Paperchase has admitted errors in its handling of design plagiarism allegations, which provoked an online outcry.

The row, which erupted last week, served as a warning to retailers of the extent to which consumer power can be mobilised through networks such as micro-blogging site Twitter.

Paperchase chief executive Tim Melgund this week published a statement on the retailer’s website apologising to an artist known as Hidden Eloise, who had taken her allegation of plagiarism public via her blog after being dissatisfied with the retailer’s handling of a private complaint in November.

The artist’s allegation gained widespread attention after science fiction writer Neil Gaiman alerted his 1.6 million Twitter followers to it, making it one of the most hotly-discussed issues on Twitter and attracting national press attention.

A different artist, working for Paperchase supplier Gather No Moss, eventually admitted using the disputed image in developing the designs for Paperchase.

Melgund said: “We have been chastened by this experience and offer Hidden Eloise, our customers and those from the social network community our sincere apologies that we were not more rigorous in establishing the truth in the first instance.”

Online experts said retailers should learn from Paperchase’s experience. Senior strategist for digital marketing specialist Big Mouth Media Finlay Clark said: “It seems Paperchase were caught flatfooted by this situation because they were unable to respond as soon as it started.

“We’re finding that lots of retailers are getting their fingers burned because they have nobody in charge of social media.”

He said retailers should create cross-disciplinary social media teams to draw on expertise from their digital, press, marketing and customer relations departments, and include at least one digital-savvy individual authorised to speak for the brand and to respond to public complaints or praise as soon as it emerges online.

While Paperchase remained largely silent as the controversy emerged, Hidden Eloise actively engaged with Twitter users who showed an interest, said Morgan PR managing direct Nigel Morgan, who blogs about PR in social media.”She has played the social card extremely well,” he said.

Morgan observed the retailer will now face an additional problem with search engine optimisation. “Paperchase Google searches will forever be associated with this,” he said.