Lululemon’s recall last week of more than 300,000 tops was impressive not just for its scope, but also for its speed. Remember (recall, if you will) the last time the retailer had a major quality issue—the see-through and pilling pants—it dithered and even blamed its own customers for the problem before finally apologizing and pulling the items from racks.
Recalls are expensive — they mean returns, repairs, and cancelled orders. But not alerting customers to product quality issues can be even more costly because, even in the absence of safety issues, there's a risk of lawsuits and, something that can become indelible, severe damage to the brand.
“Products recalls are going to happen,” Todd Harris, VP of Recalls at Stericycle ExpertSOLUTIONS, a company that handles product recalls for major brands across many industries, including retail, told Retail Dive. "In fact, there are 5-10 recalls happening each day. The ultimate outcome of any recall will depend on what the manufacturer does, and how quickly and effectively they do it. This comes down to accomplishing three goals — protect the public, protect the brand, and close the recall as soon as possible."
"Planning is key. Poor planning or a mishandled recall can damage a brand for years to come," Harris says. "On the other hand, a properly handled recall can actually enhance a brand’s image, and deepen customer loyalty by making customers feel they were treated the right way."
Protect the public
Lululemon’s recall last week was a voluntary move affecting women’s tops with a elastic draw cord with hard metal or plastic tips, sold in the U.S. and Canada between January 2008 and December 2014 for prices ranging from $75 to $260. According to a notice from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, "there were seven reported incidents, resulting in seven injuries to the face and eye" from the cord whipping customers in the face.
Paramount in any consideration of whether to recall an item is safety. In this case, Lululemon hasn’t been sued by anyone, but complaints about injuries to the face and eyes were enough to trigger a recall. The law that created the CPSC some 40 years ago and guides its actions — and the actions of any retailer or manufacturer that finds problematic flaws in their products — has helped reduce incidents of serious injury and even death.
Retailers that manufacture and/or sell baby and children’s toys, apparel, and gear are often compelled to recall products in an abundance of caution. The CPSC provides clear guidance on when to institute a recall and how to go about it. The CPSC helps with the marketing end of things because the agency notifies the public about a recall, the problem, and the remedy.
“No company likes to recall one of its products, but when a safety problem makes a product recall necessary to prevent injuries and save lives, it benefits everyone to move quickly and effectively,” according to the CPSC handbook.
In this case, Lululemon is instructing its customers how to check whether they own one of the flawed tops, and, if so, how to deal with it. The unsafe cord can simply be removed, or Lululemon will provide a replacement.
Protect the brand
Learn from past quality issues
Lululemon’s recent recall, though straightforward and necessary, was clouded by its earlier mistake.
In pretty much every story reported last week about the Lululemon tops' problems and the remedy — a straightforward public service announcement — readers were also treated to a reminder about Lululemon’s previous product snafu.
“Lululemon, the Canadian athletics wear company, was embroiled in a recall controversy in 2013 over its signature black yoga pants, which customers complained were excessively see-through,” noted the New York Times. “Some women who tried to return the pants at Lululemon stores reported being told to put them on and bend over, so staff members could determine how sheer they were.”
CNN Money reminded readers that CEO Christine Day was an apparent casualty of the retailer’s previous product quality incident.
And Quartz couldn’t resist taking a little swipe at Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, who had said of the 2013 issues that only women too large for the clothes would suffer the problem: “This is especially unfortunate for Lululemon, after an embarrassing 2013 recall of unintentionally sheer pants, which company founder Chip Wilson blamed on women’s bodies. He has yet to blame their faces for the aggressive elastic drawcords.”
Know the price of stalling
For a while, customers who complained about Lululemon’s too-sheer pants had no recourse — until the issue became well publicized after reaching a sort of critical mass, many women were bending over during yoga class without knowing what was happening.
“A lot of women weren’t wearing underwear under their Lulus, and it was really disturbing,” one customer told Bloomberg at the time. She said that she contacted the company to no avail. “I think of it now as my personal mission. I pull women aside at the gym and say, ‘Um, do you realize—?’ They’re always shocked.”
So, after months, even years, of complaints, Lululemon in 2013 did finally recall those faulty pants. There was never a safety issue, except for a certain amount of wounded pride once women discovered how sheer their pants were.
In the end, however, that product recall cost Lululemon not only some $67 million in sales, but also dented its quality image, shocked and disappointed its fans, and distracted its leadership at a time when competitors were seizing on its idea — well designed, good-looking yoga gear that could be worn outside the gym — and running with it at lower price points and a wider range of sizes. In fact, with so many pants finally but hastily recalled, the retailer suffered an inventory issue that helped send women elsewhere for new yoga gear.
Close the recall
The rule for recalls, say experts, is to execute them quickly, for the sake both of consumer safety and brand integrity. Regulators (like the CPSC) need detailed documentation of the issue. For stores and customers, clear, swift communication helps maintain a sense of control. Store managers and staff need a system in place regarding any repairs or returns.
“Consumer returns aren’t always about feeling buyer’s remorse or deciding they have no real need for a particular product. Sometimes a consumer is forced to return an item due to issues out of their control,” writes Peter Sobotta for Return Logic. “Companies can protect their name and profit margins, as well as make the process as smooth as possible” by using data to figure out where the merchandise is, figuring out where the recalled merchandise will go, and dealing with the recall as quickly as possible.
“Your company may encounter a brief blip in reputation as a result of a recall, depending on the size and scope,” Sobotta says. “However, it is always better to inform the public as soon as possible to avoid any potential injury or accident. As long as your company completes a necessary recall quickly and in an orderly fashion, customers and your company’s bottom line can be better protected.”