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Target's under-stocked sale: Lessons not learned

Evan Schuman | April 24, 2015
In retail -- and especially in e-commerce -- there's a nuanced distinction between having a very popular sale and arranging for far too little merchandise. It's like those hold recordings that say the lengthy hold time is because of high customer call volume, prompting most people to mumble, "That and the fact that you're too cheap to hire enough call center operators."

(By the way, the Target mobile app also added support on Tuesday for iPhone fingerprint biometrics. "You can now sign in to your account using Touch ID with iPhone 5S or newer" as well as it "resolved an issue where some (shoppers) were repeatedly prompted to sign in." Thought you'd want to know.)

My favorite part of Tesija's message, though, was saved for the very end and it was a message for shoppers who were locked out of the sale. "We won't be restocking this collection: once it's gone, it's gone. However, if you missed out on the launch, you can still check back at your local Target store over the next few weeks. We have a 14 day return policy for programs like this, so there's always the chance that someone might return an item that you're looking to get your hands on!"

Yes, nothing says Target like waiting to pay full price for product rejected by someone else.

Having said all this, please allow to say a few words in Target's defense. Let's see. Target secured some product that its shoppers really wanted (good work, purchasing), it did a terrific job getting the word with aggressive marketing and social media (lots of points for marketing), the sale launched when it was supposed to (no brownie points, but there's nothing bad here) and the popular product sold out.

While it's fine form to Monday Morning Quarterback inventory decisions, it's not known how much product was even available to Target. More importantly, projecting sales is never easy. Granted, thinking you have enough for weeks and selling out in hours is compelling circumstantial evidence that somebody misjudged inventory levels or demand, but maybe marketing did its job too well. It's hard to fault Target for that.

The site slowdown? This is a bit trickier. Target.com should be able to handle tidal waves of customers when they knew it was coming. But no server farm's capacity is infinite. If marketing indeed did a better than expected job, it's reasonable that IT would have caught offguard. Although I said that there is no perceived distinction among shoppers between a slow site and a downed site, there is in fact a difference and the site — as far I can tell — indeed never crashed. When hit with an unexpectedly huge rush of traffic, a site slowdown is hard to avoid. Can't find much fault in Target's IT team, either. (For this, guys. Just for this.)

There are lessons to be learned and someone needs to come up with more accurate ways of forecasting demands for highly marketed campaigns. Until then, though, Target's loss is eBay's gain.

 

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