For years, landlords tried to coax Target to open one of its big-box stores in the heart of Philadelphia. Each time they failed, daunted by the difficulty of plunking a store the size of two football fields into a packed downtown.
That chase appears to have come to an end, with a much smaller version called Target Express now looking to make a splash at multiple locations in the hottest pockets of redevelopment near Philadelphia's core.
Target Corp. is hunting for lease deals in Center City and University City to build what could be as many as four of the new stores, which are about one-sixth the size of a suburban Target.
The goal is to bring the brand to the very Baby Boomers and young professionals who became loyal customers in the suburbs, but who increasingly are moving into resurgent central Philadelphia.
The company also is scouting for a few sites on the Main Line, said Tom Londres, president and chief executive of Metro Commercial Real Estate Inc., the local firm helping Target in its search. He declined to offer specifics.
"If the right location became available, we would strongly consider it," Londres said.
Target had little to say publicly about its plans for the area. But Center City's real estate community has been abuzz since Metro began sending out e-mail blasts in August about Target Express' imminent arrival.
"Their brand now comes to an urban customer," said Londres, whose firm has helped Target build more than 50 locations across Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware over two decades.
When the smaller format makes its debut amid the smattering of chain drug stores that have served downtown residents for daily necessities, customers will find a broad sampling of what's offered in a suburban Target.
Said Londres: "Everything's at your fingertips."
Target declined to take questions, issuing only a statement that referred to Philadelphia as "a great community for Target" and one where it first introduced expanded grocery offerings in stores in 2009.
"We continue to look for new opportunities to serve our Philadelphia guests," Kristen Emmons, spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-based company, said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday.
The company began testing the roughly 20,000-square-foot format within the past year at a location near the University of Minnesota. Five other Express stores have been announced for 2015: three in the San Francisco Bay Area, one in San Diego, and one in St. Paul, Minn., Emmons said.
Given that suburban Targets can have 120,000 to 140,000 square feet, the Express format will offer fewer and smaller-size items. The stores also will sell "grab-and-go" sandwiches and fresh food.
Additionally, customers will find a "curated assortment in Home and Electronics," according to marketing materials describing the store.
Because of Target's consumer identity as a discount retailer that appeals to a higher-income sensibility, Center City landlords and developers have wanted to welcome one for a decade.
Talks fizzled at three large locations - the Gallery at Market East, the parcel at Eighth and Market Street that just lost a bid for a downtown casino license, and a block of property along the 1100 block of Market Street that, earlier this week, was announced as home to a new grocery chain, Mom's Organic Market.
Among the reasons a full-size Target never took off: high land and redevelopment costs, and the challenging nature of working with old, tall buildings.
"The barrier of entry for a full-line Target," explained Londres, "is typically too high."