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Musings about Lilly for Target (and other unfortunate missteps)

Today was the day that Target unveiled its eagerly anticipated Lilly Pulitzer for Target line of clothing, home decor and beauty products. Now, a mere 3 hours after Target stores in my area (Minneapolis) opened their doors and immediately sold out of everything in a reported 15 minutes, the web is blowing up with photos of in-store pandemonium and commentary about yet another "#TargetFAIL."

From a branding standpoint, there's lots to think about. As a 40-something mom with disposable income, I am within the bulls-eye of Target's key demographic. I have had a love affair with Target since I can remember, and over the years, their merchandising has continued to get better and more savvy. As a marketing geek, I am always intrigued to see their latest splashy campaign. As a former Target employee, I still have friends who work there so am privy to "the inside scoop." And living in Minneapolis, where Target is of course headquartered, I think of them as "our" corporation, our sweetheart.

So, please understand that this criticism comes from the heart. Target has been in the news a lot in the past 5 years, and not for good reasons:

EPIC FAIL #1: The Relaunch Fiasco of 2011. (Full disclosure: I was part of the team in 1998/1999 that helped to shape the very first site, so I have a sensitive spot in my heart for it.) Knowing it wanted to get off of Amazon's platform, Target had worked for 2 years on their new site on a different platform. And along came the day of launch----just in time for the HUGE Back-To-School season and Labor Day in 2011. The new shiny site went up....and then pretty much continuously crashed for weeks. It was the butt of jokes for months, thanks to cringe-worthy mis-steps like terrible search logic, or displaying dozens of items that were out of stock and unorderable. Then there were pages that just simply failed to load at all. Or shopping cart logic that meant you could never complete your purchase (assuming you found anything that was actually still in stock online).

Then there was EPIC FAIL #2, the data breach announced the week of Christmas in 2013----putting a chill on one of the biggest shopping weeks of the year. An an outsider/customer/marketing geek, I was dismayed to see the hamhanded PR response from Target's then-CEO. In trying to "media manage" the breach, he came off out-of-touch and tone-deaf. Offering shoppers a measly 10% discount after the biggest data hack to date, enticing them to "come back" seemed weak at best and clueless at worse. It cost him his job. And, as it always does, the real truth painfully dribbled out, making it clear it was far worse than they'd inititally let on. Of course, Target was soon in good company with Michael's, Neiman Marcus and Home Depot also suffering huge data hacks into their systems and hurting customer confidence and their brands.

EPIC FAIL #3, the Target Canada Debacle. As a FAN of Target, I actually think it was a great idea to go to Canada. It was clear that our Northern neighbors came to the States to shop Target, so why not make it easier and go to them? The problem, according to retail pundits, was that they didn't actually give them Target. They gave them some weird, hard-to-recognize cousin of Target, along with empty shelves (inventory/purchasing snafus) that quickly turned even the most eager of shoppers off. It's a shame they cut and ran, citing a $2 Billion loss and costing thousands of jobs. I believe it was just misdirected execution. Had they gone more slowly with a few beta stores to learn the market, and expand judiciously from there, I am convinced it would have worked. Now it's a black eye for Target and another wound to lick.

Which brings me to today----EPIC FAIL #4, the Lilly Pulitzer for Target launch. The Target PR machine has been promoting the Lilly Pulitzer collaboration for months, knowing full well that by the time it was finally here, their customers would be worked up into a lather. And they were. But Target was not ready. I understand the concept of scarcity, and limited edition, and creating demand frenzy. But not to the point where you're seriously bumming out your customer base. Target should have learned its lesson with its Missoni launch of 2011. Target was praised for scoring the hot, upscale designer, and some praised its small one-time-only inventory as "genius" strategy. But what really happened was that Target was neither ready in its stores or its website. Inventory was snapped up in minutes, and then quickly resold for huge profits by some savvy shoppers who bought the Missoni product not for themselves but as a small-time get-rich scheme. In 2011, Target customers lambasted the company for a bad online experience which delivered up results for items that were out of stock and would never be replenished. Stores experienced feeding frenzies with some winners but many more losers. And here we are again, in 2015, where Target promotes the Lilly line for months and succeeds in getting its loyal shoppers online at 3 AM and queuing up at 6 AM, hoping to score. Some were winners, but many more felt duped again, feeling disappointed and let down. I'm sure there was genius in the madness, but from where I sit, why not boost production to come closer to meeting demand, or raise prices (remember the supply and demand curves from school?), or both? I understand the value of "buzz" and Target is a master at PR and promotion. But here's my advice to Target, from a long-time friend. Focus more on the "guest experience" and less on "sizzle" and "buzz." Don't get us all excited, only to leave us disappointed again.

Target, we love you, but you're breaking our hearts.

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