Most shoppers who frequent the Target store at the Quarry in northeast Minneapolis don’t realize it’s become a test store and that they’ve involuntarily become the company’s guinea pigs.

But many have taken notice of the revamped departments and new store displays the Minneapolis-based retailer has put into place there.

Dozens of mannequins, showing off outfits by company-owned brands such as Merona and C9, dot the apparel and accessories sections. Tablets and smartphones, which are usually locked up behind glass cases or packaged up, are now laid out on display tables for customers to check out.

And in the baby section, there’s a “baby adviser” on hand during certain hours to help customers find the right bottles or nursing pads. In fact, that whole department has been overhauled, with strollers lined up in the middle of a racetrack of sorts so shoppers can more easily try them out.

As Target looks to breathe new life into its U.S. stores after several quarters of sluggish sales, sprucing up its stores has become a big area of focus. And this store, in particular, has taken on a more visible role.

“When we’re at our best, there’s the constant drumbeat of newness in our stores,” interim CEO John Mulligan told the Star Tribune recently.

The Quarry store is where the company is tinkering with a lot of new innovations as it looks to move faster than it has in the recent past to roll out these concepts to more stores, he said.

The company used to try new initiatives at the bi-level store next to its corporate headquarters on Nicollet Mall. But that store isn’t representative of a typical store since it’s an urban store where many of its own employees shop.

So about two years ago, the company anointed the northeast Minneapolis store as one of its core testing grounds. Target still tries out new concepts in other markets. For example, its relatively new beauty concierge service, now available in more than 400 stores, was first tested in the Chicago area.

“But this is a place where lots of new things are happening,” said Target spokesman Eric Hausman of the Quarry store. “If you want to see all of it in one place, this is the place to go.”

The Quarry location is so far the only Target store to get a face-lift in its toy department, reconfigured in January to create mini-shops of sorts for Legos, Disney and other brands. And it’s one of just a handful to get a redo of their electronics departments. Based on positive results so far, Target is now planning a rollout of those concepts to more stores.

The Quarry store has an assistant team leader assigned only to innovation. And corporate staffers often hold conference calls or visit the store in person to gauge how the new concepts are doing. Target also listens closely to feedback relayed through employees and customer surveys.

“At the end of the day, it’s also about sales,” Hausman said. “When we see the results we’re seeing here, that’s why we’re expanding it. Obviously, we want to listen to what our guests are saying. And they speak with their wallets.”

And, of course, Target is always tweaking the tests. When it first began piloting mannequins at the Quarry store a year and a half ago, the test initially went a little overboard.

“We started out really heavy in mannequins,” said store manager Jennifer Mayer. “But now we’ve been able to figure out the sweet spot.”

The Quarry store now has about 100 mannequins, pared back from about 150, she said.

The mannequins seem to be paying off at this store and in other test markets. Target now has them in 186 stores, including all of its Canadian locations. Target executives say they will be going into several hundred more stores this fall.

Mannequin effect

“There’s a reason they are used often at apparel stores,” said Sean Naughton, an analyst with Piper Jaffray & Co. “A mannequin is very helpful to the consumer to see an entire outfit put together.”

And typically, those outfits on mannequins outsell other items in the store, he added. But discount big-box stores haven’t used them much in the past because they require an extra investment and more coordination and labor to change the outfits.

Target began remodeling many parts of its stores a few years ago when it added an expanded grocery selection in what the retailer called its PFresh remodels. It lowered shelf heights in the shoe department so you could see more of the entire assortment and took jewelry out of the cases, Naughton said.

“Now this is the next evolution of that,” he said.

Amy Koo, an analyst with Kantar Retail, noted that many of Target’s upgrades are aimed at making stores more engaging and interactive to bring more value to the store. Case in point: the revamped electronics department. That area, which was reset at the Quarry store in October, is now being tested in 23 stores and will be rolled out to at least another 20 stores this year. Part of the remodeling includes adding chairs for customers to sit on while they explore

Being able to hold a tablet or phone in your hands and tool around with it is one of the reasons customers go to the store in the first place.

“Why else would you go to the store?” Koo said. “Otherwise, I can just buy it online.”

She added that Target is also stepping up the training of employees so they are more knowledgeable about products in the revamped electronics and baby departments. That also enhances the in-store experience, she said.

The baby section, expanded to nearly 30 stores this spring, is going into 200 more locations this summer. Besides the bright lighting and lower displays, customers have also welcomed changes such as separating baby clothes by gender, Mayer said.

Amber Brookman of St. Paul usually shops at a Target closer to her home, but she sometimes stops by the Quarry store on her way home from work because she likes the new baby section. She said she it feels less cluttered, but that it also seems to have a wider selection.

“Everything is lower to the ground,” she added.

Next month, the Quarry store will begin testing another enhancement. It will replace the price scanners found throughout the store with iPads to allow customers to find out more information about products and to pull up the weekly ads, Mayer said.

It’s too early to say whether the iPad strategy will be coming to other stores in the near future. It depends, of course, on how well the test goes.