Op-Ed | How to Save Abercrombie

While losing ground to competitors, Abercrombie & Fitch still has tremendous brand potential. But to get things back on track, the company must adjust its approach to product, merchandising, marketing and retail, argues Marcellus Neel.

Models in front of an Abercrombie & Fitch store | Source: Flickr

SEATTLE, United States — I have a confession to make. I love Abercrombie & Fitch. For just over a year, I was a designer at Abercrombie & Fitch headquarters, but beyond that, I’ve been a fan for almost 20 years. And I love what the core brand once was: a Bruce Weber-lensed glimpse into an invented world of scholastic sexiness.

I remember thumbing through Abercrombie’s “magalogues” and being excited, fascinated and motivated by the lifestyle — yearning to be as happy and desired as the models it portrayed. The brand gave context to American teens of the 1990s and early 2000s and, for a time, offered a powerful and holistic brand experience. The website alone, with its short films and music downloads, encouraged real lifestyle immersion.

Then, there’s the product — the quality and attention to detail, of which is laughably superior to that of other mass brands. Run a hand over the company’s butter-soft cotton; feel the thickness of the ribbing of a hem, or the lightness of a distressed heather tee; test the sturdiness of the reinforced buttons on a utility jacket.

I love what the Abercrombie brand could be and should be: a modern take on apparel classics, in tune with contemporary values and trends, and embraced as a positive and productive American success story. But the truth is, brands like Gant, Rag & Bone, Jack Wills and Todd Snyder are reinventing traditional American pieces while Abercrombie lags behind.

Recent financial results reveal that Abercrombie’s sales have declined for four quarters in a row. Profit shrank 77 percent last year. And, in international markets, where the company hopes to generate significant growth, sales at stores open for at least a year fell by 19 percent in the last fiscal year. The apparel industry’s half-decade-long obsession with time-worn American classics was an opportunity for growth for Abercrombie and the company should have better captured and amplified an aesthetic that is, theoretically, already at the core of the brand.

So what can be done?

Product and Merchandising

Keep the quality. The quality of Abercrombie’s products is phenomenal, though the company should consider pulling back by 10 to 15 percent to take greater margins — or drop prices by 5 to 7.5 percent. Some of the product is almost needlessly well-made, such as the company’s downy sweatpants, and consumers do not really notice the difference, as made clear by the successes of lower-quality lines like Victoria’s Secret’s Pink. But at the same time, the company should resist the urge to drop prices too much. Forever 21, H&M, Uniqlo and others will always win on price.

Abercrombie should also resist the temptation to overreach into trends that aren’t part of the brand’s core aesthetic. As an example, the men’s product of the last 8 to 10 seasons has been tragically reflective of just this kind of overreaching, devoting far too much attention to neon (full category neons of every polo, every short and every pant all merched together) and deviating from established category winners like flannel (where patterns departed from the brand’s classic American aesthetic, instead skewing toward PacSun’s surf-skater demographic of super-saturated colours, neons and asymmetrical patterns). Abercrombie cannot own categories the brand is not instinctively associated with and adapting white-hot, quick-to-burn product trends leaves the brand looking a step behind. Respect a trend, adapt your offering to a trend — that makes sense. But don’t slavishly follow it.

Instead, Abercrombie should stake a claim to ownable product categories. Sweaters, flannels, plaids, oxford shirts, flannel/wool skirts, broken-in tees. As evergreen categories, they might not result in huge sale spikes, but they also provide a consistent purchasing base and reinforce the brand’s personality. Just as Ralph Lauren has reaped the reward of owning polos, so should Abercrombie by focusing on brand-right product categories. This is really more of a merchandising issue than a product issue. Abercrombie is already producing superior pieces in these core categories, but they aren’t wall-shelf staples. The company should give ownable product categories considerable presence in stores by doing lots of colour-ways.

Along with reclaiming ownable categories, Abercrombie should expand into related ones. Wayfarers, terry-cloth shawl collars, women’s leather bags, varsity jackets, madras, top-sider and canvas footwear, oilcloth jackets, duffel clasps and nautical influences (primary-coloured rain jackets, indigo horizontal stripes, braided rope) are but a few brand-right categories that aren’t currently part of Abercrombie’s repertoire. Additionally, Abercrombie should embrace select dressier components, like blazers, wool trousers and ties. The past decade has seen these categories explode and while every other mass brand has included the styles in their regular rotation (J. Crew, American Eagle, Gap, Express, H&M), Abercrombie has not, aside from a few very small, unfocused and overpriced attempts, tested this market — a market that is so close to the company’s core aesthetic and merchandises well with existing products.

