Looks like Tim Hortons has pulled a Build-A-Bear.
Anelia Bishop was looking forward to a treat Sunday morning. The Lockport mom of three young boys drove to Tim Hortons at 11 a.m. to get a "mom-sized" iced coffee at one of the two Western New York locations that were offering them free for Mother's Day.
But when she pulled into the drive-thru to order it, she hadn't even finished her sentence before the person working told her they had already sold out nearly five hours earlier.
Turns out, the location had received only 30 of the giant, 52-ounce cups that the chain had advertised. There had been a line out the door when the store opened at 7 a.m., and the promotional coffees had sold out by 7:30 a.m.
Bishop was disappointed, but didn't want to go home empty-handed after having waited in the drive-thru for 20 minutes, so she bought two large vanilla bean iced cappuccinos.
"I think it was dirty, especially on a day like Mother's Day," Bishop said. "I think it was a marketing strategy. They knew all these people would be coming in for that and most likely would still buy something even though they couldn't get what they came for."
If that was Tim Hortons' plan, it wasn't a good one, according to Charles Lindsey, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo's School of Management.
Giveaways are meant to generate traffic, buzz and goodwill. But if they're not done correctly, they can backfire. Big-time.
In order to generate positive buzz and avoid negative backlash, stores should have what consumers would consider a "reasonable stock" of the free merchandise, make it clear how severely limited supplies are, or say whether a promotion is only available within a certain time frame, Lindsey said.
"So that the promotion doesn’t leave consumers with a bad taste in their mouths," he said.
But the Tim Hortons promotion did leave a bad taste in many mouths.
That's not a good thing in the age of social media. The quirky promotion had received national coverage by the media. If there had been enough to go around, the giant cups would have made for the perfect photo opp on Instagram.
Instead, it ticked people off enough that some of them vented on social media before even leaving the parking lot. Consumers thought the promotion was advertised far too heavily only to offer "next to nothing" in stores.
Bishop posted angry comments on her own Facebook page, the Tim Hortons Facebook page, and her sister-in-law's Facebook page. The Mother's Day promotion had several "angry" and "sad" reaction on its Facebook post about the promotion.
"Awful promotion," wrote a user going by the name Samantha Dawn. "#helloStarbucks."
Someone going by the name Gail Alexis, who had woken up at 6 a.m. to get to her store by 7 a.m. only to find the cups sold out, called the promo a "publicity stunt" and a "scam."
"Shame on you Tim Hortons! This was an insult to moms!" she wrote. "I feel like this was the ultimate con job fake out."
One person posted a GIF of Donald Trump on "The Apprentice" TV show saying, "You're fired."
Some consumers felt Tim Hortons had pulled an illegal bait and switch – intentionally deceiving customers to get them into the store, knowing full well just a tiny fraction of those who showed up would receive the much-hyped promotion. However since Tim Hortons had included the caveat "while supplies last," it seems to have exempted itself from consumer action.
Though Black Friday shoppers have come to expect extremely limited supplies on deeply discounted doorbuster deals for televisions and computers, expectations were higher for cups of coffee, customers said.
Tim Hortons did not respond to a request for comment.
Last year, Build-A-Bear Workshop offered a pay-your-age promotion at its stores. Eight police departments were called to disperse an unruly crowd of more than a thousand people who came to take advantage of the promotion and were turned away.
Though there were no reports of fights at Tim Hortons, customers said employees looked worse for wear after dealing with frustrated customers all day.
"I could tell they were annoyed when I asked if the promotion was still available," Bishop said. "They probably had been asked that a million times."