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.
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.
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.
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