Shamita Jayakumar knows how to calm her mind when she is feeling stressed.
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“I’ll just go to Target and wander the aisles,”She says. “So soothing.”
The 32-year old tech worker drives every other week to the sprawling location off Jefferson Boulevard, Culver City, and zigzags through cleaning, cooking, camping, and beauty aisles. She browses for an hour or two, although it’s hard to say exactly how long, because time feels like it stops. Sometimes she leaves with just a few items. Other times, she comes in with a list of several items and walks out with $200 worth of merchandise.
It clearly says something about the commodification of self-care, she acknowledges, but it’s about more than that too — it’s that the store is big and bright and air-conditioned and she can zone out and wander in a way she wouldn’t feel safe doing at a park. It’s that the layout here in Culver City looks enough like the one back home in Silicon Valley that she flashes back to Target runs with her mom in the ‘90s, and that there are people around you but no pressure to talk to them.
“My own self-care day,” she calls it.
She’s among a cohort of Gen Z, millennial and Gen X women who view frequent trips to the cheap-chic retailer less as a weekly chore than as a therapeutic experience of sorts — alone time like you might get while going on a solo hike or getting a massage, but under the guise of errands so they’re easier to carve out with some frequency.
“They understand how the consumers are using their store — using it as this slight escape,” Justine Farrell, associate professor and chair of the marketing department at the University of San Diego’s Knauss School of Business, said of Target.
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The brand’s marketing has long portrayed the retailer as a place to get stylish stuff without breaking the bank, Farrell said, noting that while some competitors prioritize cheapest-prices-here advertisements, Target focuses on a shop-here-be-chic message buoyed by years of collaborations with high-end fashion designers and brands such as Isaac Mizrahi, Anna Sui and Missoni.
Farrell stated that the stores were designed to reduce stressors. He cited wide aisles to prevent cart jams and departments that flow into each other to subconsciously guide your wanderings.
“You have your coffee as you meander,”Farrell stated. “It becomes more of an experience, versus, ‘Here is my list, let me get in and get out.’”
The national mood has been a long-standing focus of retailers. ‘70s, Madison Avenue cashed in on the counterculture to sell everything from cereal to cigarettes; after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, companies of all sizes pumped out patriotic ads, including a General Motors commercial urging people to “keep America rolling” by purchasing a new truck.
So, it’s not surprising that during perhaps the most collectively stressful slice of modern American history — Google searches for “self-care” spiked drastically during the first pandemic lockdown and are even more frequent now — retailers have tapped in to that anxiety.
The multibillion-dollar self care industry has not only created hundreds of new businesses but also generated billions of dollars. Etsy entrepreneursSelling “NORMALIZE THERAPY”And “Self-Care Snob”T-shirts are not only a popular choice for merchandise, but it has also influenced long-established retailers like Target whose aisles were stocked with titles like “Self-Love Workbook for Women,”Also, items marked as “Self-Care Sunday Ideas,” including a yoga mat, a “GOOD VIBES”Sweatshirt and a “ME TIME” cup.
“We care about delighting our guests,” the company’s chief executive said on a quarterly earnings callIn March, another top executive said Target had been long considered to be a threat. “a destination, an escape.” In a written response to questions, Cara Sylvester, the company’s chief guest experience officer, said that the happy-place ethos doesn’t happen by chance.
“We build our entire experience around how we’ll make our guests feel when they shop at Target,”She spoke.
And it’s served the company well, said Neil Saunders, a retail analyst at GlobalData Retail who has studied Target for more than five years.
“Its growth has been quite extraordinary in the past few years, and a lot of that comes down to them refurbishing stores,” Saunders said. “It’s made Target a destination for people looking to treat themselves.”
After a customer posted about going to Target to purchase a bathing suit when they felt sad, the official Target account repliedTo the tweet: “i call that ~ self-care ~.”
Indeed, the escape-to-Target trend has sparked hundreds of TikTok posts and tweets — “I need to go to therapy soon, and by therapy I mean Target,” one person wrote — as well as an essay about the store alleviating an author’s anxiety and an entire subgenre of memes about people going to the store for a toothbrush and walking out with $200 of merchandise, a phenomenon dubbed the “Target Effect.”
“It’s ‘Breakfast at Target.’ You go and just browse.”
— Marylyn Davis
Viviana Gonzalez tweeted, one morning in August, that she was heading to Target for self-care after a long shift at work. She punctuated it by adding a smiley face emoji and three tiny hearts.
Bakersfield 20-year-old often starts her trip with a Starbucks black-tea lemonade. Then she wanders the aisles, checking out the Lego section for nostalgia. She wanders the aisles, taking a break from her overnight job as a case manager in a shelter for domestic violence victims.
“I feel like anything can be self-care,” Gonzalez said, “as long as you’re doing it for yourself.”
Jayakumar calls her Target trips “my own self-care day.”
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
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That’s precisely the way to look at it, said Desiree Rew, a clinical social worker in Long Beach who developed a curriculum around self-care and sometimes offers seminarsLearn more about the topic.
