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Tech Bytes: Three Lessons from the Target-Lilly Pulitzer Fail

BY Dan Berthiaume

In theory, the launch of a limited-time, 250-piece Lilly Pulitzer designer collection on Sunday, April 19 should have been a major coup for Target. Instead, it was a major disaster in marketing, CRM, and operations. By now, the story of how consumer demand for Lilly Pulitzer overwhelmed Target’s website and stores has been told many times. Let’s look at three lessons retailers (including Target) can learn from this experience.

Know Your Customer
In an online Q&A, Target chief merchandising and supply chain officer Kathee Tesija admitted that Target thought it had enough Lilly Pulitzer merchandise to last “several weeks.” Stock cleared out in a few hours.

In this age of social listening, one-to-one customer engagement, etc., it is unacceptable to misjudge customer demand to such a large degree. By performing some simple keyword analysis of social media buzz and reaching out to registered social media followers and loyalty members in advance, Target could have realized just how strong demand for its Lilly Pulitzer collection really was.

In her commentary, Tesija actually references strong social buzz for the collection, which makes Target’s failure even worse. Clearly Target either did not perform enough research or did not properly analyze the social data it collected.

Be Prepared
The Boy Scouts have operated by the two-word motto “Be Prepared” for more than a century, because it works. Target’s website was overwhelmed by sharp spikes in traffic caused by customers looking for Lilly Pulitzer merchandise. Although Target says the site never actually crashed, it had to shut down at least once for maintenance.

Target did not adequately prepare its website for the intense levels of Lilly Pulitzer traffic. The retailer has publicly admitted this was an unacceptable failure and has promised to fully investigate what happened. Target also previously said it would invest $1 billion in digital during 2015.

Pledges to investigate and dedicate money to the problem are all well and good, but don’t get to the heart of the matter. Quite simply, Target did not prioritize website resiliency to the necessary degree. This is an issue of organizational culture and philosophy as much as an issue of IT or budgets.

Target needs to evaluate any situation that might cause a significant increase in Web traffic and then make sure its servers and supporting infrastructure can support traffic and sales volume surges exponentially higher than expected. Boy Scouts always pack a poncho even when the weather forecast is bright and sunny – Target needs to make sure its own digital “poncho” is always at the ready.

Control the Spin
Target has been getting heavily criticized on social media, and general publicity has been pretty negative. It is too early to say whether this incident will cause any long-term damage to Target’s brand image or customer loyalty, but short-term has caused a black eye.

Target did take the correct step of personally replying to Facebook comments, but only offered generic responses to most Twitter complaints, often hours after they were posted. The fact that complaints on Twitter were more numerous and often harsher only made it more critical for Target to do a better job of reaching out there.

Target should also still be more actively reaching out and apologizing to customers even now. Tesija’s public suggestion for customers to check stores for possible Lilly Pulitzer returns might be a nice sentiment, but more cynical observers could view it as an attempt to get miffed customers back in stores.

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