In Tokyo, Abercrombie Misses Its Mark

Abercrombie & Fitch, Ginza | Source:

Abercrombie & Fitch, Ginza | Source:

TOKYO, Japan — After several years of “will they or won’t they” speculation, American casual fashion retailer Abercrombie & Fitch finally opened its first retail store in Japan this past December. The 11-story shop in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza neighbourhood is just steps away from Uniqlo’s flagship store and Swedish fast fashion brand H&M.

As with every big retail opening in Tokyo, the first day of sales saw long lines of customers and swift business. The rumoured haul: ¥50 million (or about $550,000). Even without the benefit of an opening party or major press event, Abercrombie was able to rely on a small group of Japanese fans who had previously bought the brand’s products as souvenirs on trips to Hawaii or the continental United States.

But the big question is, will Abercrombie be able to win over new fans in Japan and replicate the unbelievably successful Japanese market entries of other mass fashion brands?

So far, the signs do not look good.

At the moment, Japan is in the midst of a low-price fashion boom.  The only profitable brands are chain retailers like Uniqlo, H&M and Forever21, and the cheap domestic labels in the Shibuya109 shopping building. Yet remarkably, Abercrombie & Fitch made the decision to charge Japanese consumers nearly double its American prices.

In a poll of first-day A&F shoppers in Nikkei’s Marketing Journal, 61.7 percent of people found the prices “a bit high” while 18.3 percent declared them “too high.” Less than one-fifth of consumers thought the prices were on target. Once upon a time, American retailers made huge margins by setting higher prices in Japan, but today, gouging the Japanese consumer simply doesn’t work. Consumers are too smart for that.

Furthermore, most multinational apparel companies have found success in Japan by working with local partners to adapt their messaging, communications and brand image to fit the mature and sophisticated Japanese consumer. In contrast, Abercrombie & Fitch is pursuing an intensely American retail and marketing strategy that may alienate the vast majority of their potential sales base. The strategy is adequately well-done in terms of basic presentation and architecture, but their new Ginza store, in particular, clashes with Japanese fashion and shopping culture in almost every possible way.

For instance, most foreign retailers in Tokyo employ an exclusively Japanese staff, who behave according to the expectations of Japanese consumers, but Abercrombie & Fitch decided to make the brand experience so “American” that they have almost nobody working the shop floor who would be perceived by customers to be authentically Japanese.

Remarkably, the staff greets shoppers in English, rather than Japanese. Indeed, the best a Japanese consumer can hope for is a kikoku shijo – a returnee from overseas – who can at least speak the local language. While most Tokyo shoppers may like imported, international goods, they do not want to be forced to surface their rusty English during a commercial transaction.

The staff also fails to follow widely recognized principles of Japanese politeness. They are boisterous and many sing and dance along with the songs piped through the Ginza store, making the relatively cramped sales space feel even more claustrophobic for consumers.

To make matters worse, many of the male staff members have their chests exposed. Sex appeal may be a big part of the brand’s charm in the United States, but this particular masculine ideal of a “ripped chest” is completely out of sync with current Japanese fashion culture and the constant presence of half-naked men is off-putting to the Japanese customer — especially when crammed into tight spaces like elevators.

Successful brands in Japan use their shop floor staff as brand leaders and styling mannequins to show consumers how the clothes look on real Japanese people. At this, A&F also fails.

Like its American stores, Abercrombie’s Ginza flagship also reeks of strong American-style cologne — this, no less, in a country that’s famously perfume-adverse. Indeed, back in 2005, perfume critic Chandler Burr wrote a New York Times magazine piece called “Display It, Don’t Spray It” on the universal Japanese distaste for strong cologne and perfume. Yet A&F seems to pump its signature cologne through the ventilation system in a way that permeates the entire experience and whatever you were wearing at the time for days after. Of course, many successful Japanese brands incorporate scent into their retail experience, but subtlety is the key. The smell should not carry with the customer.

But it doesn’t stop there — there are practical challenges as well. Visitors to A&F’s Ginza store complained in TV reports that they could not adequately judge the colour of certain products in the store’s extremely dim lighting, which is designed to feel like a late 1990s New York dance club. And, the elevator only goes to the 7th floor, forcing female shoppers to walk up flights of stairs to reach the women’s department in the store’s upper reaches.

Finally, possibly the most fundamental problem with A&F’s Ginza store is that it offers consumers few options for integrating the brand into his or her own life. The clothing screams the letters A&F at a time when Japanese consumers are looking for much more subtle branding on their apparel.

It’s interesting to note that the most popular luxury handbag at the moment is made by Miu Miu and looks much less openly branded than those made by competitors like Gucci and Louis Vuitton. While at the high street level, as we’ve seen with the success of Uniqlo, young Japanese consumers are increasingly looking for brands that offer them ways to create their own individual styling. A&F, on the other hand, offers no room for adaptation. You are forced to either buy into the entire package or buy nothing.

At the moment, Tokyo fashionistas are obsessed with classic Ivy League style and heritage American brands like Red Wing. But despite these areas of opportunity to connect with the current tastes of local consumers, A&F has made no attempts to style or merchandise its “fratboy” clothing to fit the current fashion ecosystem in Japan. In contrast, Gap has gotten very good at this in recent years — enabling the company to market their merchandise to Japanese consumers who are not necessarily Gap fans.

