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For Zara clothing retailer, lesson to be learned from Nazi shirt controversy

Trendy clothing store Zara landed in a world of trouble last week over its release of a children's pajama top that resembles a Nazi concentration camp uniform.

The shirt, with its dark stripes and yellow star, caused an avalanche of criticism on social media, with many Twitter and Facebook posts accusing the clothing retailer of anti-Semitism and heartlessness.

"I can't believe a major multi-national company could be so clueless and insensitive," wrote one person on Facebook.

"Zara: never shopping at your store again," read another post.

The Spanish company immediately apologized, saying the "T-shirt was inspired by the sheriff's stars from the classic Western films and is no longer in our stores."

Zara, which has had a store at International Plaza in Tampa since 2008, vowed to "reliably" destroy all of the shirts, which weren't widely distributed.

Cultural missteps are one of the biggest nightmares a brand can have. Remember when the founder of Lululemon said customers' fat thighs were to blame for his pricey yoga pants being see-through? No amount of deep breathing could calm the outrage.

Sadly, this wasn't the first time Zara upset the Jewish community. In 2007, it withdrew a handbag adorned with green swastikas. In apologizing, the retailer pointed the finger at a supplier in India, where the swastika was a symbol of luck and well-being long before the Nazis made it a negative icon.

Obviously, Zara needs to take a hard look at its design procedures and how its products are approved, even if that slows down the time it takes to get items to stores. The flagship brand of the Inditex Group, Zara has about 2,000 stores worldwide and is known for its ability to develop and ship a new product within two weeks, instead of the six months it takes other retailers.

Mike Harris, co-founder of Uproar public relations, based in Orlando, said retailers must respond to controversies such as these as quickly as possible. Take full responsibility and be transparent. Never pull the ignorance card because, clearly, someone at the company knew about it. The pajama top didn't materialize out of nowhere.

"Get ahead of it quickly and become completely honest about it," Harris said. "People are willing to forgive an honest mistake, but as soon as you start covering it up, they are less willing to forgive."

Harris said Zara appropriately apologized on social media but should have addressed the matter more thoroughly through official channels because 140-character tweets aren't always enough. Zara's website makes no mention of the issue — at least as far as I can see — and its top executives didn't immediately give a statement or interviews.

Harris, who is Jewish and went to high school and college in Tampa, saw the shirt's similarity to the uniforms worn by Jews during the Holocaust but didn't believe it was intentional or malicious.

"I think they made a stupid mistake," he said, dismissing the likelihood of malicious intent.

Harris recommends that Zara add checkpoints involving senior staff to ensure that all products are properly reviewed. It also wouldn't hurt to help a Jewish charity as a sign of support.

Despite the strong backlash, it's unlikely the controversy will affect Zara's bottom line significantly or long term. Last year, the store ranked 52nd on Forbes' list of the world's most valuable brands, with revenue of $13.5 billion. Surely, it can afford to learn from a distasteful mistake.

Contact Susan Thurston at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston.

For Zara clothing retailer, lesson to be learned from Nazi shirt controversy 09/01/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2014 1:40pm]

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