Early this week, giant old-school retailer Macy’s came under fire for – of all things – dinnerware. Across social media, users called out Macy’s for fat-shaming. And body-shaming. And food-shaming… pretty much everything-shaming.

The plates in question, sold by Pourtions, feature concentric circles labeled from inside to outside: “skinny jeans, favorite jeans, mom jeans.” The overt message was that if you fill your plate to the outer rim, you’ll only be able to fit into your hideous “mom jeans.” Not everyone agreed that the plates were offensive. Some news reports said sales were up threefold after the exposure generated by the ruckus. A message on the Pourtions website encourages visitors to sign up for an email list to be notified when the plates are available for individual retail purchase.

It takes new ideas to reach new customers.

An increasingly younger consumer base brings with it new expectations. Department stores and other brick-and-mortar retailers are faced with updating their previously tried-and-true methods in order to simply maintain market share, let alone grow it. And while most people mention Amazon as the killer of traditional retail, there’s more to it than that.

Direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands have also rapidly emerged as threats to traditional retail shopping. The D2C model means no distributors or middlemen need to be built into pricing structures. These brands can often offer better quality products for lower prices, in addition to the convenience of direct home delivery. These companies – often small – also don’t have the burden of answering to shareholders.

What do D2C companies have to do with Macy’s, though?

When it comes to maintaining pace with the times and finding new ways to remain relevant, Macy’s has done a better job than most department stores. (Sears, anyone?) And perhaps you’ve noticed that this particular type of product is a trend: mildly scandalous could practically be its own product category right now. I recently bought a housewarming gift consisting of dishtowels with (gasp!) dirty words on them. Coloring books and cross-stitch patterns featuring the “F-word” have been in vogue for several years. The founder of Snarky Tea came away from Shark Tank with $150K to build a business based almost entirely on dirty words and sassy attitude. Could Macy’s have predicted that the “mom jeans” plates would fall into the body-shaming category? They might have reasonably expected that these plates would fall in the sassy attitude category.

Macy’s maintains some of their old-school ways, as evidenced by the fact that they quickly pulled the offending plates. But I imagine that the decision to carry the plates at all was driven by a desire to be relevant in the eyes of a new consumer. Today’s consumer is faced with increasingly diverse choices of not just how to buy, but WHAT to buy. It appears that a major retailer with a long history can’t get away with attempts at humor the way a small D2C company can.

What does it take to recover from a blunder like this?

In fact, was it even a blunder at all? Macy’s saw an intense backlash on Twitter, while Pourtions is experiencing newfound fame. An old saying tells us that there’s no such thing as bad PR, but that may depend in part upon the expectations that have been placed on a company. A relatively unknown company may find the old saying to be true. An institution like Macy’s is likely to be held to a higher – or at least different – standard.

What’s your take on the Macy’s “mom jeans” plates debacle? Drop me a note and let me know, and your thoughts could be featured in our next newsletter!