So how did Abercrombie get everything so wrong? Is it ignorance or arrogance? It’s hard to say for sure. Either way, Abercrombie’s entry into Japan is a perfect case study in how not to localise.

W. David Marx is a Contributing Editor of The Business of Fashion

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  1. I agree that AF’s strategy was simply not localizing at all. Just yesterday I entered into one of their mall branches in Los Angeles and was struck by how empty the store’s shelves were. After resisting for a long time to discount, the store has finally done it, but it was probably too late. The brand is dead.

    viv from Los Angeles, CA, United States
  2. haha I love this article. I’m not surprised at all! I work at an A&F store in the United States, so I’ve seen a lot of the business from within the store…

    I think A&F should have just stayed in the United States – not because I don’t want other countries to have A&F clothing but because I know A&F wouldn’t change their ways according to other cultures. It’s like because they’re so arrogant, they ignorant! I won’t be surprised if the store closes within 5 years…

    P.S.: I’m not sure if the cologne is really ventilated through the air, lol, but I know we had bottles of A&F cologne/perfume used specially to spray all over the mannequins and clothes every single day. Sometimes even two-three times a day depending if it’s a “refresh” day (which means all mannequins’ jeans are scrunched overnight, scarves are re-tied & prepped, etc).

    srslyD from Clifton, NJ, United States
  3. The Opening Ceremony monstrosity in Parco, Shibuya could give A&F in Ginza a run for its money as the one of the biggest cross-cultural retail blunders to hit Japan in a long time.

    A&F’s current problems are a product of its own success.

    The company’s arrogance and calculated image helped define a generation of teen fashion. But the reality is all these kids are grown up and the economic landscape has witnessed an acute psychological shift towards more versatile, higher value, less branded choices.

    Like Sony’s restructuring of its electronics division after years of success with its Walkman series and then its demise to Apple, A&F will have to adapt its model to a new retail paradigm of fast fashion.

    djrajio from Tokyo, Tōkyō, Japan
  4. Great article David, as you know I totally agree with you. I wonder if their import-America strategy is working in their newly-opened Milan store. And I surely hope A&F learns from all the negative press they are receiving.

    timo from Osaka, Ōsaka, Japan
  5. Brilliant article that captures the essence of business abroad… play the game as per the country your in or don’t play the game at all… retail, fashion and business ethics, cultures, and people have different needs. Major brands need to adapt to fit in and be accepted which in turn will help with acceleration… its all very simple but complex.

    Regarding the Abercrombie product it has always been logo driven apparel, with a particular wash and finish. Key categories and products are executed well and many brands watch, admire and adapt those categories and products into their brands… The market is changing but the categories are still the same.

    This is the part of fashion I love… the constant change that remains the same, Abercrombie has tried to diversify by creating lower end brands but they kept the product the same when they should have changed the look. So much more to come in the future. That’s my forecast.

  6. Great article! I would be interested to hear A&F’s position on why they chose to enter the Japanese market in such an Americanized fashion. At this point in terms of marketing and strategy it would seem natural for a big brand to want to partner locally and really mesh the brand with culture for a chance at success. I almost feel that they chose this method deliberately – and I am very curious to know what made them chose this route…which doesn’t seem to make much sense no matter how critically I look at it. A&F has definitely fallen off the radar in the North American Market in my opinion…and now only time will tell if A&F will succeed in Tokyo…but it seems to me that this is a fashion recipe gone wrong.

    Toronto, Canada

    Keshia Khan from United States
  7. Easily observed, A&F Ginza offering is merely an aspect of the ugly american syndrome. Like a tourist in a a foreign land who is either too ignorant or arrogant to adhere to the “when in rome…” cliche, the store and A&F business plan are offensive not just to the Japanese consumer sensibility, but also to the urban landscape. If given the benefit of the doubt, it seems as if though their marketing stratedgy is the result of poor consulting or actually lacks and decent market research. Do their Japanese press staff even have the know-how in order to play politics with the Japanese retail media machine? They’ll eventually learn, but obviously in this economy time is of the essense.
    Another relative and amusing observation is the pricing. This is very detrimental in many aspects to their business in Japan. It is laughable that it (the pricing) probably won’t affect any of the veterans of the international import or “oroshiya” business. What will affect them (oroshiya)is the probable stagnation of the A&F brand name value due to bad business (not pricing…this actually helps them) in Japan. Either way, even before A&F’s ginza debut, their brand has steadily been on the decline (as far as Japanese consumers and the foreign “underground” import biz is concerned).
    And not that I’ve ever been a fan or endorsed the brand, but I find it alittle sad/pathetic that a brand which James Bond wore in one of Ian Fleming’s original novels (can’t remember which one) has actually sunk this low. An A&F store in Tokyo is just another nail in the coffin. Only way to pull it out is adhere to the “Yankee go home!” and to actually “get outta Rome.”

    jmatsu from Honolulu, HI, United States
  8. Well thought out and brutal article, but possibly constructive for the company if they don’t just take it all as an attack. I was also wondering how Abercrombie’s hard landing in Japan has affected, or will affect, all of the Tokyo select shops (there must be about 200 of them in Shibuya and Harajuku alone) that have been carrying A&F stuff for years.

  9. there’s an AF store in Guam??

    jack from Taiwan
  10. tokyo fashion:

    the last part of my first commentary had almost directly addressed your inquiry .

