Four years ago, a group of Target employees persuaded the retailer to try a test during Black History Month that would gauge customers' interest in black-themed merchandise.

They got an earful. Shoppers wanted more items from black-owned businesses. They wanted more variety. They wanted more prominent displays.

This year, the Minneapolis-based retailer is making a big bet on that idea. Target tripled the number of stores carrying its Black History Month collection compared with last year and broadened the number of items, all of which are curated or designed by employees.

Nationwide, 700 of its 1,850 stores will carry the items through the end of February. It also created a dedicated space on its website at

"We're really upping the bar to be sure that our guest is understanding our intention and our thinking behind it," said Tawnya Artisst, a product design and development director who has helped lead work on the assortment.

Target has had a public campaign tied to Black History Month since 2006. Past efforts have included supporting the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, featuring prominent black Americans in its advertising and promoting a limited number of exclusive black history-geared products in stores.

This year's effort differs in size, scope and tone, Artisst said.

More than 100 items are featured across various departments, including skin care and beauty products for men and women, graphic T-shirts, baby clothes, home decor, books and music. The assortment has been in stores since Jan. 6.

Stores were selected based on demographics and an analysis of product sales that resonate with blacks, Artisst said.

Retail analysts don't keep separate sales numbers for specialty events such as Black History Month. Marketing experts said they can be effective tools to get shoppers into stores and clicking online.

"Ultimately it's for all people," Artisst said. "We want everyone to celebrate black history."

The initiative began within Target's African American Business Council, an employee group started in 2004 in part to help the retailer develop and market products that "feel authentic, relevant and respectful," according to the company.

The group, one of six that Target refers to as "resource groups," now has 1,000 members.

From the beginning, Target assigned a cross-functional team to the project. It included members of the African American Business Council as well as engineers, designers, merchandisers, store planners and sourcing specialists.

"It has been an ongoing learning process," said Artisst, who was in charge of the African American Business Council's business initiatives and allied partnerships pillar for the past four years.

This year's marketing campaign is more personal, she said, which is most evident on the company's e-commerce site.

Three black employees from different departments at Target highlight their favorites from the Black History Month collection, with quotes and personal stories.

Just seven stores in Minnesota carry the full assortment, and all are in the Twin Cities area. The items can be found at the Lake Street, downtown and Northeast stores in Minneapolis; the Midway and Suburban Square stores in St. Paul; as well as in Crystal and Richfield.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335 Twitter: @JackieCrosby