USA TODAY - That fancy-dancy Starbucks card promotion is taking some unexpected PR heat.
Some consumers are crying foul after Gilt, the luxury retailer working with Starbucks on the promotion, accidentally posted — then quickly un-posted — the $450, ultra-limited edition Starbucks Metal card on its site one day before it was supposed to go on sale.
Result: Some savvy consumers not only bought that card way ahead of the curve, but turned around and re-posted the collectible cards for sale on eBay — at as much as twice the price. This, even before the cards were supposedly available for purchase to general consumers at noon EST on Friday.
At the same time, My Starbucks Rewards Gold-level customers also had an early chance to buy a very limited number of cards one hour before the general public.
Now, Starbucks is feeling the heat from some disappointed customers. There were only 1,000 of the cards sold, in total. Neither Starbucks nor Gilt will say exactly how many were sold ahead of time between the accidental posting on Gilt's site and the early availability to some Starbucks VIP members.
"Starbucks should be ashamed of themselves for pairing up with a deceptive company like this," says Chad Burrows, president of a commercial cleaning company, who noticed some of the designer cards for re-sale on eBay hours before they were supposedly available on the Gilt site. He tried, in vain, to get a card when Gilt posted them Friday. And, he scoffs, "I don't believe anyone actually purchased these at or around 12 noon."
For Starbucks, it may be a hard lesson in what can happen when a multibillion-dollar company risks its reputation by relying upon a vendor to pull off a high-profile promotion without a hitch. What should have been a PR bonanza for Starbucks has devolved into something quite different.
"I'm not speculating on what we could have done differently," says Starbucks spokeswoman Linda Mills. But after the Gilt link prematurely went live, she says, about 100 cards were sold — and Starbucks honored those sales. "It was unfortunate that the link went up early," she says.
Gilt Groupe founder Alexis Maybank says the card "certainly got out earlier than we anticipated." The accidental early post occurred after a "sale preview" page on the site had a technical issue that allowed some customers to purchase early.
Even then, the "lion's share" of cards were sold, as promised, after 12 noon EST on Friday, she says. And they sold out in seconds. "I sat there in jaw-dropping disbelief with my engineers," she says. When the Starbucks Metal Card was posted, the hits-per-minute on the site "eclipsed by 2½ times the hits per minute we got on Cyber Monday — which is our biggest day."
Such intense consumer interest "shows what Starbucks is as a brand," she says. "If we had our way, we'd say, please give us a million of them, Starbucks."
Larry Smith, senior consultant at the Institute for Crisis Management, says Starbucks should consider "extending the offer" or at least make more of the cards available to general consumers. And Gilt, he says, needs to take responsibility and explain how the early posting happened.
But he doesn't see it as a major PR crisis. "The good news is, the American public has a short attention span about things like this," he says.
But it has a long attention span for deals.
Which may be why, on Dec. 12, Gilt will post another ultra-special deal on its site — two, one-of-a-kind Infiniti custom cars designed by top fashion designers. The cost for one, says Maybank: $75,000.