    In my opinion it won’t affect foreign import shops. A&F’s pricing, service and way of biz are all obvious main factors. Reversely the only main factors that do/has affect(ed) those shops are the strong yen and the Japanese media (who can make or break and sometimes save brands).

    As far as A&F for mens goes, the only products that sold well and steadily years ago (as far as oroshiya and their customers…the shops) were basically tees, sweatshirts, cargo pants and shorts. And it’s not as if some faraway-live-in-the-country customer is going to make a pilgrimage to ginza just to buy that, especially if pricing and conditions at the A&F store remain as they are.

    jmatsu from Honolulu, HI, United States
  11. Apologies…
    I just reread Tokyo Fashion’s comment and noticed that he/she was referring to the shops in shibuya and harajuku. I don’t think they will be affected that much. Those areas typically appeal to a different kind of Japanese customer who want a specific product. Think of the way most of that stuff is styled in shibuya sendagaya especially. I’m sure they’ll even undercut A&F ginza.

    For the sake of chit-chat I’d be interested to know about the A&F ginza store’s sale(s) if any. How they would handle overstock and such.

    jmatsu from Honolulu, HI, United States
  12. Q. So how did Abercrombie get everything so wrong? Is it ignorance or arrogance?

    A. Arrogance

    This is unfortunately the truth. I know for a fact that A&F was advised by more than enough friends and partners in Japan, well before their launch, that they must adapt their format if they want to succeed. In the end, they made a conscious decision not to, and the results are as clear as you so plainly lay out.

    T. Inokashira

    T. Inokashira from Asahi, Chiba, Japan
  13. It’s a result of horrible planning.

    I met the managerial staff a few months before the opening. Only a couple of them could speak Japanese, and even they couldn’t speak it perfectly because they were only half-Japanese and were raised in the U.S. On top of that, I happened to see one of their information sessions at a recruiting event, and they talked about how “hot” they were and insisted that they only hired “the hottest people” at A&F. Apparently, they didn’t read the memo about what’s considered beautiful in Japan and what is not.

    But aside from appearances, I know people who are working there, and they have described it as a logistical nightmare. People seem to quit all the time as a result of managerial incompetence, so they are always hiring and are apparently understaffed. One of my friends is always called in on days that she specifically told them she cannot work because she’s a student and has classes. When she went to complain to the manager in charge of scheduling, he just said it wasn’t his fault because the computer put her there. Without finishing the conversation with her, he began to ask another manager out on a date.

    Another issue is their “night shift”. Normal retailers have their staff clean everything up for the next day for an hour or so after closing or an hour or so before opening. But at A&F, they have hired a night team, who is paid to make everything pretty for the next day by staying at the store overnight. Another girl I know works on this shift, and she told me that they just work for an hour or two and are totally free after that, because the work just doesn’t take that long. So they get paid to sleep or fool around for the most part of their shift. Yet another poor managerial decision.

    Finally, let’s not forget the singing and dancing workers. Everyone would like to think that it’s because the workers are just that retarded, but in fact, the “models” (floor staff) were TOLD by the managers to sing and dance, because it makes the environment like a club or a party. Also, they are told to walk up to shoppers and say “Hey, what’s going on?” in English, because they think that it would make shoppers feel happy that a “hot” boy or girl is giving them attention. Part of the interview process includes being required to say “Hey, what’s going on?” while dancing. In the meantime, I keep hearing Japanese people complain about how the staff are dancing around instead of helping them find the sizes that they need.

    The managers also said that the plan was to make Abercrombie&Fitch successful in Japan with minimal advertising. I think this must of been one of the worst choices. Getting a spread or two in popular youth fashion magazines could have made a huge difference for the company. They could have appealed to young “American Casual” enthusiasts in Japan (they wear elements characteristic of American casual clothing but arrange them in a characteristically Japanese way). Without more interesting arrangements, the Abercrombie clothes just look like typical jeans and t-shirts.

    All of the other foreign fast-fashion brands (i.e. H&M, Forever 21, Gap and Zara) think carefully about their mannequins to make them appeal to Japanese consumers, despite how poor the layouts of their stores are inside. The displays are the pull. But A&F mannequins are just so typically American in style, and so they fail to get the pull effect that the other stores will have in the long-run compared to A&F.

    But you know, after years of poor sales, GAP has really made a turnaround by rethinking/localizing its strategies and designs in Japan, and its finally reaching a broader group of customers. Hopefully (being optimistic), A&F will eventually do the same.

    BTokyo from Tokyo, Tōkyō, Japan
  14. I just hope the store close down: save the fabric for other brands with a better taste, and lessens the pressure on mother earth from producing and disposing unsold garbage.

    Chloe_kershaw from Singapore, Singapore (general), Singapore
  15. I totally disagree that a brand has to localise and adapt to each country to be succesful, because I think that everywhere in the world we appreciate a brand if it stays authentic to its roots and to its own “vision”, why would we need a product “adapted” to be similar to other products that we already can buy from local retailers and why would we be appealed by a store experience “adapted” to what we are already used to in local retailers stores?

    The blasting music, too dark lighting, staff dancing and greeting in english, overuse of ambient perfume, excessive use of logo in their clothing, quite high prices, are all signature elements of A&F style and everywhere in the world they result extremely annoying to a lot of people (regardless their country specific “culture”) that will HATE the brand and never buy but and the same time they result extemely appealing and exciting to a lot of other people that will LOVE the brand and buy, because (while A&F american mall based shops have very serious drops in sales) A&F worldwide main flagships, like the store on 5th ave in New York and the overseas flagships in London and Milan, all appear to be EXTREMELY successfull, considering the surprisingly long queues in front of stores even after years or months after the store opening (and the consistent number of people with A&F shopping bags in the streets of those cities).

