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Exclusive: Target Sizing Up Digital Deals

NEW YORK (TheStreet) –– Minneapolis big-box retailer Target (TGT - Get Report), helmed by a new CEO, will likely look to expand via web deals, according to sources.

Sources declined to identify specific targets for Target, or a timeline for M&A, but numerous industry sources noted that recent deals for e-commerce companies may foreshadow a growing tendency for retailers like it to sell more products online, likely to compete with online retailers like Inc., which have spent 2014 ramping up delivery initiatives.

Last year, Target quietly struck a number of deals to bring itself further into the e-commerce arena — and that's not the only reason 2013 was a big year for the big-box retailer, in terms of the Internet. One person familiar with the company's operations suggested Brian Cornell, the CEO the company appointed Thursday, will need to snare more revenue from online operations, a tricky proposition to say the least.

Because of the massive data breach Target consumers were exposed to in 2013, the company will tread cautiously, they suggested, but also, they said, executives there realize that e-commerce must be integrated further into the company's brand.

A market laggard this year (down 5% against markets' rise) and over the last 12 months (down 15%), the company finds itself heading into the crucial 2014 school shopping season fighting off consumer fears over its digital security, which has shown up in its shares.

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Sources said the company was likely to look at deals in personal care, cookware and proprietary relationships to help up-and-coming brands gain a foothold with new consumers.

Prior recent e-commerce plays for Target include its acquisitions of cooking and kitchenware businesses, and, separately, Chefs Catalog (the latter, formerly a portfolio company of PE firm JH Partners), in March 2013, and later, in August 2013, Target also bought DermStore Beauty Group, an e-commerce company focusing on skin care.

Deals like these are what leads industry observers to suggest that they will characterize future M&A for the company. They are not transformative for the business so much as they enhance offerings for consumers and push more purchasing online, without a high price tag. In each of these deals, a price was not publicized.

Target isn't the only retailer considering more plays on the digital economy as shoppers are increasingly placing orders via desktop and handset: Nordstrom has made several investments in online clothier Bonobos. Last week, Nordstrom (JWN) acquired Trunk Club. The New York Times reported Trunk Club's 2014 revenue would be around $100 million, and tech blog Re/Code quoted sources saying that transaction was for $350 million — a heady gain for the VC backers, which reportedly plugged a mere $12 million into the venture.

Target did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Elsewhere, industry watchers suggested more companies are looking to strike deals with early stage e-commerce companies. One suggested a retail Internet startup that could be attractive to strategic buyers is One Kings Lane. In January, that company raised a round of more than $100 million from investors, some of which are undisclosed, that are public market entities, website Techcrunch reported at the time.

Even the mighty Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart Stores (WMT) can't escape the tightening grip of the digital economy; the company was recently cut by analysts at Goldman Sachs and the company, perhaps based on its recent M&A, began rolling out recommendations for online shoppers, similar to (AMZN).

Wal-Mart's Goldman downgrade was not for a lack of effort: the company breaks down its digital haul in earnings announcements (hitting $10 billion in 2013, while Target does not disclose its online sales, aside from a remark in a filing last year that e-commerce makes up an "immaterial" portion of revenue). This comes also, as same-store sales have been slacking. And it has been on a roll establishing an e-commerce staff in California and striking recent deals for predictive analytics firm Inkiru Inc. and startups focusing on recommendations and social behavior, like OneOps and Luvocracy. Wal-Mart has done more than 10 digital deals in the last few years.

With U.S. e-commerce sales set to eclipse the $260 billion mark in 2014, according to Forrester Research, it is expected that other big corporate players may seek to strike similar deals.

--Written by Jon Marino in New York

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