NEW YORK » Target is a victim of its own success.
The discounter drummed up so much hype around its exclusive, limited-time line by upscale Italian designer Missoni that its website crashed and was down most of the day on Sept. 13 when the collection was launched, angering customers. More than a week later, some shoppers who bought the Missoni for Target line are posting on social media websites Facebook and Twitter that they won’t shop at Target again because their online orders are being delayed — or worse, canceled — by the retailer.
Brielle deMartino, 23, from Del Ray Beach, Fla., was so excited that she woke up at 6 a.m. on the launch day and spent $700 on Missoni clothes, a bike and plates. The next day, she got an email from Target that her online order was cancelled. Then, she spent hours on the phone with Target customer service representatives who she describes as unapologetic.
"I have never been treated like this," says deMartino, who got the charges removed from her card after calling her bank and posted on Facebook and Twitter about the ordeal. "Instead of taking responsibility, they didn’t care. I have always been pro-Target, but I don’t want to give my money to a company like that again.’
Talk about having a bulls-eye on your back. Target became the discount industry’s darling by making it cool to buy stylish clothes and trendy decorations at the same place you pick up toothpaste and paper towels. But recently, it has suffered from similar public relations nightmares as its rival Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Earlier this year, Target had its first union election in what is seen as a precursor to more labor disputes nationwide. Now, customers are blasting Target on websites like Twitter at a time when Americans worried about the economy are easily being influenced by what their friends say on social media websites.
"This was badly handled," said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys Inc., a New York customer research firm that has an index that shows Target’s image has taken a hit. "What was supposed to be engaging and delightful is now the opposite — disappointment."
Morgan O’Murray, a Target spokeswoman, said the company experienced unprecedented demand for the collection and is working on correcting problems.
"This demand impacted our Target.com site and affected the shipment and delivery of select guest orders," O’Murray said in a statement. "Providing an exceptional experience is incredibly important to Target, and we have a team dedicated to addressing those guests who have been affected."
The crash heard around retail
The Missoni collection was an attempt by Target to regain the cache it lost among the fashion-forward crowd after it began focusing on expanding its food business. Target is among a few retailers who have partnered with high-end designers that create exclusive lines they can offer for a limited time at deep discounts. The collections can spur demand by creating a sense of urgency to buy. Last year, Target scored big with a line created by Liberty of London, offering 300 items with the designer, which is known for its floral prints, and selling out of most of it in a couple of days.
The retailer tried to recreate that success with Missoni line, which featured stationery for $2.99 up to $599.99 patio furniture at a fraction of the cost of the designer’s original works that can go for $595 to $1,500. Target declined to comment say how much it spent on marketing, but it used social media websites and ads on TV and in Vogue magazine.
Target also opened a temporary store in Manhattan at the start of New York Fashion Week on Sept. 8. On the night of the store’s opening, Target hosted a party attended by Missoni-clad celebrities like actress Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of the twin actresses Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen. The temporary store, which spanned six blocks, was supposed to stay open three days, but closed after items sold out in six hours.
Celebrities were even writing about the launch, or tweeting, on Twitter. Actress Busy Phillips, who plays Laura in ABC’s "Cougar Town," tweeted: "Got the bike. Not the colorful one but still SO EXCITED." Actresses Jessica Alba and Jessica Simpson also were gushing about the line: "I dreamt about the Missoni 4 Target bike last night," Alba tweeted. Simpson replied, "I want that bike too!! So cute!"
The buzz turned to frustration for some shoppers. About two hours after the 6 a.m. launch, many on Target’s website came face-to-face with Target’s mascot bulldog and the disappointing news: "Woof! We are suddenly extremely popular. You may not be able to access our site momentarily due to unusually high traffic. Please stay here and we’ll try to get you in as soon as we can!"
This happened throughout the day. Some who were patient got through. Those who weren’t left the website disappointed.
Ben Rushlo, director of performance management at Keynote Systems Inc., which tracks websites’ performance, said that he couldn’t remember the last time a site stayed down most of the day. He said usually, a website slowly deteriorates throughout the day — with minor glitches becoming more prevalent — before crashing.
"It wasn’t your normal meltdown," he said.
The Missoni mess gets messier
Even some customers who got through complained that items disappeared from their online shopping carts. Some were unable to checkout. Those who were able to buy breathed a sigh of relief, with some hocking their buys on eBay.com for more than double Target’s prices.
But the celebration was short-lived for some. Twitter and Facebook are abuzz with customers complaining that they got emails from Target notifying them that their orders will be delayed or canceled altogether. The posts range from mild ("I’m waiting for orders and now get an email that some may not ship," to prickly ("Every time I see someone with Missoni for Target I get a little more mad.").
Megan Bonner, 26, from Memphis, Tenn., bragged on Twitter after ordering $300 worth of Missoni dresses and cardigans until the next day when she got emails telling her that her shipments would be delayed. Nervous that she wouldn’t get the items at all, she bought some of them at a nearby Target. But now she worries she won’t be refunded for the other merchandise.
"I feel violated. I feel taken advantage of," she said. "If I don’t hear back from them in another week, I will call back. Maybe, I just won’t go back anymore."
Target had planned to sell the line into October online and at all 1,700 U.S. stores. But many locations are sold out and the online pickings website are slim. Target had said it was replenishing merchandise, but that it would trickle in.
The debacle comes at a precarious time for Target. The chain, which has struggled to return to its pre-recession growth, is just beginning to benefit from its expanded grocery business and a 5 percent discount it gives shoppers who pay with a Target credit or debit card.
Target Corp., based in Minneapolis, had been posting disappointing revenue gains, but it had a 3.9 percent second-quarter increase in revenue at stores opened at least a year — a measure of a retailer’s health. That compares with a 2 percent first-quarter gain.
Analysts disagree on whether Target’s image can rebound from the snafu, which comes just months after a failed measure to unionize by employees at a Valley Stream, N.Y. spurred organizers to target stores nationwide.
C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group said in order for Target to recover, it needs to placate angry customers by, say, offering $10 to $20 gift cards. "A lot of companies don’t want to fix the problem," he said. "They feel it’s better to let it go away. But the problem is that’s a dangerous strategy."
Passikoff, with Brand Keys, says the damage is already done — and he can prove it. He said the negative publicity has pushed down Target’s reading on the company’s Loyalty Index, which measures brand reputation, among other things, to 109 from 119 in August. Brands should have at least a 116, Passikoff says, and anything under 100 signals "trouble."
But Brian Sozzi, a Wall Street Strategies analyst, says shoppers’ discontent — much like the Missoni for Target line — is fleeting. "I think it is short-term anger," he said.