    And I’m not saying that I am among the people that LOVE the brand, I personally really like the store experience (because even if “over the top” I find it energetic and refreshing compared to the dull general retail experience of other big clothing brands) but dont like the product, which is often boring and could be improved a lot.

    So, in my opinion, the real question is not “Do a lot of Japanese people hate A&F?” because the answer is surely yes (because a lot of people hate A&F everywhere) but “Is the Tokyo store commercially succesfull in terms of sales or not?”.

    Because what the article miss to say is if the shop is actually selling or not, and that’s essential to know, because if the store is empty and doesnt sell ok, they “got it all wrong” but if the store actually sells a lot (with people still queueing and lot of people with shopping bags on the streets like its counterparts in NY, London and Milan) they “got it all right”.

    G. from Milan, Lombardy, Italy
  16. You make a good point about the question that the article probably should be addressing. But it’s too early to assess whether or not they are successful (they opened in December). Whenever ANY foreign company opens a store in Japan, there are long queues to get in, for weeks if not months. But a lot of those stores are flops in the long run. Right now, all we can really do is speculate on where it’s done things right and wrong.

    Also, I think that it’s hard to compare the Milan and London flagships to the one in Tokyo. There are countless examples of American companies that think they can apply the same business models and in-store “experiences” that have worked for them in other countries, but it just doesn’t run the way they plan it (first example that comes to mind is Wal-Mart).

    In contrast, though, I think that a lot of Japanese shoppers are used to loud music. They get it all the time during sale events and in some Shibuya 109 shops. And you can find a number of Japanese brands that makes their stores seem “cooler” by using dim lighting (i.e. Roen, 291295 Homme, Barak, some 109-2 stores). So I don’t think those are the fundamental problems. Two things are necessary for any store in Japan — good service and good advertising.

    Service means not having workers that make the visitors feel awkward by speaking to them in another language or starting to dance instead of coming over to offer help with finding sizes and such. It means having a clean atmosphere inside the store, with the clothes neatly folded and accessible.

    Advertising doesn’t only mean print (which as I mentioned before A&F does not participate in) but also means the store itself. You’re completely right in your point about how A&F wants to distinguish itself from other local brands. But the fact is, A&F doesn’t arrange their clothes in a way that makes them look special. You can get jeans, plaid shirts, and printed tees at Uniqlo down the street for a quarter of the price (or less). A mannequin wearing a T-shirt and jeans just doesn’t look fashionable amongst Tokyo’s countless local clothing brands. If they want to sell here, they really need to think about their audience.

    Their story is a lot like that of American Apparel. It raised its prices, didn’t adapt its products and styling to Japanese markets, and tried to sell based entirely on its name. Now, instead of having shops in normal fashion districts, it has one that sits in the middle of Azabujuban, because most of the rich foreigners in Japan live around there, and they are the only people who actually like the brand (they are a minute percentage of the population).

    BTokyo from Tokyo, Tōkyō, Japan
  17. I disagree with the negative tone of this article and think the new A&F Store in Ginza is an incredible retail experience.
    Mr Marx opinions are aged, stuffy out of touch w/ the A&F brand & demographic.
    While the designers, management and staff at this flagship may not have gotten everything right… for an authentic, saturated, energized, sexy, artistic, engaging retail concept – few have done better !
    Good Luck to A&F !

    Mike from Tokyo, Tōkyō, Japan
  18. The fact that the staff don’t speak Japanese is laughably absurd, and an indication of the sheer hubris of the company. Imagine if Louis Vuitton only addressed customers in French; or Prada only in Italian? How successful would those stores be in NYC?

    James C. from Toronto, ON, Canada
  19. the only american apparel store in the south of china was replaced by a uniqlo 3 months ago, for similar reasons suggested by btokyo. these are all very good lessons for how not to operate overseas stores. i hear that a&f has already decided on a chinese retail partner last year. hope they are reading this article and the fellow comments.

    i don’t know if a “brand has to localise and adapt to each country to be successful” (lv, gucci), but i also don’t know if “we appreciate a brand if it stays authentic to its roots” (american apparel). authenticity comes from staying true to one’s message, but it sure helps if you can speak my dialect. besides, sales figures can only tell you about yesterday, but not can always tell a brand is doing something right by just looking at its actions (hermes, coach).

  20. I agree with the above commenter that American Apparel also failed to make significant gains in the Japanese market for similar reasons as A&F. They likely imagined that a customer base with the same values and reference points as their American customer base existed in substantial numbers in Japan, and it didn’t. The merchandise was less of a problem than the marketing approach.

    Forever 21 and Kitson have succeeded in the Japanese market because both were essentially “blank slates” perfectly meshed into a pre-existing consumer framework. Girls of a certain segment (namely: gyaru and post-gyaru) believed that those foreign brands represented their values. The girls did not have to take a leap to buy into Kitson: Kitson had already bought into their world.

    If there is anything you can say about Japanese youth right now, they are not interested in “buying into” a fantasy lifestyle. They are very much comfortable in their own worlds. Their heroes are toshindai (等身大) — life-sized — rather than super human. They like things to be near to them. And this means that being overly-branded as a foreign brand can create too much distance. Successful brands have helped shrink this distance.

