They're selling what?! Retailers' biggest blunders

Retailers' biggest blunders

Dirima | Getty Images

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

Forever 21's 'don't say maybe' shirt

Forever 21 has pulled this shirt from its line as customers responded with outrage.
Source: Forever 21

No stranger to controversial merchandise, Forever 21 has discontinued the sale of one of its newest T-shirts, which bears the slogan "Don't say maybe if you want to say no."

The product first came under fire in February after customers took to Twitter to complain that the shirt perpetuates rape culture.

"I'm saying no to this shirt," on social media user said in a tweet.

"With regards to the T-shirt in question, upon receiving feedback from our customers, we took immediate action to have it removed from our website. We sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by the product," the company told The Consumerist.

Representatives from Forever 21 did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Target's trophy wives

Strand Trophy wife Tshirt sold online at Target.
Source: Target

As part of its bridal T-shirt collection, Target shoppers can broadcast their upcoming roles as "Mrs.," "Bride"... or "Trophy."

Consumers sounded off against the big box store last year for what they called a "sexist" shirt, with one going so far as starting a petition asking Target to stop selling the item.

"The word trophy should not refer to any person, man or woman, because we are not THINGS—we are human beings," the petition said. Others defended the retailer on its Facebook page, with one user writing, "If you do not like a shirt DON'T BUY IT!! I am tired of having tired busybodies telling me what I can and cannot buy."

A Target spokeswoman told CNBC: "It is never our intention to offend anyone and we always appreciate receiving feedback from our guests.... These shirts are intended as a fun wink and we have received an overwhelmingly positive response from our guests." She added that Target would continue the sale of this collection.

PacSun's Memorial Day controversy

PacSun upside down U.S. flag T-shirt upsets Memorial Day shoppers.

Selling red, white and blue garb on Memorial Day is a surefire way to bring out shoppers' patriotism — most of the time. But PacSun found out the hard way that's not always the case.

Over the holiday weekend, which commemorates U.S. soldiers, angry consumers criticized the teen retailer for selling a T-shirt with an upside down flag. That image stands in stark contrast to the U.S. Code, which says, "The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property."

Commentators took to social media to either berate PacSun for being disrespectful to the country's veterans, or to say the image was an accurate depiction of America's state of distress.

"Out of respect for those who have put their lives on the line for our country, we have decided to stop selling the licensed flag t-shirt and are removing it from our stores and website immediately," the company said in a statement. "We thank the men and women in uniform for their extraordinary service."

Budweiser's controversial Bud Light bottle

Bud Lite apologizes for label controversy.
Source: Reddit | GhosX9

This Bud Light bottle was pulled from the company's "Up for Whatever" campaign in April, after it prompted a petition with more than 14,000 signatures. Critics said the bottle, which reads, "The perfect beer for removing 'no' from your vocabulary for the night," promotes "rape culture" over "consent culture."

"The Bud Light Up for Whatever campaign, now in its second year, has inspired millions of consumers to engage with our brand in a positive and light-hearted way," Alexander Lambrecht, vice president of Bud Light, said in a statement. "In this spirit, we created more than 140 different scroll messages intended to encourage brand engagement. It's clear that this particular message missed the mark, and we regret it. We would never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior."

Play-Doh's Sweet Shoppe Cake Mountain Playset

Wendy Wong

Images of Play-Doh's Sweet Shoppe Cake Mountain Playset spread across social media in December 2014, after children unwrapped the gift over the holidays. The issue? The kit's frosting "extruder," which is used to squeeze icing onto the play cakes, resembles a certain part of the male body.

"We have heard some consumer feedback about the extruder tool in the Play-Doh Cake Mountain playset and are in the process of updating all future Play-Doh products with a different tool," Julie Duffy, vice president of global communications at Play-Doh's parent company Hasbro, said via email.

The company also issued a statement on Twitter and offered replacement pieces for customers who contact its customer service department.

Urban Outfitters’ Kent State sweatshirt

Source: Urban Outfitters

Known for its controversial merchandise, Urban Outfitters stirred outrage across social media in September 2014 when it sold a red sweatshirt bearing the Kent State name, and what appeared to be a blood spatter.

The retailer responded on Twitter, saying: "It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such."

Urban Outfitters’ ‘Eat Less’ T-shirt

Urban Outfitters

Back in 2010, Urban Outfitters made headlines when it sold a gray T-shirt that read, "Eat Less." The retailer pulled the item from its website in response to the uproar.

Urban Outfitters’ ‘Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl’ T-shirt

The "Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl" shirt sold by Urban Outfitters

Shoppers were outraged by Urban Outfitters' "Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl" shirt, which hit shelves about 10 years ago, because the text was surrounded by "stereotypical symbols such as dollar signs," Fineman said. In response to the controversy, the company redesigned the shirt to exclude the dollar signs, as seen here.

Swastika ring sold on Sears, Amazon

Sears website screenshot | Snopes

Retailers that sell to a wide array of customers are often more vulnerable to hurting their brand equity when they carry controversial items, Fineman said. It's also more difficult for their teams to monitor the millions of items that they're selling.

