's Fake Faux-Fur Fiasco Draws A Real 20-Year Consent Agreement

In what is probably a sign of the real-vs.-fake end times, Neiman Marcus agreed on Tuesday (March 19) to stop labeling real fur as "faux fur." According to a very real FTC complaint, between October 2009 and November 2012, the luxury chain's and websites sold a Burberry jacket, a Stuart Weitzman shoe and an Alice + Olivia Kyah coat described on the sites as trimmed with faux fur, when actually the trimming was real fur.

(In fairness to the retailer, it was also selling the shoes in its catalog and saying they were trimmed with "dyed mink." Wrong both times—it was rabbit fur.)

Neiman signed a consent agreement not to describe anything as faux fur unless it really is fake and to do so for the next 20 years. Two unrelated pure-play E-tailers— and—agreed to the same terms for their own fake fur failures.

Part of the reason Neiman Marcus got into trouble here is that it started selling the fake faux fur products less than six months after settling a previous FTC fake faux fur investigation. Another difficulty is that the (very real) Fur Products Labeling Act dates from 1951, when real fur that came from animals was almost always more expensive than polyester fake fur that came from oil.

But the bigger problem may be the fact that physical stores have human beings who can catch some of these labeling problems before they become a federal case. Online stores don't.

According to the FTC's complaint, both the jacket and coat had labels indicating they contained real fur. If an in-store customer had an allergy or other objection to fur, she would likely check the label, then complain to an associate if the fur's reality status didn't match up with the store's signage.

But online, the customer never sees a label before the item arrives. Neither, most likely, does anyone associated with the E-Commerce operation except workers who are fulfilling orders in the distribution center. Even if vendors are correct in the descriptions they give to retailers, those descriptions pass through so many hands on the way to the website that errors will slip through—and depending on the type of error, that can have real penalties.

This all leads to a serious question: Is it time for chains to start adding a photo of a label to the product images with each item on a website? That's more effort, but it would avoid a whole range of problems based on customer preferences, allergies and legal requirements. It would also provide potential legal cover for chains if the product was mislabeled by the vendor.

Mostly, though, it would take away one more excuse from a customer for delaying a purchase. If she just wants to see the label before buying, it can be right there. Sure, chains want to see customers walking in the door (especially their best customers, in Neiman Marcus's case). But omnichannel is about getting customers to shop using whatever channel they like—and to buy as soon as they're ready.

Without an online label, a customer may never get around to finding the same chain's store and checking the product. That's faux omnichannel—and for the chain, a sale that really is lost.