    In the past, many foreign brands have succeeded with a “push” approach, but with most Japanese consumers no longer interested in foreign imports solely because they are foreign, the environment is much less inviting.

    The fact that the staff don’t speak Japanese is laughably absurd

    I did not mean to give the impression that the staff speak no Japanese. They greet customers in English, and at least for the male staff member operating the elevator on my visit, it was broken Japanese. Surely transactions can be completed in Japanese.

    Mr Marx opinions are aged, stuffy out of touch w/ the A&F brand & demographic.

    I perfectly understand the aims and appeals of the A&F brand, but I have not encountered any large pre-existing demand for this very well-defined American aesthetic within the contemporary Japanese market. That is to say, Abercrombie & Fitch may be able to tap into pockets of LATENT DEMAND (customers who wanted this look but were so far unable to get it), but the company has decided to follow its own American strategy rather than translate that image into a language that consumers already embrace. Although not necessarily a failure, this is a risky move. We just have to wait to see how it plays out. (Anecdotally-speaking, Forever 21′s Harajuku store was still packed wall-to-wall with people on weekday afternoons at this point in the A&F Ginza store’s history.)

    W. David Marx from Koshigaya, Saitama, Japan
  21. Right, most of the upper-level managerial staff couldn’t speak Japanese, but most of the people working on the floor were hired directly here in Tokyo. I think that most of them (if not all) should be able to communicate smoothly in Japanese.

    The problem is that they have been told that it’s part of the experience to approach people by greeting them in English. They also don’t come and offer help like clerks are expected to in Japanese retail.

    Mike, I’m a female college student and only recently turned 20. However, I do not disagree with the article. I guess that means it must not be aged, stuffy and out-of-touch with the A&F brand demographic.

    BTokyo from Tokyo, Tōkyō, Japan
  22. Great analysis David. Glad you could put into words what I had been thinking before A&F even came here.

    It’s amazing that when our foreign fashion clients come to Tokyo, they’re all blown away by the Gap! A typical reaction was that the Gap Harajuku shop (before they moved) was the “best Gap store we’ve ever seen”.

    Providing the “American experience” may work for a place like Costco where they stock giant plastic Santas, grills, and knick-knacks no one here would ever buy, but that’s what people expect when they get there. Fashion is another thing altogether…

  23. The reason the store shelves were bare is because Spring floorset doesn’t start until 2.12.2010 and they had a plethora of sales like 50% off redlines etc that sold out all their merchandise…so basically there’s nothing to sell until the 12th of Feb.

    Jeremy from Milwaukee, WI, United States
  24. Pretty sure that’s arrogance. “We’re sexy; what else is there?” A&F has always been about high schoolers wanting to feel like they’re in “college.”

    Japan – please, please know there are better Americans than this.

  25. I Totally agree. I was there just yesterday, and it felt completely out of place. The elevator is outright stupid, and by the time I was done climbing (and going back down the) stairs I was sweating. The staff didn’t present the typical Japanese customer service. One of the female staff was stiffly dancing along to the music- a humiliating act to see.
    Personally, I think Abercrombie is just outrageously overpriced, and comparing the prices at Ginza to my recent trip to the US, shocked me. The cologne scent was also probably 10 time more intense than in the States, as I could smell the scent literally a mile away (I recognized the signature scent walking through Ginza). Add to that the inconvenience of dim lighting, which royally screws you over when trying to find the right colored shirt to got with your outfit.

    Overall, I found that the style did not fit with current fashion of Tokyo, where more of the guys seem to go for a metrosexual look. The only thing I could complement was the glowing tiles and stair which was pretty neat. In the meantime I’ll stick to Uniqlo thank you very much (and the occasional Hollister souvenir from the States).

    Mike from Japan
  26. I believe that another one of the cardinal errors A&F made was to open the first store in Ginza. While it is definitely true that the majority of luxury brands are doing their best business in that area, Abercrombie’s product and branding is not even close to the level necessary to live up to the other stores around them. Granted, H&M and Uniqlo both have stores nearby, however H&M caters to people wanting knockoffs of the brands that thrive in the Ginza area and with the economy the way that it currently is Uniqlo has become a staple in even the most fashionable Japanese person’s wardrobe (especially with Heat Tech in the winter months). After all these years of procrastinating their debut in Japan, Abercrombie should have known its youthful target better and opened in the Shinjuku or Omotesand0/Harajuku/Shibuya area. If, in fact, they really wanted to go after the Ginza crowd they should have marketed themselves as a luxury casual brand to the conservative Japanese thirty-somethings who regular pick up A&F merchandise on their trips abroad as comfortable weekend wear. Unfortunately as the article points out, thanks to the campy dark interior, permeating cologne smell, and half-naked gaijin models this clientele is alienated and all but eliminated.

    In short, the brand needed Japanese staff with real fashion, branding, and marketing experience in Japan from the get go rather than just “hot” people. I recently advised one of my friends to apply there because I believed that within a year 90% of the staff will be fired or will have quit, leaving ample opportunities to move up and restructure. He was, perhaps fortunately, rejected despite his fluency in Japanese and Ivy League degree. In order to survive Abercrombie will need to refocus on getting people who are smart, experienced, and in tune with the market just like any other normal company in any industry usually would.