"There's going to be a few of these things that fall through the cracks," he said.

Both Amazon and Sears stopped selling a swastika ring on their websites. Sears issued an apology, saying, "[We] want you to know that the ring was not posted by Sears, but by independent third-party vendors."

Victoria’s Secret 'Sexy Little Geisha' outfit


In 2012, the lingerie brand drew criticism for its "Sexy Little Geisha" outfit, which featured model Candice Swanepoel in a mostly see-through bodysuit with "Eastern-inspired" florals. Victoria's Secret removed the link from its website amid the controversy.

Victoria’s Secret headdress

Adam Jeffery | CNBC

That same year, Victoria's Secret received complaints after model Karlie Kloss wore a headdress during its annual fashion show. VS issued a statement following the uproar, saying, "We are sorry that the American Indian headdress replica used in our recent fashion show has upset individuals. We sincerely apologize as we absolutely had no intention to offend anyone."

Zara shirt that resembled a concentration camp uniform

Zara's pajamas that bore a resemblance to concentration camp uniforms

In 2014, Zara released a striped blue-and-white children's pajama top with a yellow star over the left chest. Consumers took to social media, criticizing the retailer for the item's resemblance to uniforms worn by prisoners at concentration camps during the Holocaust. Zara issued an apology over social media, saying, "We honestly apologize. It was inspired by the sheriff's stars from the Classic Western films and is no longer in our stores."

Zara’s 'White Is the New Black' T-shirt

Zara screenshot

Just a few weeks before its striped-tee gaffe, Zara came under fire for its T-shirt that read "White Is the New Black."

Although the shirt is no longer available on the company's website, Zara kept selling a shirt that said: "Leopard Is the New Black," with the word "leopard" written in leopard print.

Sexy Halloween costumes based on children’s characters

Sexy Olaf?
Source: Disney |

Ronald McDonald? Check. Oscar the Grouch? Check. Olaf the Snowman? The list goes on. Sexy costume maker Yandy made headlines in 2014 when its racy take on the "Frozen" character sold out.

Costume makers have come under increased scrutiny over the years for turning nearly every object and character imaginable into an opportunity for women to dress suggestively at Halloween. Yandy previously declined to comment on its Olaf costume.

Sexy Halloween costumes for kids

Party City

As if it weren't enough that everything from Mickey Mouse to lobsters have been made sexy for the adult set, Halloween has also taken a racy turn for girls under 5. A wide swath of retailers, from Party City to Kmart, and Spirit Halloween to Halloween Express, all carried a similar version of the cop costume shown here, designed for toddlers or children.

Nike’s 'Boston Massacre' shirt

NIke's controversial "Boston Massacre"
AP Graphics Bank

After the bombings at the Boston Marathon in 2013, Nike pulled its "Boston Massacre" T-shirt. The shirts made no reference to the bombings—in fact, they were created before the attack—and were designed as a nod to when the Yankees swept the Red Sox in a four-game series in 1978.

"We conducted this process as quickly as possible and are confident the product has been removed from distribution," a Nike spokeswoman told The Associated Press at the time.

J.C. Penney’s 'I’m Too Pretty to Do Homework' sweatshirt

A screenshot of JC Penney's website, selling a shirt the company pulled from its inventory.
JC Penney | tech4mommies

Mothers were outraged with J.C. Penney in 2011, when the department store started selling a sweatshirt that read, "I'm too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me." The retailer pulled the sweatshirt and apologized to consumers, saying, "We agree that the 'too pretty' T-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message."

The Children’s Place ‘My Best Subjects’ T-shirt

Source: NBC News

In 2013, The Children's Place stopped selling a girls' T-shirt that listed the wearer's "best subjects" as shopping, music and dancing. The only box that didn't have a check? Math. The retailer issued an apology on social media, saying, "We take feedback from our customers seriously. We pulled the T-shirt from our stores and express apologies to anyone we may have offended."

Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts on Asian culture

One of the Abercrombie & Fitch T-Shirts some said were offensive to Asians
AP Graphics Bank

The teen retailer got into hot water in 2002 when it sold a series of T-shirts that many shoppers said trivialized the Asian culture. Among them was a shirt depicting the Wong Brothers' laundry service, where "two Wongs can make it white," and "Get Your Buddha on the Floor."

Also in 2002, Abercrombie angered parents by selling children's thong underwear that included suggestive words such as "wink wink." According to media reports at the time, the product was pulled from its stores.

Abercrombie & Fitch ‘Do I Make You Look Fat’ T-shirt

Abercrombie's controversial shirt

A few years later, Abercrombie stirred up controversy again for a new series of T-shirts, including one that read, "Do I Make You Look Fat?" Today, the retailer is singing a more accepting tune by participating in anti-bullying initiatives.

Hallmark 'swastika' wrapping paper

Andy Holzman | Los Angeles Daily News | AP

Sometimes it isn't the product that's the issue; it's what it's wrapped in.

In 2014, questions were raised about blue-and-silver wrapping paper sold by Hallmark that one customer said included a swastika embedded in its design. The company pulled the gift wrap from its stores, saying it never intended to offend anyone.