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They're selling what?! Retailers' biggest blunders

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Retailers' biggest blunders

Hasbro's Play-Doh, clothiers such as Urban Outfitters and Victoria's Secret, mainstream merchandisers like Sears and Amazon ... whether it was an honest mistake or a calculated attempt to build buzz about their brand, retailers over the years have certainly had their fair share of blunders.

Despite the multiple levels of approval required at some of these companies — many of which are large, publicly traded enterprises — items that shoppers perceived as sexist, racist or otherwise distasteful still managed to find their way through the pipeline and onto shelves.

The mistakes are not easily forgotten. Thanks to the widespread adoption of social media, experts said missteps that used to put a temporary tarnish on a retailer's reputation can now have long-lasting effects that hurt its brand equity for years to come.

"That expression that [there's] no bad publicity, it's not true," said Jennifer Vickery, president and CEO of National Strategies Public Relations. "It takes millions of dollars and a lot of time to fix those things."

This is particularly true among repeat offenders, many of whom intentionally put out distasteful items to define their brand as cheeky, suggestive or shocking, said Michael Fineman, president of Fineman PR. He said that controversial products put out by Abercrombie & Fitch over the years, which isolated particular groups of customers, are likely part of the reason it's struggling to rebuild its brand today.

"What we understand is that those kinds of branding efforts can backfire in the long term if the brand violently alienates markets to which they may want to expand in later years," Fineman said.

For its part, the teen retailer has been working to improve its image by adding larger sizes to its assortments, discontinuing the use of "sexualized" imagery in its marketing materials and participating in anti-bullying campaigns. The company also parted ways with controversial CEO Mike Jeffries after steep sales declines.

Click through to see some of retail's biggest gaffes over the years.

—By CNBC's Krystina Gustafson, with contributions from CNBC's Anita Balakrishnan and Sarah Whitten
Updated 15 March 2016

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