Lilly Pulitzer for Target

A shining success or an unbelievable failure?

The collaboration between Lilly Pulitzer, a Palm Beach fashion brand with a die-hard following, and the big box retailer was highly anticipated among Lilly lovers for months prior to launch. The iconic shift dresses and colorful accessories that the brand is famous for is not just considered clothing by its consumers — it is a lifestyle. Social media had been set abuzz with excitement for the collection’s launch, and thousands of fans counted down the days until the preppy selections would be available online and in stores.

Between staying home on a Saturday night in preparation of the online launch, laptop poised and credit card in hand, to standing outside in line in from of a Target for hours before the store opened, the level of commitment from loyal Lilly Pulitzer customers was astounding.

Hundreds of people began lining up at 3am.

Shoppers that were sparkling with excitement, with their purchases pre-planned, quickly became frustrated. Target was unprepared for the massive amount of traffic that was coming into the website. There were technical problems, including online carts that emptied unexpectedly, slowness, and a temporary 20 minute shutdown of the website.

Joshua Thomas, a Target spokesperson, explained that the retailer had hoped to make the Lilly Pulitzer collection available online by about 3 a.m., it was delayed until 5 a.m. because of high traffic. “There was extreme interest, extreme demand — traffic that would be on par with Black Friday,” he said.

Items flew off the shelves within minutes to the dismay of many disappointed shoppers.

Because the line outside of Target stores across the country was hundreds deep, as soon as the doors opened for the day a mad dash ensued. Within minutes of the store opening, all of the Lilly inventory was cleaned out. Unlike other hyped up collaborations, Target did not place a limit on per-person purchases in the stores. Online shoppers were capped off at purchasing 5 of the same items, but it was a complete free for all at the brick and mortar stores. This lent itself to be a perfect breeding ground for resellers.

Within hours, thousands of Lilly Pulitzer for Target items made their way onto eBay, enraging Lilly loyalists who had spent time and energy waiting to buy the coveted items, only to be left empty handed. Lilly’s audience did not let this indignity go down lightly. Thousands rushed to social media to complain, proliferated the discussion of the collection across social media. Lilly Pulitzer for Target was a top trending discussion topic on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and elsewhere.

The tens of thousands of items that were purchased to resell angered Lilly’s following.

Three hours into the #LillyForTarget launch, the collection had all but sold out in stores and online. The marketing efforts were successful: the look book photography was beautiful and on brand, the 250-piece collection was carefully curated and presented, and influencers were reached who intensified the resulting publicity and exposure. Getting customers in the door was easy, the word of mouth hype spread like wildfire. However, Target was unprepared for the execution of the launch.

The resell boom has been a downside that many of these types of partnerships have had to deal with. The reality of aggressive buyers scooping up large portions of the inventory is a problem that can be fought. H&M adopted an exemplary shopping policy in 2013 where expectations were managed and they managed a structure that encouraged fairness, as shoppers were not allowed to buy out an entire rack. Colored wristbands were distributed to the first 420 eager shoppers. After three and a half hours, an appropriate enough time to reward the early birds, the collaboration was opened up to everyone.

“The major fail has been the whole thing that’s happening with eBay, with people buying up entire racks,” e-commerce branding expert Andrew Sirotnik of Fluid Inc. said. “Target really could have controlled that. When you see more prestige brands doing these sorts of collaborations — like Uniqlo and Jil Sander — shoppers are limited to a certain number of items. Target should have done the same.”

A Lilly Pulitzer enthusiast basking in her glory on Instagram.

Target could have, and should have, played a more active role in discouraging professional eBay resellers by establishing simple ground rules comparable to H&M, and perhaps allowing loyalty program members early access to these sorts of limited edition launches. Giving special treatment to loyal customers is always a smart move. It would strengthen brand loyalty, give others an incentive to sign up for the program, cast Target in a more positive light, and create a hurdle for the eBay minded shoppers that hurt the experience for everyone else.

Despite logistical problems and resellers that rained on everybody’s parade, the campaign was a roaring success. Lilly Pulitzer’s brand recognition shot off the charts over the weekend, and Lilly’s loyal fanbase was in the spotlight. There is something to be said for the phrase “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” Although people were furious, they were angry because they were not the lucky few that were able to buy the items on their list.

Their anger, in fact, highlighted just how badly people wanted the products, and how far they’d go to get them. Getting customers to stay up until 3am to buy your floral scarves and mugs online, or to brave the cold out in line for hours, is no small feat. The stock skyrocketed nearly 7% Monday and is now trading just below its all-time high.

Lilly Pulitzer is now the most talked about designer collection in Target’s history. This inspired, albeit flawed campaign showed the world that Target’s collaborations are worth the hype.