We witnessed appalling lows, like the Bangladesh garment factory fire that killed thousands and put pressure on fast-fashion firms like Walmart and H&M to fix their supply chains. For more on the latter, see Forbes contributor Walter Loeb’s list of the tragedies that changed the retail landscape this year.
There have also been plenty of embarrassing goofs, PR gaffes and moments of foot-in-mouth idiocy this past year. In fact, predictably, the retail stories hogging the headlines in 2013 seemed to be the ones resulting in mealy-mouthed apologies or backpedaling.
Paula Deen’s Racism Rift
The summer of 2013 was not kind to TV chef Paula Deen, she of the folksy banter and Southern-fried menu. In a deposition for a workplace discrimination suit, Deen admitted that she’d used racist language and tolerated racist jokes in one of her restaurants. Her lucrative business partnerships and endorsement deals evaporated one by one despite a teary Today Show apology. Walmart cut its ties with the chef, as did smaller companies like pharma firm Novo Nordisk, for whom she’d shilled a diabetes drug.
Lululemon’s See-through Pants Saga…
In March, cult workout-wear brand Lululemon made an embarrassing and costly announcement. The Canadian company recalled a whopping 17% of its yoga pants (price: $72 to $98) after discovering they were too sheer, resulting in some bad “bottom line” puns in the press. The outfitters earned plaudits for their handling of the recall, but it was a black eye for a brand with normally faultless PR. The year could’ve ended on a positive note for the yoga giants. Alas, their founder opened his mouth.
…And Lululemon’s Fat Thighs Fiasco
Confronted about this spring’s costly product recall during a TV interview, Lululemon’s billionaire founder Chip Wilson stumbled through an answer, blaming not Lululemon’s black Luon material for being too sheer but instead women’s thighs and their tendency to touch on occasion. “Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work,” the Vancouver-based former surfer explained. “It’s about the rubbing through the thighs,” said Wilson, and “how much pressure is there.” Wrong answer, Chip. Cue the weepy YouTube apology video.
Thankfully, McDonald’s will start 2014 with a (relatively) clean PR slate after a series of idiotic gaffes that highlighted their workers’ low wages this past year. As Forbes contributor Laura Shin noted in her extensive coverage of the embarrassing incidents, the world’s largest restaurant chain drew groans for offering its employees a sample budget — which would’ve been fine, except that it served to show the impossibility of living on McDonald’s wages. Its McResource site went on to offer advice on how much its staffers, many of whom are paid minimum wage, should tip their pool cleaners and nannies. The burger purveyors have now shuttered the ridiculed website.
Abercrombie & Fitch’s Fat-Shaming
Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries weathered a spate of bad publicity this past spring, when some ill-advised comments from a 2006 interview found new life on the internet. He’d candidly suggested the teen retail chain’s clothes were only for the thin and attractive in the seven-year-old Salon piece, igniting a social media frenzy when resurrected in a widely-read Business Insider blog post. At the time, he apologized profusely (well, sort of. He regretted that his words were misinterpreted and caused offense). Six months later, the company capitulated and announced plus sizes would soon be on offer — a move decried as “desperate” given Abercrombie’s perilous financial state: November marked its seventh quarterly fall in same-store sales in a row.
Barilla Pasta’s LGBT Letdown/>/>
As Forbes contributor Laura Heller succinctly put it in September: “I pity the fool who messes with the purchasing power of the LGBT community.” Italian pasta company Barilla did just that when its CEO told a radio host he’d never market directly to gay couples, preferring instead “classic” families with a woman at the helm. German competitor Bertolli lost no time presenting itself as an LGBT-friendly option, as told by AdWeek, posting a photo and caption that translates to “pasta and love for all” on its title="Facebook features">Facebook page and resurrecting a commercial from 2011 featuring gay couples.
Walmart’s Social Media Melee
To take advantage of the biggest shopping week of the year, the world’s largest retail chain opened on Thanksgiving, registering 10 million transactions between 6pm and 10pm that day alone. Walmart CEO Bill Simon appeared on morning TV the following morning, describing the store chain’s early Black Friday sales as “bigger, better, faster, cheaper and safer than ever.” Twitter users could be forgiven for contesting that final descriptor. Overnight on Thanksgiving, the hashtag #WalmartFights started trending across the U.S., according to social media tracker TrendsMapUSA. Shoppers at Walmart stores in a handful of states uploaded photos as well as YouTube and Vine videos showing violence, injuries and arrests during the retailer’s first few hours of sales.
Cracker Barrel’s Duck Dynasty Flip-Flop
I think we can safely call Cracker Barrel’s response to the Phil Robertson scandal a clusterduck. The Southern restaurant chain became the first major retailer to pull some Duck Dynasty products off its shelves in late December in response to cast member Phil Robertson’s now-notorious anti-gay GQ interview. Cue a barrage of tweets, emails, and calls from Duck Dynasty fans to the powers that be at Cracker Barrel, not to mention threats of a boycott. A day later, the 625-outlet comfort food chain capitulated and announced it would resume selling Duck Dynasty products.
What have I missed? Leave your suggestions in the comment section.