    From what I hear the brand is tanking in the United States and therefore is looking to Japan and Asia as some sort of promised land offering a windfall of profits. I fear that instead, due to poor planning and sheer arrogance, it may end up furthering their undoing.

    BP from Tokyo, Tōkyō, Japan
  27. I thought its an honest early analysis. I think the brand is struggling in the US and is desperate for growth.

    One slight addition/change:

    Previously, more than souvenirs, the A&F brand were big in ‘select shops’ in Japan. You could find them in the cities, countryside, and on internet sites. It had a mystique/ a foreign element. And these select shops were marking them up double the stateside price.

    A&F probably knew this was going on, saw the markup, and wanted their cut. But now that they have opened a store in Tokyo they will loose their select shop cred and be dropped from many store shelves.

    Maishado from Japan
  28. 1. The staffs DO speak Japanese.

    They might not look Japanese, but most of the staffs speak perfect fluent Japanese. There’s lots of halfies (half Japanese half American etc) and Japanese who used to live overseas who all speak fluent Japanese.

    2. Hey what’s going on?

    I don’t know about you, but as the first flagship store in Asia, I would be pretty damn disappointed if someone greeted me in Japanese instead of the usual A&F (tacky, but oh well) way. A&F and irasyamaseee (in that high pitch tone that all the girls working in 109 use)… REALLY?

    3. Male chest exposed?! I don’t think so.

    “To make matters worse, many of the male staff members have their chests exposed.” – The writer must not have stepped into Ginza A&F store before, because only the shirtless male model (for photo service) and sometimes, not all the time, the elevator guys have their chest exposed. The rest of the male models on the floor are not exposing their chests.

    4. Elevator

    Think about it – it’s a 11th storey building. If everyone gets off at each and every floor, how long would it take to wait for the elevator to come and how inefficient will it be?

    5. Staffs dancing and singing along

    A&F isn’t just selling clothes, they are proving a new retail experience for consumers (even if they buy nothing). To put it honestly, A&F floor staffs aren’t hire to serve customers, but more like to represent the brand image and the A&F lifestyle. This is the most obvious difference between Japanese fashion retailer stores and A&F.

    I’d enjoyed Ginza A&F and although those points – loud music, suffocating cologne smell, dim lights, dancing staffs – are part of the reason why people hate A&F, it’s those exact factors that make A&F A&F.

    Erica from Tokyo, Tōkyō, Japan
  29. Erica’s commentary made me LOL.
    Made me think that she must secretly work there, is in a relationship with someone who does, was a member of an american sorority before coming to Japan, or just has a taste/aesthetics that many of Japanese just don’t like. OH my bad, “…don’t “understand!”

    jmatsu from Honolulu, HI, United States
  30. How could A&F fail like this? What’s the point of having a store working this way? I don’t get it…
    A brand should never lose it’s ID, but should know how to adjust to the market, especially when the market, culturally, says so. A smooth and subtle adjust.
    Where is the person in charge of this marmarket research? Please, go home!

  31. Hi Erica,
    Thank you for your clear list of points. If you don’t mind, I would like to review them.
    1. The staff’s Japanese speaking ability: I agree with you on this one — most of the floor staff can speak Japanese fluently. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they don’t use this ability to come offer help to customers, which most people here speculate is a big mistake. Also, much of the managerial staff cannot speak any Japanese, which is another real structural problem.
    2. The “hey, what’s going on?” greeting: nobody said that the staff should be shouting irasshaimase in nasal, high-pitched voices. Not all Japanese retailers do that. A&F staff just need to offer customers help rather than approaching them in a language that they cannot speak, so they feel intimidated to ask questions. And I do not think that this is the “usual A&F way”. I went to many different Abercrombie&Fitch stores in the U.S. in the past, and never once was I greeted in this way. And if you feel that it’s “tacky”, then why would you be in favor of it? Do you think that Japanese customers (in Ginza, no less) are searching for “tacky” customer service?
    3. Male chests being exposed: You quoted the article, so I will as well. “[T]he constant presence of half-naked men is off-putting to the Japanese customer — especially when crammed into tight spaces like elevators.” You, too, stated that some of the elevator staff have their chests exposed. The point being made by the article has something to do with that issue.
    4. Elevator: If you want to talk about efficiency, then you should have it stop on every other floor, so it would have minimal stops while still allowing people to get within one flight of stairs of their destinations. Personally, I just wonder what disabled people can do if they want to see the higher floors. Basically, A&F is saying to them, “You’re not our target audience, so we don’t care about making things accessible for you.” In the U.S., the store would have a lawsuit in no time. Anyhow, what happened to escalators?
    5. Dancing/singing staff: this is a business website. If A&F provides “a new retail experience for consumers… [who] buy nothing”, then they are not a successful business, which is the point of this article. And you mention that “floor staffs aren’t hire[d] to serve customers, but… to represent the brand image”. This is again one problem with the store. Japan is famous for its high expectations relating to customer service. If nobody is serving the customers, they will be put off. This “obvious difference” is a real problem. Maybe you don’t know this, but in Japanese retail, representing the brand image is also one of the tasks of floor staff (look back a few years and you can remember the phrase charisma店員, the fashionable floor staff who were the make-or-break for a 109 shop, and even now, staff at 109 shops are required to fit specific brand images to get hired). But in Japanese retail, you’re expected to fit the image while at the same time offering great service. This is where A&F dropped the ball.
    You explained that “loud music, [the] suffocating cologne smell, dim lights, [and] dancing staff… are [the] exact factors that make A&F A&F.” But certainly if these factors are what distinguish the brand from others, it’s easy to speculate that they will not be successful in the extremely competitive Japanese fashion industry (where most brands distinguish themselves based on their actual designs rather than an environment that makes it difficult to shop…).