Though Abercrombie is widely thought of as a purveyor of cargo shorts and hoodies, the women’s line is much more diverse. Get that message out! Shimmer skirts, printed leggings and all-over floral dresses are products that most consumers aren’t aware the retailer carries. Being too trendy hurts this brand, but borrowing when appropriate should be celebrated. Look at J. Crew as a brand that strikes this balance quite well. Abercrombie’s recent showcase for womenswear editors was a step in the right direction.

Finally, Abercrombie has to turn down its overt branding, or at least offer product options without this. While logos might be having a moment on the catwalk, on the high street, brand logos are currently not in vogue — H&M, Forever 21, Asos and Topshop are proof of that. Additionally, the unfortunate truth is the aspirational Abercrombie consumer is not purchasing the company’s products because of its branding. The logo, at this point, is doing more harm than good. Those who are purchasing logo-ed products are not influencers and thus hurt the brand even more. Abercrombie’s adoption of Scotch & Soda-esque metal exterior tags are a good start, but the company’s “de-logoing” efforts should be extended to select basics, like tees and women’s tanks.

Marketing

Abercrombie’s marketing is wrong for the product, wrong for the consumer and wrong for contemporary mores. As Abercrombie tweaks its product to re-emphasise its core brand promise, so should it evolve its approach to marketing. Abercrombie is in a rather unique position in that a large number of consumers despise it. So part of the new marketing effort must also be a concerted public relations effort, which means doing more than simply changing fonts or lowering the volume of the music pumping through its stores.

To begin, Abercrombie should refocus on collegiate style. Well-crafted oxford shirts and thick wool sweaters appeal to many segments — from aspirant high-schoolers to a moderately older, post-college demographic —while providing a focal point for the brand’s efforts and offering a wide variety of directional styling opportunities.

It’s time to drop the “young actors” angle Abercrombie has returned to (in different guises) over the last few years. It’s not working. The brand is inherently “East Coast classic,” yet it’s now on a soundstage in Hollywood? Let Hollister stake a claim to the West Coast (Express does the mall facsimile of Hollywood better anyway, in terms of both branding and product). Abercrombie’s desire to use real people, as opposed to models, is understandable and reflective of the current retail environment (many brands are using attractive non-models) but Abercrombie should employ college students, not would-be Hollywood transplants.

Abercrombie should also let Bruce Weber be Bruce Weber. His strongest images (including the ones that brought Abercrombie to prominence) evoke a setting — a sense of time and place. They’re sexy and fun. But Abercrombie’s images have devolved from preppy (à la the Kennedys), fun and sexy into just plain sex, as in close-ups of unsmiling faces or rippled abs with no context. The aspiration and the emotion is lost.

The company should theme its seasons — make Spring “A Weekend at the Lakehouse,” make Fall “Tailgating Season,” make Holiday “Date Night in The City” — and shoot happy and diverse co-eds flirting and engaging in said environment.

It’s also time to consider a different approach to men and women. Gone are the days when teenage boys followed girls into the most popular store. Firstly, the young male shopper has developed strong tastes and stylistic appreciations of their own (see the proliferation of menswear blogs and Tumblrs). And secondly, girls are embracing a whole range of stores specifically suited to them: Anthropologie, Madewell, Pink.

Retail

There is nothing inherently wrong with loud music, low lighting and scent in stores. Other brands do it without attracting the kind of scorn that Abercrombie has. But because of that scorn, the practices must be changed. And setting aside the scorn, the template was tiring anyway.

The company could create more interest by expanding store windows and tweaking the aesthetics of the materials employed to create these. At the very least, Abercrombie should put mannequins in the window with a seasonally relevant image (Abercrombie styles mannequins as well as any brand, but the consumer generally has to be in the store to notice them).

