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Dayton’s: More than a century of Minnesota retail

One of America’s great retail empires was built on a foundation of Minnesota farmland.

The expanded downtown store complex, c.1938. The original store is in the darker shade.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Dayton’s began as a single store at Seventh Street and Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis in 1902. When the last Dayton family member retired from leadership in 1983, the company had stores nationwide and profits of over $240 million. It became Target Corporation in 2000.

One of America’s great retail empires was built on a foundation of Minnesota farmland. In 1881 twenty-six-year-old George Dayton came to Worthington from upstate New York to tend some troubled real estate investments. Soon he owned the local bank, a real estate investment company, many acres of farmland, and a fortune.

Searching for a place to invest that fortune, Dayton chose Minneapolis. Specifically, he settled on Nicollet Avenue real estate. He put up an office building at Sixth and Nicollet in 1892 and a still-bigger building at Seventh and Nicollet in 1902. His major tenant there was a department store called Goodfellow’s, which he soon bought. The store took the Dayton name in 1903 and kept it until 2001.

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Dayton aimed to forge a bond between his store and the people of Minneapolis. He worked on three fronts: merchandising, entertainment, and civic affairs. In merchandising Dayton’s offered a vast array, from tools to high fashion. It also maintained a generous return policy. Events like flower exhibits, Christmas extravaganzas, and fashion shows brought entertainment. Dayton’s and the family supported the arts and charity, first through the Dayton Foundation (1918) and then through its 5-percent giving policy (1946).

Sales grew every year, from $600,000 in 1902 to $60 million in 1950. The downtown building(s) expanded eight times. By 1946 the original six-story corner installation had grown to three-quarters of the entire block and twelve floors.

Leadership stayed in the Dayton family. The eldest son, Draper, became store manager in 1906. A second son, Nelson, joined in 1911. When Draper Dayton died suddenly in 1923 at age forty-three, Nelson took over as store manager. He held that position until 1947. George Dayton died in 1938, at which point Nelson became president of the company.

When Nelson Dayton died in 1950, his five sons took over. The next generation faced new challenges. Dayton’s had grown steadily over fifty years, but always in the same downtown location. By now population growth was shifting to the suburbs; the Dayton brothers decided to go there, too. In 1956 they opened the nation’s first indoor shopping mall, Southdale, in Edina. Dayton’s and its longtime rivalDonaldson’s were the anchor tenants. Brookdale (1966), Rosedale (1969), and Ridgedale (1974) followed.

In 1954 Dayton’s opened a store in Rochester and bought one in Sioux Falls. It moved into downtown St. Paul in 1959. It broke out of the Midwest in 1968, buying regional chains in Portland and Phoenix. In 1966 it launched B. Dalton, a bookselling line that grew to include 798 outlets at its peak (it was sold in 1986).

In 1969 Dayton’s merged with the J.L. Hudson Company of Michigan and became Dayton Hudson Corporation. Dayton Hudson bought the Brown stores of Oklahoma in 1971 and finally Mervyn’s of California in 1978. By 1979 Dayton Hudson had stores in forty-one states. The company’s profit in 1983 amounted to $243 million.

Through all these changes Dayton’s retained a loyal customer base. Twin Cities residents in particular personally identified with the store. But the Dayton’s name would not last much longer. The last Dayton brothers retired from the company in 1983.

In 1990 Dayton Hudson bought the Chicago-based Marshall Field’s stores. In 2001 all the Dayton Hudson stores became Marshall Field’s, including the flagship: the former Goodfellow’s at Seventh and Nicollet in downtown Minneapolis.

Dayton’s had started in a different direction in 1962 with its first Target store in Roseville, followed quickly by stores in St. Louis Park, Crystal, and Duluth. By 1979 Target had eighty stores and sales of over $1 billion.

By 2000 Target Division profits surpassed earnings from all other stores combined. Dayton Hudson changed its name to Target Corporation. In 2004 Target sold all of its Mervyn’s and Marshall Field’s stores. By 2015, what began as a single department store in 1902 had become a national discount empire with nearly 1800 stores.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.