Epic Retail Fail: Where Did the Target + Neiman Marcus Collection Go Wrong?

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Too weird, too pretentious, too expensive, and, in the end, too out of step with what today’s arbiters of style deem cool. Those have been among the many critiques of Target’s multi-designer collaboration with luxury retailer Neiman Marcus — a partnership that was hyped to the hilt, and wound up as a major bust. 

Target’s collaboration with Isaac Mizrahi roughly a decade ago introduced the mashup of high fashion and cheap prices that endeared Target to fashion-forward frugal shoppers. Its partnership with Italian designer label Missoni was so popular it prompted long lines, sellouts within hours, and a surge of traffic so big it crashed Target’s website.

The Neiman Marcus collection was supposed to leave that in the dust. The discounter even imposed purchase limits and beefed up its website in anticipation of a mad dash for the goods. In Target’s third-quarter conference call last month, president, CEO, and chairman Gregg Steinhafel told analysts it would be “a stretch” to imagine the collection not selling out in a week’s time.

But not three weeks after the collection’s debut and nearly a week before post-Christmas discounting, Target slashed prices on the entire shebang, from a brightly-colored $500 Alice + Olivia bicycle to $30 for a set of eight Band of Outsiders cookie cutters. Starting on January 1, the entire collection was marked down by 70%, with even larger discounts sure to follow. It’s a major defeat for the company that basically pioneered cheap-chic in American retail.

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Despite all the hype surrounding Target’s Neiman Marcus collection, shoppers, as well as the sartorially-obsessed blogosphere, responded with a big, fat “meh.”

Par for the course was a post “The Neiman Marcus for Target Disaster,” blogger Tayler Bartman of WellTaylered.com called the collection a “hideous display.” “Just because you have to use cheaper materials, doesn’t mean I need to look like I got lost in a thrift store in an array of bipolar time periods,” she wrote.

A few items were widely praised: A set of Tracy Reese dessert plates and a black-and-gold serving tray were both mentioned as outliers, although some groused that the $80 price tag on the tray wasn’t worth it. Girls’ dresses from Marchesa also had some bloggers wishing they were kids again, but many quickly pointed out that they wouldn’t drop $100 on a dress that would get outgrown in a matter of months.

Some complained that designers like Tory Burch and Diane von Furstenberg, known for their distinctive clothes, turned out thermoses and yoga mats (respectively), instead. “They couldn’t do a dress?” blogger Sami Morrissey of SamisShenanigans.com asked plaintively when reviewing the von Furstenberg items. And aside from a tote many bloggers criticized as looking and feeling cheap despite an $80 price tag, Oscar de la Renta — who outfits celebrities in red-carpet looks — offered pet accessories: dog bowls and rhinestone collars.

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The consensus seems to be that items like these — or rather, prices like these — just don’t belong at Target. Indeed, prices were criticized repeatedly in the blogosphere. Sure, it’s cheap for stuff with a designer’s name on it, but the prices are still much higher than what Target shoppers are used to paying, and many bloggers groused that quality was markedly inferior. Target’s Facebook fans were also underwhelmed. The words “cheap” and “overpriced” popped up often — never good, but in combination, a death sentence.

Pam Danziger, owner of Unity Marketing, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that prices just weren’t in touch with today’s wallet-minded shoppers, especially given the continued uncertainty of the economy. “It was overpriced to begin with,” she said. (A Target spokesman declined to comment on the collection’s sales, although a spokeswoman quoted in the Pioneer Press said the collection helped Target stand out this holiday season.)

On top of this, Target made some tactical stumbles with the collection. Citi analyst Deborah Weinswig took the retailer to task in a research note called, “Don’t Believe the Hype: Target + Neiman Marcus Holiday Collection Disappoints.” Among the mistakes: Sticking the collection at the back of the store (the display eventually migrated to the front of the store), and doing a generally sloppy job presenting it, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The collection drew flak from Target and Neiman Marcus customers alike. Some Neiman Marcus shoppers complained on the brand’s Facebook page that the items intended to be sold at Target were made in China, and that Target’s customer service was poor. (You’d assume the big shelves of stuff for a dollar near the front doors would tip off shoppers that this isn’t the place to go for hand-holding service.)

Overall, though, Neiman Marcus customers seemed happier with the collection than their Target counterparts. There are quite a few positive reviews of the collection on the Neiman Marcus Facebook page, and some items have sold out on the Neiman Marcus website — without the benefit of a 50% off markdown.

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For the most part, however, experts say that the collection exuded an out-of-touch, let-them-eat-cake worldview that turned off budget-conscious shoppers. Retail analyst Jim McComb told the Pioneer Press, “The selection of merchandise confused me… the things they were offering were not the kinds that are going to fly off the shelf.”

Neiman Marcus is famous for its holiday catalog chock-full of whimsical (read: strictly discretionary) items with sky-high price tags, but the people at both stores who curated the collection overestimated the appetite for this kind of stuff in the mass market. The brand isn’t really considered trendy or edgy; instead, it’s the vanguard of aspirational consumerism. And it would seem that a brand image reliant on the idea of old-money luxury clashes with the egalitarian ethos of cheap-chic fashion.

Or as one blogger put it: “What the hell are you thinking, Neiman Marcus, partnering with Target? Neiman is high-end and endless class,” blogger Kate Concannon of LifeSucksInAStraplessBra.com, wrote back in July when news of the collaboration surfaced. “I get it, you want to make the Neiman Marcus brand obtainable to everyone in America … but the fun about Neiman is … it ISN’T obtainable.”