Target is a mild high in itself,” said Taylor. “That food court and smell of popcorn. That cute little dog. That comfortingly simple logo. That Dollar Spot where everything is actually $3, but that’s OK.”

“Walking into a Target is a mild high in itself.”

- blogger Samantha Taylor

The blogger also also cited the presence of Starbucks in many Targets: “HELLO strolling the racks under the guise of shopping for necessities with a steaming Caramel Macchiato.”

The Visual Appeal

The neat appearance of the stores can also feel refreshing for parents, as households with young kids are not necessarily so clean and organized, said Mabel Yiu, a licensed marriage and family therapist and mother of twins.

“You walk into Target, and the lighting, the colors, even the smell really capture you because it feels great,” said Yiu. “It’s like it increases the dopamine in the brain. You see that everything is really well-organized and even color-coded. As a mom, my home doesn’t look like that. So you walk in and think, ‘This is really great.’”

Dad and blogger Beau Coffron echoed this sentiment. “They do a great job of keeping the aisles organized, so you don’t feel like you’re in the middle of a tornado with stuff everywhere, like some stores are,” he told HuffPost.

The look and feel of Target stores appeal to consumers’ different senses ― from the sound of upbeat music to the scent of coffee and popcorn. Rima Touré-Tillery, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School who studies the intersection of motivation and self-perception in marketing, said the inviting appearance of Target relates to the brand’s colors: red and white.

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Research shows that people see red as a fun, fiery, daring color and “the color of love.” Meanwhile, white gives a sense of cleanliness, spaciousness and elegance.

“These associations are not things people consciously think about, but they influence you,” said Touré-Tillery. “So just being exposed to the red and white in the store can give you an impression of sophistication.”

Maybe that explains why people say “Tar-jay” to make the store sound fancier. Collaborations with high-end brands like Proenza Schouler, Missoni and Jason Wu also add to this classier image.

“Brands aren’t stupid. They’re studying this, and the retail environment they’re trying to create is to maximize the experience, the memories, the emotion.”

- Americus Reed, marketing professor at the Wharton School at Penn

Store layouts and color schemes are typically very conscious choices meant to appeal to consumers.

Brands aren’t stupid. They’re studying this, and the retail environment they’re trying to create is to maximize the experience, the memories, the emotion,” said the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Americus Reed, noting that there are design principles meant to pique shoppers’ curiosity and guide them through the store.

Something For Everyone

Store designs can also appeal to children shopping with their parents. “Aisles are designed a certain way. Things that are going to be important for kids are lower to the ground. That’s for a reason,” Reed told HuffPost.

In the case of Target, parents can use the presence of toys and other fun things for kids to their advantage ― by using them as potential rewards for good behavior in the store.

“I prefer to shop Target alone as a sort of pathetic mini-vacation, but if I bring my kids, I like to keep them strapped in to the baby seat whenever possible,” Taylor told HuffPost. “Usually I’ll reward them with a trip to the toy aisle, just to look, if they behave.”

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Creating a memorable, appealing shopping experience is crucial in the age of online retail giants. Indeed, recent reports have shown disappointing profits for Target as it competes with Amazon.

“Behemoths like Amazon are commoditizing convenience. People don’t want to go out and be physically in stores as much anymore because you can just hop online and get a box in a few hours,” Reed said. “You have to create other experiences in a shopping context that are going to make it worthwhile to go out and do that instead of going to So maybe that’s creating some more motivational impetus for these brands like Target to craft a richer experience for parents and children going in the store.”

Brand Loyalty

One way to combat the growing influence of Amazon happens to be another reason experts cited when exploring why parents are so obsessed with Target: identity loyalty.

“The concept is that there are some brands for which the brand itself transcends the functional features, the utilitarian benefits in terms of what it does, and it becomes something that is part of who you are,” Reed explained. “When the brand becomes part and parcel with some important aspect of your desired self-expression, then the brand’s identity and your own identity become fused. It’s like the brand is part of who you are, and you have loyalty to it because it’s a symbol of what you aspire to express to other people.”

Kellogg marketing professor Angela Lee echoed that. “Many young moms identify with Target, with the image of ‘fun and fashionable’ that the store projects. That’s what it means when one is a committed loyalist ― the brand becomes part of the self.”

“It’s like the brand is part of who you are, and you have loyalty to it because it’s a symbol of what you aspire to express to other people.”

- Professor Americus Reed

When brands achieve identity loyalty, they essentially have a free marketing department. Loyal followers proselytize and also defend the brand against criticism, because an attack on the brand feels in some way like an attack on the self.

In some ways, one’s identity as a parent can become wrapped up in a store like Target.

“At the end of a shopping trip, you have shopped for many aspects of your life ― you got birthday gifts for a kid’s party, gifts for your in-laws, yoga pants for exercising, work clothes, etc. You walk out feeling very accomplished and competent,” Yiu explained. “And your self-image matches the idealized self you see in Target ads showing happy, competent parents.”

