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Tuesday, February 03, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Never underestimate customer's 'bad' taste
By Young Chang
Butch Stevenson had braced himself last month for a backlash against a T-shirt that read "Rong Rive Engrish."
But the assistant manager of the downtown Zebraclub, an apparel chain in the Seattle area, did what he usually does when he's not sure how a product will be received: He put it out there.
"It ended up being one of our top-selling shirts by our Asian community," Stevenson said.
"It's all relative, what's gonna be offensive."
After some retailers pulled merchandise bearing messages that customers found offensive, local store owners are mulling over what determines whether a statement is funny or mean.
Seattle-based Bon-Macy's, Claire's Stores and Tilly's withdrew certain products by Clearwater, Fla.-based clothing line David & Goliath after Glenn Sacks, a syndicated radio talk-show commentator, called attention to its logos.
The shirts say, "Boys Are Smelly"; Boys are Stupid, Throw Rocks At Them!"; and "Boys Have Cooties," among other boys-are-bad messages.
Todd Goldman, creator of the David & Goliath line, which includes 2,500 designs apart from the "Boys Are Smelly" stuff, said he doesn't understand why people find the logos offensive.
"I don't sell rocks with the T-shirts," he said.
Goldman says his online sales have tripled in the weeks since the brouhaha began over his designs. He says he probably should send Sacks flowers.
Retailers' responses to the uproar have varied.
"A broad range of customers shared their concern with Bon-Macy's by phone and e-mail. While these products have been in high demand from many Bon-Macy's customers since they were introduced last fall, we listened to what our customers shared with us and decided in December to pull this particular merchandise from the floor."
An Urban Outfitters shirt that recently attracted controversy reads "Everybody Loves a Jewish Girl" and shows dollar signs and shopping bags. The store pulled the item last week, saying in a statement: "Urban has fully ceased production of the shirt in its 'objectionable' state, altering artwork and shifting deliveries in the process."
Specifically, the chain plans to omit the dollar signs and shopping bags.
Urban Outfitters still carries David & Goliath goods, including "Boys Have Cooties" notebooks and other accessories.
Jeff Marshall, marketing coordinator for the trendy chain Hot Topic, said, "It's always about listening to our customers."
The edgy store, filled with products meant to be humorous, sarcastic and dark, has withdrawn items upon customer request, Marshall said. It sold David & Goliath products last year during a test run, then stopped because they didn't sell well.
But Lisa Chang, owner of the Capitol Hill boutique Trendy Wendy, said she wouldn't be so quick to cater to customers' reactions.
"If somebody came up to me and said 'This is offensive,' I would probably order more if it," she said. "Because usually the person who would talk to the retailer and say, 'This is blah blah blah' is probably not our target market."
The controversy is not new.
In April 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch recalled T-shirts that drew complaints from Asian-American groups. One shirt depicted two Asians with slanted eyes and cone-shaped hats and said "Wong Brothers Laundry Service Two Wongs can make it white."
Target had a similar situation in late 2002, when it pulled shorts and a hat reading "88" (or "Eight Eight") for their potential to be seen as shorthand for "Heil Hitler" among neo-Nazi groups.
Local retailers say they consider the following when deciding whether to carry a potentially offensive product: who their customers are, what their gut tells them, and whether the item is edgy or over the edge.
But Stevenson admits that many times, he doesn't know.
Take the case of Michael Jackson shirts, which were in stores long before the singer was charged with child molestation late last year: The shirts read "I (picture of glove) MJ" and sold well at Zebraclub.
"We were sitting on 'em for a long, long time," Stevenson said. "We're talking about an alleged pedophile. When (Jackson was arraigned), everyone had to have this T-shirt. It's a really hard judgment call on a lot of that stuff."
Young Chang: 206-748-5815 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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