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Limited-time retail sales can be limiting

From left, model Camila Alves and actresses Kate Bosworth, Bella Thorne and Ellie Kemper attend the Lilly Pulitzer for Target launch event at the Bryant Park Grill on Wednesday in New York. (Associated Press)
From left, model Camila Alves and actresses Kate Bosworth, Bella Thorne and Ellie Kemper attend the Lilly Pulitzer for Target launch event at the Bryant Park Grill on Wednesday in New York. (Associated Press)
Anne D’Innocenzio Associated Press

NEW YORK – Target shoppers found out this weekend that when stores make deals to carry merchandise from high-end designers for a limited time, it can be, well, really limiting.

The discounter partnered with the Lilly Pulitzer brand to carry a collection of 250 pieces for a fraction of the price of the Palm Beach designer’s original merchandise. But the line, which included $38 pink shift dresses and $25 beach towels, was wrought with long lines in stores, quick sellouts online and other problems.

The line shows the challenges stores face when they offer limited-time collections. These lines typically consist of cheaper versions of designer pieces and are sold for a short period of time. They generate buzz from aspirational buyers who want to don upscale brands as well as avid wearers of the labels themselves. But the high demand can be a double-edged sword: Often, customers encounter picked-over merchandise and website snafus.

Target, which pioneered these partnerships in the 1990s and has been followed by rivals like H&M, Gap and Kohl’s, started selling the Lilly Pulitzer collection Sunday online at about 1 a.m. and at stores at 5 a.m. Demand was so heavy that Target took the site offline for 20 minutes, which caused angry chatter on social media. Ultimately, the items sold out online within a few hours and at many of the 1,800 stores within a half-hour.

Target apologized for the online snafu, noting an “inconsistent experience for our guests.” And spokesman Joshua Thomas said pieces could still be found at stores.

“We felt good about the amount of product, but you just don’t know until you give customers a chance to shop,” Thomas said.

Despite issues, some experts say Target’s Lilly Pulitzer collection was a success. “I think this was a huge success not only because Target sold out but because everyone was talking about them,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market researcher NPD Group.

Here are some challenges retailers face with limited-time partnerships:

Hard to predict demand

Stores and analysts say it’s hard to gauge what shoppers will actually buy since those items haven’t ever been sold before.

There was lot of buzz leading up to Target’s launch of its limited-time partnership with Neiman Marcus in 2012. Target increased production in anticipation of a sales blowout, but Target shoppers thought the line was too expensive, while well-heeled Neiman Marcus customers didn’t think it was high quality. Several weeks later, prices were slashed over 50 percent.

After market sellers

Some shoppers use these partnerships to profit by selling the stuff on eBay.

For instance, there were sold-out Lilly Pulitzer items selling for at least three times original prices on eBay. That frustrates shoppers who want to buy items just for themselves.

“I think it’s sad that it can’t be a fun experience,” said Meredith Forbes, who was at Target on Sunday.

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