White told HuffPost she’s noticed many kids love Target almost as much as their parents do.

“Once I took my kids out for ice cream. It was a surprise, and I expected them to be thrilled,” White recalled. “They weren’t. They looked out the window, across the street to Target and said they wanted to go there for their ‘surprise’ instead.”

In this way, the store creates opportunities for parenting wins, ways to live up to an idealized image of a perfect parent.

The connection between Target and identity might also involve the company’s values and stances on specific issues ― like its support for breastfeeding mothers and transgender people.

White told HuffPost she supports the company’s attention to many issues that matter to parents. “Target has done an incredible job attempting to stay on top of current parental concerns, like clothing and gender, and making the store accessible for families with special needs.”

“They’re family conscious and socially conscious, so it’s a cool brand to be behind and something to be proud of,” said Kathy Morelli, a New Jersey-based mental health counselor.

Target as a company is clearly quite aware of its cult-like status among moms.

Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

“Target is much more than a place that just sells stuff. We’re a meaningful part of the community and our guests’ lives. From our registry benefits to baby must-haves to the many ways moms can shop and get their orders quickly and all at affordable prices, we often hear that Target is her ‘happy place,’ and that’s a badge of honor we never take for granted,” Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Rick Gomez told HuffPost.

The company has even played into its friendly image with family-focused initiatives, like their “First Target Run” onesies.

“[W]e see a number of moms share on social that their first outing with their new baby is often to Target ― it’s where they feel safe, comfortable, and know they can check off a few errands and maybe sneak in a treat or two for themselves,” said Gomez. “We decided to have a little fun with this and thank moms who registered at Target by sending them a surprise ‘First Target Run’ onesie for their new baby. It was a huge hit and a way to bring a little extra joy to moms during this special time.”

Don’t Forget The Dads

Of course, Target mania is not just a mom thing. With studies showing dads are more involved in their children’s lives than ever (and the growing number of same-sex couples raising kids), it’s no surprise many fathers are tweeting about their Target runs, too.

“Usually I feel great because I can pick up anything I want there, and there’s a location everywhere. So I can stop on my way home from work, or when I’m just trying to get my kids out of the house for a bit,” Coffron told HuffPost. “Let’s drink this Icee while we look at bikes and Easter candy, and also pick up an entertainment center on our way to the checkout.”

Coffron said he and his wife also go to Target on date nights. “We usually don’t have much time with our kids being babysat, so we grab a quick dinner and then go to Target. We are pretty much hopeless romantics, I guess,” he said. “But seriously it’s fun because we can goof off and be silly but also be efficient because we’ll just buy light bulbs at the same time.”

Reed said his 7-year-old daughter loves going to Target ― especially because she loves the popular “L.O.L. Surprise!” dolls you can buy there.

The professor said he’s more than happy to take her on his Target runs and occasionally indulge her with a toy.

“Parenting is the hardest job on the planet. Period,” he said. “Anything that makes life a little easier, that brings a little bit of joy to a child vis-à-vis what the parent is doing ― in this case, running errands ― is seen as this fantastic elixir. It’s fantastic. I can take her to Target and she’ll be happy, and I can also do some shopping and get some stuff done.”

Is There A Drawback?

Of course, there are always concerns about spending and unhealthful materialism when it comes to fanaticism around a specific brand, given that the underlying mission is to sell you more products.

“Unfortunately this Target movement is centered around consumerism, so I can’t say for sure if it’s good or bad,” Morelli told HuffPost.

But Touré-Tillery believes those concerns don’t really apply to a brand like Target.

“I think if we were talking about a luxury brand that sells thousand-dollar shoes, then that would be more relevant to the discussion. But Target is not a luxury brand. You’re going to buy toilet paper and yogurt because you need those kinds of things. And if you can go there and feel good about yourself and have fun in the process, it really doesn’t get better than that.”

A Supportive Community

To say it all boils down to materialism also ignores another big appeal of the Target experience, something money doesn’t necessarily buy: community.

Overworked parents ― particularly moms, who still bear most of the burden when it comes to household responsibilities ― find comfort in knowing they aren’t alone and tend to seek a sense of community

“Let’s face it. Moms still do most of the shopping, so it makes sense that they would be the ones to have this fun [Target fan] club,” said Touré-Tillery. Because women tend to be more active on social media than men are, it also makes sense that the social media component of Target fandom would seem more mom-focused.

“A lot of moms actually gather at Target, so it provides some social support,” said Yiu.

Jennifer White told HuffPost she finds a sense of comfort and community in her Target runs, even if she’s only shopping with her children.

“After my second child came along, errands became stressful, and overwhelming. Toting two young children, and all their supplies, suddenly I didn’t run a quick errand anymore. Nothing was ‘quick,’” White said.

“Many times when I attempted a cute, easy errand to Target and it turned into a migraine, I’d see other moms and we’d smile knowingly at each other, or we’d make jokes over our kids’ heads,” she added. “That felt something like the ‘village’ everyone wants but not all of us have.”

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