Target's Lilly Pulitzer Boom and Bust

Bloomberg View , April 20, 2015

When Target Corp.’s website went offline early Sunday morning, under pressure from the demand for its Lilly Pulitzer capsule collection, and its stores were quickly picked bare by frenzied shoppers, consumers were frustrated. The company issued an apology. “We realize there is an extreme amount of excitement around this collaboration, and we apologize for any disappointment this may have caused,” it said.

As the company’s spin suggests, the incident wasn’t all bad. Target’s designer collections aren’t primarily about moving goods. They’re about generating buzz that makes the retailer seem cool.

Like a similar incident in 2011 with a Missoni collection, the Lilly Pulitzer chaos-- Lucky called it “Shopageddon” -- may reflect badly on the company's IT department, but it makes Target’s merchandising look savvy. “One photo after another shows monster lines, gutted racks and display cases, and hordes of women fighting over these pastel-colored pieces like they’re Furbies and it’s 1998 all over again,” wrote Lucky’s Emily Kirkpatrick.

The frenzy highlights another aspect of Target’s designer collaborations: Like many a hot initial public offering, they’re priced below market, fueling speculative fever.

An EBay search for “Lilly Pulitzer Target” currently turns up more than 30,000 items, suggesting that many of the people hitting Target’s servers and stores weren’t bargain-hunting fashionistas. They were professionals hoping to flip the resort-themed apparel to people with more money than patience or tech skills -- the apparel version of concert ticket scalpers.

These speculators are taking a risk, of course. The merchandise may be less enticing at higher prices without the excitement of the release publicity. After all, even the hottest IPO prices sometimes come crashing down.