To Target: Retail lessons learned from the Lilly Pulitzer collab.

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Bonafide “Lilly Lovers” arrived in droves in the wee hours of the morning. Decked out in shades of varying pastels, they came, they shopped, they conquered.

A lucky few were even fortunate enough to walk away with coveted pieces from the recent Lilly Pulitzer for Target collaboration. Others returned to their local stores’ packed parking lots – many after waiting in lines reminiscent of Black Friday electronics extravaganzas – without a preppy, patterned shift dress in sight. And that was just the brick and mortar side of the story.

Online, shoppers set alarm clocks, filled social media group chats in anticipation, and highlighted favorites from the pre-launch release of the Lilly “look book” at Target.com, long before the much buzzed about website launch on April 19, 2015. The moment the site went live – at approximately 1:00am EST, a similar fashionista frenzy ensued.

Admittedly, that was yours truly. In my pj’s, hardly able to sleep a wink – MacBook in one hand, iPhone in the other, trying to take it all in (and with a little dose of Lilly luck, hoping to end up with at least one Nosey Posie printed item in my shopping cart). And my lust wasn’t limited to women’s and children’s clothing – also included in the collection were a bevy of cute collectible housewares, ranging from pillows to folding beach chairs, and oh, did I mention cosmetic cases? So, why all of the hullabaloo surrounding an existing brand’s capsule collection? Moreover, why the unbridled excitement for a brand that was founded six decades ago?

AdWeek hit the nail on the bow-adorned head when it comes to retail lessons learned, “Target may have partnered with high-end brands in the past, but Lilly Pulitzer is the first old-guard, social-register brand to sign on, and that makes a big difference.” You’ve got that right. It might just be the brand’s iconic status, and Jackie Kennedy-inspired longevity that actually helped to generate the social buzz to begin with. While some fans – many willing to pay full price in a retail store – were none too pleased at the thought of their treasures potentially “degrading the brand” with a wholesale-style partnership, most “bargainistas” rejoiced wholeheartedly.

In case you find yourself scratching your forehead in full-on preppy puzzlement, here’s a little backgrounder on The Lilly Story. Pulitzer, the brand’s founder and namesake was a prominent socialite who, in 2013, passed away as an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune, after first marrying into the renowned Pulitzer publishing family. According to AdWeek, Pulitzer found herself, “stranded and bored in her Palm Beach manse in 1959, and decided she needed something to keep herself busy, so she opened a fruit juice stand on Worth Avenue. To hide the stains from the oranges and grapefruits she was squeezing, Pulitzer found some colorful cotton prints and made a shift dress from it.” And there you have it: a fashion success story is born. Palm Beachers embraced the printed frocks, the brand soon expanded, resulting in store openings throughout South Florida, and eventually spreading across the East Coast. Shortly thereafter, Jackie O was photographed in a custom Lilly, only further catapulting the company’s popularity.

Return to current day, and “Pink Sunday” as it was affectionately labeled, and the marketing success of the Lilly for Target collab just simply cannot be underscored. According to Roy DeYoung, senior vp of creative strategy for PM Digital, “History is the reason people lined up—they want the Lilly Pulitzer at a good price, and they know it’ll be good, if not exceptional quality, with Target for the price point,” said DeYoung. “But they also know it’ll go fast. Target makes an event out of doing these deals and collaborations every couple of years, and to sell out like this, it’s a circus.” Cue the “under the bigtop” theme music.

Starting with the initial online reveal via Refinery 29, and culminating with the aforementioned “look book,” Target rounded out the juggernaut with a commercial spot featuring “the most lavish pool party ever, complete with the likes of Jay Gatsby.” Take a gander at the commercial – (featuring Chris Noth, or Mr. Big for all you SATC fans) – here. I mean honestly, who wouldn’t want to attend a lavish Lilly shindig…or at least look perfectly polished and impeccably dressed like the attendees?

Given the buzz, not only did fans line up by the hundreds outside of Target locations nationwide, but racks were emptied in mere minutes. Those waiting in the wee hours at home in their jammies didn’t fail to disappoint either. As a result, the company’s website was not equipped to handle the mass hysteria of online traffic, inaccessible just moments after the mere early leak of links to merchandise went viral. Feverishly clicking on anything and everything that they could (present company included), frustration peaked quickly – and spread voraciously – across social media circles, forcing the retailer to issue repeated apologetic tweets to the frantic masses.

With such an overwhelming response – most certainly any retailer’s dream come true – the hot pink elephant in the room is definitely whether or not the laws of supply and demand apply for a limited edition, capsule collection. Is the budgeted retail marketing build-up and buzz worth the potential to upset shoppers (many of whom possess money to spend) when limited product supply leaves so many empty-handed, – making it more the norm that the exception? With no limit to the number of items a consumer was permitted to purchase, the only restriction for Lilly for Target shoppers in this case included a limited 14-day return policy for pieces from the collaboration.

According to USA TODAY, this reaction is not atypical of past collabs, as items included in these “for Target” collections are often seen as collectors’ items, fetching more than double the regular retail price on auction sites such as eBay. Not so coincidentally, when Target launched its Missoni line in 2011, the Italian designer’s fan base reacted in the exact same fashion (pun intended), lining-up, clearing shelves, and crashing the retailer’s website as quickly as items flew off the in-store racks. Shortly after the launch, Lifestyle blogger Stacy Geisinger summed it up bluntly: “Target failed,” she said. “Their website crashed. So much promotion and not enough product. They could have made a fortune. Instead they have many disappointed customers.”

From a fiscal perspective, does a short-order offer in limited supply, with perceived value well beyond the price tag, really make it worthwhile to both the retailer and the consumer? It clearly does if you’re a seller on eBay. For example, Lilly Pulitzer beach towels, retail priced at $25 each, were listed on the ecommerce site for a starting bid of $50, or a “buy it now” price of $250 for a set of four. Yikes.

Buyer backlash hasn’t ended there – soon after Pink Sunday, a movement started on Facebook to boycott such inflated prices. The group’s profile reads: “Boycott eBay sellers who are marking up Lilly by Target after clearing shelves of merchandising only to turn a profit.” Just like the Missoni launch, limited Lilly supply caused gross consumer demand, with shoppers hoarding as many items as possible into a single shopping cart. Make that more than one in some cases. I can attest to groggily waiting in line prior to my store’s opening, making small talk with a married couple behind me, and listening in as the begrudging husband was given a mandated Lilly housewares “honey-do” shopping list. Who needs to be limited to a single cart?

While some may disagree, I think the reward might just outweigh the risk, or perhaps that’s because I emerged victorious both online and in-store. To paraphrase a tweet from a fellow Lilly Lover, “I might not have scored every item I’d been eyeing on my Lilly for Target wish list, but I did wake on Monday feeling triumphant in the spoils of my labor.” Amen, sister. Amen.

Would I allow myself to subsist on a mere two hours of sleep again in the name of fashion? Maybe not. Well, I guess that all depends on Target’s next designer collaboration. As Lilly herself once said, “Anything is possible with sunshine – and a little pink.”

In search of more tips and tricks to navigate the retail marketing landscape – hype included? Contact our experienced team of brand strategists today!

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