Whether or not you’re a fan of the brightly colored patterns and dresses created by Lilly Pulitzer, you can find something interesting about the massive scramble to buy the coveted products at Target yesterday.
The line went on sale early (around 3 a.m.) Sunday morning, with traffic so heavy that inventory was wiped out in hours, even though the site was shut down due to maintenance numerous times. The brick and mortar stores saw their items disappear even faster, with words like “bloodbath” being used to describe the effort.
It was a chaotic and profitable answer to the supply + demand + brand equation. It was also an interesting study on whether such partnerships put luxury designers at risk of “watering-down” their brand or alienating an extremely loyal customer base. Did Lilly Pulitzer do either with their Target partnership? You decide.
Preserving a Brand
It is important first to understand the Lilly Pulitzer story. The company was created by heiress Lillian Pulitzer Rousseau, socialite and wife to Peter Pulitzer. The couple lived in Palm Beach, Florida—where he owned multiple orange groves and Lilly spent her time at a juice stand selling his products. When she needed a dress to camouflage the bright orange spills, an empire was born.
It helped that Lilly’s friends included Jackie Kennedy and other high-society names who could wear the dresses and help shape the brand. Overall, it was the attitude, social status and personal style of Lilly and the women who wore her dresses that gave the brand its prestige.
“They were accessible to most, but really wearable only by the few who were so rich that they could afford to have bad taste. A minidress of green peacocks dancing with merry seashells is not for just anyone,” Laura Jacobs on Lilly Pulitzer in Vanity Fair, 2003.
With the Target collaboration, the price tag may have been gone, but the cache was not. While customers didn’t have to shell out $300 for a shift dress, the lengths they had to go to buy one made it just as (if not more) coveted.
The Customer Experience
But how did this launch succeed when it comes to recruiting new customers and delighting old ones? I’m not sure that it did, at least online. The early morning website crashes caused a lot of online fury, and the immediate response from Target was a little lackluster from a crisis response point of view.
The website issues left me feeling sympathetic for the manic group of IT specialists I imagined were trying to solve the issue at 3:30 a.m. on a weekend night. But it also left me wondering if the public relations team was asleep at the wheel—or if the backlash was of little concern considering the monetary and media coverage gains.
Customers of the brick and mortar stores also were disappointed, but that outcome was to be expected based on the strategy of the launch. This made for amusing posts from ecstatic and disappointed customers—labeled Preppy Black Friday by some. After waiting for hours, many were rewarded with empty shelves. The lucky ones were divided into a) die-hard Lilly fans or b) savvy eBay resellers who had an especially profitable Sunday.
Ultimately, this effort is a win for Target. The launch firmly re-established the store as a brand that can be relied on for its stylish design at affordable prices. It also showed that Target’s designer collaborations are still a force to be reckoned with, eliciting both brand buzz along with breathtaking sales. Web glitches aside, this should help the company secure more high-profile partnerships in the future. (Birkin Bags for the masses, anyone?)
It also reaffirmed that these collaborations are unique, and not on par with lower-tier designer lines headed to outlet malls and discount stores. What these collaborations lack in price points, they more than make up for in rarity and excitement.
As for Lilly Pulitzer, who passed away in 2013, I doubt she turned over in her grave Sunday morning. I like to think if she were still around she would have smiled, pocketed the profits and ordered a round of mimosas for everyone involved—it’s okay if they spill.