retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Shoppers excitedly awaiting Target’s Lilly Pulitzer Collection dreamed of tropical prints in bold pinks, greens and blues, finally available at a moderate price point.

Instead, they saw red.

“Epic fail” was the crowd reaction on social media after the much ballyhooed Lilly Pulitzer collection of clothing, accessories, beauty and home goods sold out within hours online and at Target stores last week.

Fashionistas were fuming. Many stood in line outside their local Target stores before the doors opened only to find racks that had been stripped of merchandise “by 8:03 a.m” or in some cases, no Lilly items at all. The online boutique opened at midnight, was immediately overwhelmed with demand for five hours, and sold out while frustrated shoppers watched Palm Beach-inspired product evaporate on their laptops.

Fumed one Lilly fan on Facebook: “Empty carts + empty shelves = angry customers who will shop elsewhere. “

Not exactly what Target wants to read.

A vexed Twitter user wrote: “Everything gone in three minutes. Women waited in line w/hundreds of dollars, left with nothing. How is this good business?”

Answer: It isn't.

Further fueling the consumer’s ire, more than 37,000 Lilly for Target items quickly popped up on eBay and other reseller outlets amid reports of “hoarders” grabbing armloads of items and buying out all sizes online.

Which begs the question: What was the heck was Target thinking?

The launch has been hyped for months. The retailer had to know shoppers would snap up Lilly for Target shifts for $38, compared to $300 for a signature Lilly dress. Ditto the bikinis for $48, a steal compared to the $135 real deal.

And Target certainly should have learned a lesson from its bobbled 2011 collaboration with the chic designer Missoni, which was marred by sellouts and website woes.

Target marketing execs said they “never expected” the Lilly collection to sell out in a day and anticipated having enough product “for several weeks.”

Some might say this is a miscalculation. I think it’s inexcusable.

Meanwhile, the Target social media team was in overdrive trying to cheerfully respond to irate customers, but the perky “thanks for reaching out to us!” lines weren’t well received.

But particularly damning was the number of items that ended up on resale with jacked-up prices. Target estimated only 1.5% of the collection was on eBay (there were still 25,000-plus items as of yesterday) – to which one customer griped “more like 51.5%.” Even more merchandise could found on sites such as Poshmark and Craigslist.

Next go-round on a limited collection, I think Target should institute quantity control both online and in stores. A limit per customer is common when grocery items are on special, or concert tickets go on sale, and would make perfect sense in this case to help curtail the mass purchasers rushing to the resale market.

Interestingly, in social media comments, many Target Red card holders also lobbied for a pre-sale for those who have a Target charge card as a show of customer appreciation. I think this makes sense.

Target’s new CEO Brian Cornell is known for being hands-on, skilled at analyzing data and plugged into social media. He’s looking to aggressively compete with Amazon and Walmart in e-commerce, create a more distinctive “healthy” food segment, and roll out more small stores.

As best he can, Cornell wants to present the image of a competitive, vibrant retailer. Ironically, a recent Fortune profile showed him posing with samples from the Lilly Pulitzer collection.

But I think it is fair to say that in this case, on a number of levels, the CEO had no clothes.

Comments? As always, send them to me at .
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