The 52-year old created SMART, an acronym to describe a practice that should be sustainable, manageable and accommodating. It should also be relaxing and exciting. The first two letters will be violated if you spend money on a massage, or vow to meditate every morning. However, something like a Target run, which is more affordable, will likely not.
“If it brings you joy to do it, that’s your self-care,” Rew said, adding that it doesn’t bother her to see companies capitalizing on the trend. It’s as simple as seeing a “GOOD VIBES”She said that the sweatshirt in the store can help people make new intentions after the collective trauma caused by the pandemic.
“Yes, they want good vibes, we’ve been surrounded by bad vibes.”
Marylyn Davis’s foray into the world of self-care retail began with her experiences working at a string of start-ups and small businesses.
Everyone seemed to eat lunch at the desk, and she said that walking outside for fresh air was frowned on. Even though she was able to work remotely, she still struggled with separating her work hours and her personal time. Davis, 31, felt exhausted and looked online for a daily planner. It should include space for goals that went beyond work.
She couldn’t find any, so she designed her own “self-care planner,” and before long a buyer for Nordstrom noticed her company’s Instagram and contacted her. Her company, Simple Self, has since expanded, now selling on Amazon and in Anthropologie stores, and she’s begun to notice a broader cultural shift away from the go-go-go mentality.
“Maybe back in 2018 it was frowned upon that I’d go get lunch away from my desk; now it’s a good thing,” said Davis, who mentions that the Target-run-as-self-care concept resonates with her and that a friend recently compared it to the window shopping scene along Fifth Avenue in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
“It’s ‘Breakfast at Target’,”Davis laughed. “You go and just browse.”
A few weeks earlier, Jayakumar drew the same analogy to the 1961 classic film, saying that the thought of visiting Rodeo Drive — L.A.’s version of Fifth Avenue — sounded dreadful.
“I’d never go look at stuff I can’t afford, that’s not therapeutic,”She spoke. “But at Target I can see a little face mask and buy it.”
A recent weekday afternoon, she pulls in her Tesla Model 3 to the Target parking lot in Culver. (The first thing she sees under the sun. “pro”Column of the list she made before her boyfriend bought the car was that Target could charge it.
She sets her purse in a cart and heads to Aisle F66 — her go-to starting point: cleaning supplies — where she scans for a specific Dawn shower cleaner she saw someone rave about on TikTok. Next, she goes through home goods. Here, a woman in her 50s examines a set two-toned stoneware dishes bowls.
“What do you think of these?”The woman asks.
“They’re really pretty,” Jayakumar responds, saying they’d be perfect for serving gazpacho at a dinner party she has coming up.
“I like them for cereal.”
“Yeah, those are good cereal bowls.”
The woman, who says she is restocking her kitchen cupboard after letting her boyfriend take all the dinnerware, turns to sniff a candle. The two women then split. No goodbye necessary — just the type of friendly, low-stakes conversation Jayakumar loves to have with strangers at Target.
She picks up a set of white towels with light blue detailing, but decides to add them to the mental list of things she’ll buy when she and her boyfriend eventually move out of their one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica.
“One day,”She sighs, and says, “She’s not sure.” They’ve made offers on 23 homes in the last two years, sometimes offering 20% more than the asking price, she said, but they keep losing to all-cash buyers.
As the earworm melody of MGMT’s “Electric Feel”Jayakumar hums softly as she heads to the camping section. She loves it, even though she doesn’t love to camp. She picks out a backpack cooler, which she’ll use to chill wine at an upcoming picnic-and-movie outing at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
In the kitchen section, where she’s made a game of scouring the evolving selection of ever-smaller egg-frying pans, she notices a $24.99 teal-colored contraption that makes mini egg bites and it cracks her up. She buys it as a Secret Santa gift and heads to her favorite part of the store — the “Minis”Section, as she refers to the small packages of beauty products in the bins.
She begins to laugh as she places a cucumber-and mintt scented deodorant in her cart. It is about the size of an old matchbook.
“You’re making someone pay for a trial size,”She says. “They used to give these out for free.”
Nearby, she spots a massager for back pain and wonders whether it will ease her nagging pains. These are just a few of the health issues she started to notice two years back. After what seemed like a million appointments, she was recently found to have intracranial hypertension. She will eventually need surgery in order to relieve the pressure on her brain.
“It’s been a nightmare,”She says this as she places a container of melatonin chews in her cart. “So that stress has caused me to come to Target more and more to relax.”
At the cash register, a Target employee — a baby boomer with a pixie haircut and a wide smile — greets her and compliments the backpack cooler, saying it’d be perfect for a picnic at the Hollywood Bowl.
Jayakumar tells her that she’s going to see Diana Ross at the Bowl in a few days and the employee shares that she hopes to see Usher in concert soon, although the tickets are pricey and her husband isn’t a big fan. Jayakumar suggests that she show him Usher’s Tiny Desk Concert on NPR — it’s amazing, she tells her.
“Maybe that’ll change his mind,”The employee said that her eyes sparkle.
The total is displayed on the screen after the cashier scans the last item. She came in for shower cleaner and a cooler and is leaving with $271.01 in merchandise — and a mellowed mood.