    BTokyo from Japan
  32. Very well-articulated article. I might be an upper-40′s fuddy-duddy, but we lost interest in A&B about the time they went hip-hop/youthy after decades of offering classic, versatile fashions. Walking past the Ginza store several days before its opening and seeing (and smelling the cologne of) the line of late-teen/20-ish male models posing on the sidewalk in front only served to reinforce that notion of A&B’s continued slide into irrelevance (in my eyes; however, if you like or have been waiting for this brand to arrive here, then good for you). Given the on-target criticisms voiced in the article and in most of the subsequent comments, it’ll be funny to see A&B use their own rope to hang themselves; should we have a death pool to bet when that Ginza monstrosity will sink under its own weight…?

    Savoir Faire is everywhere from Tokyo, Tōkyō, Japan
  33. I used to work at the distribution center in New Albany, Ohio. I will tell you the only reason for the way in which the Ginza store was created. Mike Jeffries. He is to Abercrombie what the Emperor was to the Star Wars Saga. He has final say. It will ultimately be his undoing. Ruehl is already gone. Abercrombie & Fitch in the U.S. did what it (Mike Jeffries) said it never would. DISCOUNT IT’S CLOTHES. It should be no secret that Mike Jeffries wants a certain kind of person wearing his brand.

    Matt from New Albany, OH, United States
  34. I donated ALL of my A & F clothes! I would not be seen in public in any A & F or Hollister brands, anymore. The reason is because I was treated badly in many A & F stores, and I was tired of spending thousands of dollars a year in stores that didn’t even appreciate my business. Now, I wear brands that are more expensive than A & F from Nordstrom, Saks, Neiman, Armani Exchange, and other boutiques. My money should go to brands that appreciate customers. Glad A & F is dead, not to mention their racial slurs on tee shirts. I’m embarrassed to even have rocked that brand. F U A&F

    pinkblings from Londonderry, NH, United States
  35. Hey, it’s funny no-one mentioned the homoerotic, 1930′s style wall murals in the Ginza store – kinda E.M. Forster meets Hitler Youth. I don’t know how hundreds of images of hunting, running, boxing and soldiering young White American men comes across to your average herbivore J-male, but I’m glad A&F’s staff hiring policy doesn’t reflect those images (anymore).

    One European looking staff member only spoke Japanese to me when I was trying on a shirt. I think they need to tidy up their language policy a little bit, though I didn’t actually mind practicing my Japanese with her.

    Completely agree with the article, btw.

    shaun from Tokyo, Tōkyō, Japan
  36. I am not Japanese, I have been an A&F customer since the late 90s and early 2000 but have not bought much from them for quite some time, both because of unavailability but more so because it’s no longer special and too common. I liked A&F back then because it was only available in the US, and its brand image did appeal. I visited the A&F in Tokyo yesterday and I must say it is not the A&F I remembered. Yes, back in those days the US shops were also staffed by so-called models but at least they were somewhat helpful in customer service. My experience in the Tokyo shop was down-right abominable. Their staff are full of attitude and arrogance and I can guarantee that none of them have been trained in customer service. I was ready to spend some money but after I got into a row with the staff (yes, they scold back) I swear I will never spend a single penny in their shops again.

    I think some of the sympathisers here are mistaking between keeping the A&F image and having no service at all. You can hire half-naked “hot” models all you like but they are there to sell and help the customer to spend money. By just dancing and joking around with other staff just won’t do (unless A&F’s marketing strategy is Attitude). The over-priced, no-longer inspiring merchanise just won’t sell themselves anymore. The clothes are all the same every season; you can’t flog a dead horse even with “beautiful” people.

    The Tokyo shop is so self-absorbed that they don’t have any shop directory, no signage (haven’t a clue which floor you are on) I find myself in the worst retail experience in a town where I have come to regard as having the best shopping in terms of merchandise and service.

    ed from Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan
  37. I actually agree about the prices. People in Japan are trying their best to buy cheaper clothing with good quality, brand names isn’t as important as it used to be. I went there today, and most of the people who left the store didn’t even buy anything. On the other hand, the good looking employees (cute girls/shirtless men) is actually one of the things that people in Tokyo love, I’ve heard girls go there just to get a free picture with a shirtless men, which I also did today with a my friend and sister hehe. People/young people in Tokyo are very open these days that they do like fun stores like A&F, but like I said the price just isn’t worth it anymore. So many stores in Tokyo that are selling cheaper clothing with good quality, or even styles like A&F if that’s what you’re looking for.

    krissy from Ibaraki, Ōsaka, Japan
  38. I have just visited the A&F store in Tokyo and it is full of people buying clothes as if it were the last day in their lives. I am so sorry for of all you that are waiting for the A&F end time but I think it is not so close. Moreover, they are planing to open more stores in other countries and people are excited about it. I know it first hand.

    On th eother hand, you can fins and buy in A&F on the net…

    They very well know what they are doing!