The stores should retain their residential concept — which is still unique and encourages exploration — while introducing new materials and transitioning away from the nightclub aesthetic. Cost is naturally a concern, but there are relatively inexpensive ways to achieve this. A few examples: selectively include well-curated vintage props, introduce elements of brass and glossed wood (reminiscent of a luxury sailboat) and create more moments and zones by varying lighting and creating suggestively propped merchandise vignettes.

It’s also time to move away from the current EDM soundtrack and skew toward a playlist that’s 90-percent composed of artists like Lana Del Rey, The Black Keys and Best Coast, with 10 percent Dylan and the Stones — thereby namechecking classics while establishing relevancy with current artists. It’s a fallacy to think EDM is what’s relevant to consumers just because it’s on the radio or MTV. No one listens to radio or MTV anymore.

And, finally, drop the scent! Or at least change it. Smell is the most evocative of the senses — and Abercrombie’s “Fierce” is a scent that evokes a lot of negativity (while Abercrombie likes to say that negativity is from non-core consumers and parents, many in the non-core demographic drive purchase decisions which impact the business). A signature scent isn’t the worst idea, but it’s high time for Abercrombie to reduce the amount it sprays.

Marcellus Neel is a retail art director based in Seattle.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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15 comments

  1. Real. Thanks for writing this. I am a retired retail/buyer and wholesale/product development/president of a handbag line (once in every upstairs department store) and I still get very excited reading a focused store/merchandise critique like this…excellent, makes me want to jump back into the biz and design, design design…so, if that has happened to me sitting at the foot of the Fuego volcano/Guatemala, I can imagine the juice that has just been cranked up within the merchandise/product offices at Abercrombie and Fitch ( I shopped at the ¨formerly¨ store in San Francisco as a young guy…there were surprises everywhere one turned. Regress a little. Leonard Clark/leonardoricardo

    Leonardo Ricardo from Guatemala
  2. 1. Absolutely no music!
    2. Thick sturdy Cords should be their category staple
    3. Everything about their decor should say IVY LEAGUE DORMITORY
    4. There should be a book store inside to emphasize the cerebral ethos
    5. ABOSLUTELY NO LOGO’S
    6. There should be bunkbeds . . . Just cause

    Anthologie Yuck from Cumming, GA, United States
  3. I agree with so much of this. Abercrombie is a historic brand, but they don’t act like it anymore. It is possible to be pretentious in a positive way, and sadly Abercrombie does not understand how.

    On a sidenote, I would also add fit as a necessary improvement. I have never been able to wear anything Abercrombie (nor any of its other brands) offers. The obsession that all men have muscle and all women are thin is sad. A slim fit that is actually slim, a regular fit for those with an average body, and a muscular fit for those who need it, would be wonderful to see and make them stand out against other brands. Will they take any of our advice, no probably not.

    Zachary Parkes from Lindsay, ON, Canada
  4. Great article.

    Henry Ortiz from Oklahoma City, OK, United States
  5. Very interesting analysis!

    Alejandra Saenz from Mexico, The Federal District, Mexico
  6. Unfortunately the American heritage look has been mined (strip mined) at every price point in every category. The young adult consumer has simply moved on. The avalanche of bad press obviously doesn’t help the situation. Not only is the product dated and expensive but consumers have a negative feeling towards the brand.

    Either Abercrombie has to change it’s target customer or drastically overhaul it’s brand identity. Sadly I don’t think they will be able to do either. Teens just are not interested in the American heritage look anymore. Preppy commodities like the article suggests really won’t cut it in 2014 – the categories mentioned are more appropriate to a factory outlet business not a formerly white hot teen prestige retailer trying to dig itself out of disastrous comps. Oxford shirts? That’s Old Navy Outlet – not even Old Navy full price.

    matthew edelstein from New York, NY, United States
  7. I am not a big A&F fan, but I agree with your excellent recommendations. Here is another brand consideration. While the “cool factor” will always be relevant, this generation of college students seems to be more interested in social responsibility than social position. Diversity, sustainability and inclusiveness are values A&F may want to consider embracing on a much more active level–with their own twist, of course.

    Pamela Hutton from Fresno, CA, United States
  8. Wonderful article! I think Abercrombie has ran into a lot of conflicts. Clothing that convey an image of Ivy League and east coast life, while the ambiance of the store evokes more Jersey Shore than Martha’s Vineyard. Get back to the core, tighten up the brand and then flourish. Abercrombie could easily become an American staple once again.

