Retailers’ conference calls from 2014 were often full of reasons for falling or stagnant sales — many which they maintained were outside their control: the weather, the economy, a pervasive “retail funk.” But some retailers blundered themselves into problems, which include anything from offensive apparel to execs with false credentials.
Here are some of the issues faced by retailers this year, in no particular order. Perhaps with some foresight, these could have been prevented.
1. L.L. Bean’s boot shortage
You might think that a retailer that has made and sold a world-famous line of winter boots for more than a century would be ready for its Christmas orders, especially when those boots have seen renewed popularity for well over a year.
Yet L.L. Bean this busy season is unable to keep up with orders of its signature "Bean boots" and is in the unbelievable position of having to tell many of its customers that their orders will probably go unfulfilled for months. That, no surprise, is leading to canceled orders, like that of customer Scott Hood, who tried to get a pair for his 24-year-old son as a Christmas gift, only to find out they won’t be available till Feb. 24.
2. Offensive clothing
The backlash was swift in September when Urban Outfitters put up for sale a bloody-looking vintage sweatshirt from Kent State, the university in Ohio where four students in 1970 were killed by National Guard soldiers. The piece was one of a kind and quickly unavailable, but the uproar lasted for days and left many cynical about the retailer’s true aims.
But Urban Outfitters wasn’t the only one with questionable taste in merchandising this year. Zara pulled a children’s shirt that struck many as reminiscent of Nazi garb, and H&M cleared its racks of a shirt with a Star of David that also sported a skull, which many found anti-Semitic.
These merchandising decisions might be cynical ploys for attention or they may be the result of poor decision-making or coordination at the corporate level. Regardless, with a little more thought these retailers should be able to opt more often for common decency.
3. Old Navy’s battle with customers over plus-sized clothes
This one’s ongoing, really, although the retailer gave a little after a protest over its pricing and policies for plus-sized clothes garnered more than 95,000 signatures via Change.org. That’s a lot of attention from customers who clearly want to keep buying clothes there, but Old Navy’s response has been somewhat subdued. The petitioners asked the retailer to stop charging more for plus-sized women’s jeans. “For example,” Renee Posey writes, “Old Navy’s Rockstar Super Skinny Jeans cost $27 in a size 6. The same jeans in a size 26 cost $40. Alternatively, the men’s Slim-Fit Jean costs $25--no matter the size.”
This is a good argument, and Old Navy has said it will now allow returns in stores (the plus-size clothes are only available online) and convene a conference that includes customers to examine its policies. But it won’t change its prices because, it says, the design of plus-size clothes mean they cost more.
Although Posey declared victory, this seems like a missed opportunity for Old Navy to please a whole lot of customers. Designer and apparel retailer Isaac Mizrahi would — and does — go much further, saying that designers and retailers should forgo specialty sizes altogether because they can be demeaning to customers.
"If you're going to do clothes, you need to do them in a whole size range,” he said in March.
4. Wal-Mart exec's false resume
Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s vice president of communications David Tovar wasn’t shy about taking on the press over critical coverage. This summer Tovar infamously published a blog post featuring red inked edits of a New York Times column by Timothy Egan about companies’ responsibilities, including specifically Wal-Mart, in addressing income inequality by providing better wages.
“Thanks for sharing your first draft,” Tovar said. “Below are a few thoughts to ensure something inaccurate doesn’t get published.”
But Egan may have had the last laugh when Tovar left without notice in September after it came to light that he had never graduated from the University of Delaware in 1996 as stipulated on his resume. That was apparently revealed from due diligence conducted on employees at Tovar’s level, but, considering that he'd been at the company for 18 years, it may have been too little, too late.
5. Lululemon alienates its biggest fans
A retailer savvy enough to keep people spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on fitness gear seems like it would know how to avoid making those same people feel shame, anger, and frustration. But Lululemon, the yoga-and-fitness retailer that even many of its fans compare to a cult, managed to alienate some of its best customers when it cracked down on re-selling of its clothing in February.
Faced with one of the most Draconian return policies in retail, many Lululemon customers who missed the strict 14-day window for returns had been recouping some of their investment by selling unwanted items on re-sale sites like eBay. But in February they found they were blocked from buying from the retailer's website. Lululemon's reason for the crackdown was that if it's not in charge of selling its own goods, it can't appropriately educate and interact with its customers.
Irate customers began interacting with the retailer, all right — complaining about the policy on Facebook, Twitter, and their own Lululemon-oriented blogs. Two days later the retailer did an about-face. It was a public relations debacle that played into the company’s reputation for gracelessness and even bullying behavior, adding yet another page to the Lululemon chapter in marketing students' playbooks on "What Not To Do."
6. Wal-Mart, online pricing victim
In mid-November when Wal-Mart Stores Inc. expanded price-matching in all of its U.S. stores, it finally seemed to solve a longstanding and almost Kafkaesque problem faced by many Walmart customers who couldn’t get the retailer’s own online retail price in its stores.
But unscrupulous customers, wise to how easy it is to set up an Amazon marketplace seller account, quickly took advantage of the new policy and created fake pages that showed $400 PlayStation 4 consoles selling for $50 to $100. Several unsuspecting Wal-Mart workers accepted the advertised number at face value, a fraction of its best retail price, and matched it per the retailer’s new policy. It was a crafty move, and a loophole that the retailer quickly closed, though not before selling quite a few consoles at ridiculously low prices.
Like so many snafus, this one could probably have been avoided with a little extra attention, especially since the scam was motivated by an earlier, known online sales glitch at Sears.
7. Home Depot's data breach
Last year’s massive credit-card breach at Target caused unprecedented havoc and expense for that retailer, so all others were essentially put on notice, especially when cyber-forensics experts found it could have been avoided if Target had followed its own protocols.
Yet, when Home Depot suffered its own data breach in September, a number of ex-employees came forward to say that they had warned their then-employer of network vulnerabilities as far back as 2008. Home Depot's chief of tech security was also convicted in May on federal charges of sabotaging his former employer’s network yet remained in his position after his indictment in January.
Needless to say, the retailer’s retention of an IT professional known to be capable of mischief seems especially short-sighted.
8. Best Buy’s Black Friday website crash
Much of the coverage of Best Buy’s e-commerce crashes during Black Friday's busy shopping weekend was along the lines of "good problem to have." For one thing, it was a sign of consumers’ willingness to spend, and spend on electronics, which was beginning to seem like a retail lost cause. It was also a sign of mobile’s new role in retail commerce — Best Buy cited traffic from mobile devices as a primary cause of its online crashes.
Still, the crashes were alarming and annoying to customers. Consumer expectations do seem to be outpacing many retailers’ readiness on mobile in general, and retailers can’t let that continue.
9. Amazon's mis-delivery of its own conveyor belt part
Maybe it's Amazon's way of saying we should all become Prime members, but when the e-retail giant recently delivered a piece of its own conveyer belt instead of a gift, the giver and receiver were both at a loss. Hilarity ensued, at least on @BlueHeronFarmTX's Twitter feed, where farmer Lisa Seger speculated: "Wondering if the shipping of a 9 lb conveyor roller was just a cry for help from an @amazon warehouse employee."
But the fact that Amazon threatened to charge the customer for the roller if it wasn't immediately returned was a little tone-deaf, as some of Amazon's actual human-to-human customer relations unfortunately can be. And while UPS was quickly dispatched to pick up and return the conveyor-belt piece, the gift isn't expected to arrive for at least two more weeks, ruining the Amazon customer's original intent of getting it there in time for the first night of Hannukah.