    Alba from Japan
  39. I worked at AF in college. It was the most bizarre experience. They opening admitted to hiring only good looking people for the front and ugly people had to do the bitch work in the back. Also often times managers would not come if you had a problem at the register. Also if you didn’t want to come to work you really didn’t have to. I often didn’t show up for shifts and still had a job. Because really they don’t “need” you for anything. If someone shoplifts you are suppose to just let them, you do not have to do any folding. Really the only thing was to open the fitting room in the canoe room and then ring people up which basically two people can do. Everyone else is just there for looks and branding. I did like the smell and the loud music; but it is getting a bit dated now. They sell wasp snobby culture at malls lol But it seemed to work as my store was always busy.

  40. I visited the Ginza A&F in early summer after it opened. I did not however buy anything. This article is spot on, the arrogance of the brand is overwhelming, and is doubly impressed upon shoppers in Ginza. It’s floor plan is too small, the lighting is marginal, and the staff was unhelpful and ignorant of it’s products. I tried vainly for 15 minutes to find a jacket that was displayed on a mannequin. No one knew where it was or how much it cost. After traveling (by stair) up and down repeatedly I finally spotted a non-model staff with a headset and asked him. His reply… we sold out of that a week ago. So… why is it still on display? After that I resolved not to go back. Yesterday though, I was in the neighborhood, and walked up. Two bare-chested door boys pulled open the big doors to reveal a handful of people awkwardly waiting (in the dark) around token hairless naked guy for an elevator while throbbing drum and bass played. I turned right around and walked back out, saying “forget it”. The door boy shouted.. “wait, it’s a clothing store!” My opinion, it’s a homo-erotic disco that also sells overpriced logo shirts. Ah, there’s H&M across the street… here, take my money.

    themark from Kawasaki, Kanagawa, Japan
  41. I read all of the comments – that is who interested I am in what everyone has to say on A&F Ginza. And for the record, no, I am not am A&F employee. I, however, have been followign the company’s movements very closely since 2006. I just want to make some things clear…

    A&F’s image and its location in Ginza: Ginza, as we all know, has a reputation for being upscale. Abercrombie & Fitch has been cultivating an upscale image since the introduction of its ‘Casual Luxury’ trademark in 2005. In the States, my peers in high school would often remark about how expensive and “for rich people” A&F is, and would call me rich for wearing it as a result. Um, A&F is not Chanel, so I disagree with that. Nevertheless, A&F is upscale for middle-class consumers. Analysts now see the brand as “near-luxury” and have placed it on par with Ralph Lauren. It’s true, no lie. The A&F image is also given a boost because it has Bruce Weber as its exclusive photographer. Weber is one of the most expensive and renown photographers in the business. Have I made my point? NO way is ANY competitor equal to Abercrombie & Fitch, image-wise. So, no, I was not surprised at all by seeing A&F in Ginza.

    The instore experience: A&F is meant for young, lively people and not middle-aged consummers. I saw many “old people” inside and, quite frankly, I wondered, “Why?” What is facinating about A&F is the target consumer age is 18 through 22. Yet the brand experiences “universal appeal.” The experience brings in people who, I conclude, if they don’t fit into the demographic, want to feel like they do. A&F Ginza, I feel, could be seen as a “US youth-culture embassy.” You people question why the models dance and speak in English? Because that is the whole point! To make the international consumer feel like they have walked off of their native land and into American “cool” soil. Yes, this typically would affect sales because of the language issue. But this is A&F we are talking about. The experience is drawing LOADS of people inside because of the fact that is SO different from what they have come to expect. Tell me, did you interview 18-22 year-olds for your article Mr. Writer? Jeffries has stated that the A&F lifestyle is not for everyone and that many people who go inside the stores (and happen to disagree with the experience) plainly do not belong. While you may be on key sometimes, if you are a over middle-aged than clearly your opinion does not matter. Flat out, just like that. You are not meant to like the experience – although it is brilliant if you do – because it was not designed to flatter you.

    I was shocked by the article. The demand for Abercrombie & Fitch in Japan is so great. The opening was brilliant, and I wish A&F the greatest in its endeavor.

    CER from Athens, GA, United States
  42. Really interesting article! It would be great to see a follow-up A&F Tokyo 1 year on to find out what actually happened.

    You’re advocating benchmarking and conformity… which appears very sensible but will ultimately lead to a homogeneous product or retail experience.

    If A&F are going down the differentiated route with their eyes open (rather than simply through ignorance / arrogance) then this is an extremely brave strategy…. which could either crash and burn or lead to high profits by attracting a loyal niche.

    Let’s see if that niche exists (and in sufficient quantity) in Japan?

  43. I agree I went to the Ginza store a couple of months back. Before I could find the store, I could smell it from the metro exit and followed the overpowering cologne until I found the building. There were the usual arrogant `models` on the door – really not my type but they loved themselves nonetheless. Then a long line to wait for the only elevator to take you to the middle floor where you either walk up or down depending on gender. The store is way too dark, way too noisy and way to perfumed to be able to actually buy anything. My friend actually got sick and left because of the over-powering fragrance. Despite this, the store was packed with a line going down the stairs waiting for the changing room. Products are way, way over-priced. Over 12, 000 yen for a shirt? Seriously? There was a time I liked their clothing, but now it is just to ubiquitous. It used to be though of as exclusive in Japan, now it is just considered overpriced – everyone knows you can buy it half price on the next vacation to Hawaii. RIP.

    Mike from Japan

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