    Again, great article. More reasons as to why I cannot wait to begin a journey in merchandise.

    Caleb Ray from Columbus, OH, United States
  9. It’s a good thing “the views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion” because the way the author glosses over the fact that Bruce Weber’s and that freak CEO’s typical white gay male homo obsession with young, white, “American” bodies seems afar adrift as those queens who defined a brand that now feels stubbornly outdated (like a white citizen’s council) in our modern multicultural society. This oversight reeks worse than that awful perfume that stinks up the place and any open air space within a 50-foot radius. As a young black man, I used to love the quality of their sweaters back in the day when the floors were covered in thick, sumptuous tartan and before they were remodeled into their current incarnation; I think a more proper floor covering these days for that chain is a KKK sign. F that place and everything it stands for…. grow up.

    Christopher Johnson from Newport Beach, CA, United States
  10. *1892 Established

    Ben Sheppard from Barnegat, NJ, United States
  11. “Some of the product is almost needlessly well-made, such as the company’s downy sweatpants, and consumers do not really notice the difference..”

    Needlessly well-made?

    Andrew Hurvitz from Van Nuys, CA, United States
  12. Other than people losing their jobs, I honestly don’t know why this company deserves to be saved. From the outset of their evolution as an RTW brand in the late ‘80s, they portrayed an exclusionary mindset to a vast array of consumers, in both subtle and overt ways. And ultimately this is a huge factor in the company’s failing, that they didn’t understand both that the consumers who have felt alienated maintain an incredibly long memory, while the consumers they historically have been seeking to attract — namely young, hip, attractive-by-A&F’s-standard kids always on the lookout for the Next Big Thing — are as a result extremely fickle. Fold in the myriad problems with labor practices, a CEO who thinks he’s above it all, too-little-too-late bandaids (the laughable addition of a plus-size collection), the sexualization of pre-teen girls, and a host of other problems (not the least of which is that the market is flooded with exceedingly similar choices), and again, other than the sad reality of people losing their jobs through no fault of their own, this is a do-not-recuscitate situation. And that’s also sad because, when it was founded in 1892, A&F was a luxury company that, had it retained some of that history in the objectives of its new owners, could be a great niche company today, because the luxury sector is extremely different than when A&F declared bankruptcy in the ‘70s. Ultimately I have no desire to frequent A&F anytime in the near future, solely because I am one of the consumers they have alienated for a variety of reasons, and other than this post, I have no plans or desire to write about them, either.

    Laurie Brookins from New York, NY, United States
  13. Great analysis, arguments and ideas. Well done.

    Leonardo Ferraz from Brazil
  14. “Keep the quality. The quality of Abercrombie’s products is phenomenal, though the company should consider pulling back by 10 to 15 percent to take greater margins — or drop prices by 5 to 7.5 percent. Some of the product is almost needlessly well-made, such as the company’s downy sweatpants, and consumers do not really notice the difference, as made clear by the successes of lower-quality lines like Victoria’s Secret’s Pink. But at the same time, the company should resist the urge to drop prices too much…….

    Wow …Needlessly well-made !! great marketing advice Marcellus Neel.

    Do what most brand´s do on all levels .. cheat your quality because most customers are stupid any way.

    But at the start of your piece you say what you love about it was the quality…..you dont win always with the price or cutting corners.

    I´m sure that if they continued to develop in a more fashion sensetive direction as other brands mentioned they would have been able to keep the slightly higher price and slightly beter quality .

    Piont is driven by the former CEO personal obsesions, the company got stuck in a time and obsession and failed to see the everchanging culture of teens &Co.

    You have to adapt on time of the big curve, do it to late you end up where the are heading now needing a big make over.

    Brain Law from Rome, Latium, Italy
  15. Great article, I think A&F definitely need to change and get back to basics and take a leaf from Ralph Lauren, GANT, Hillfiger brass, chrome, nautical, East Coast store look. Perhaps even a new retail experience that combines shop space with a coffee lounge, library, WiFi to combine authenticity with real-world considerations and space. Just look at cycling brand Rapha and then apply …

    Christian Kay from Surbiton, Kingston upon Thames, United Kingdom