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J.Crew, Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch: The Trouble With America’s Most Beloved Mall Brands

US specialty apparel retailers are running out of time to adapt before they die in a landscape dominated by price-conscious shoppers and fast fashion’s smarter supply chains.
By
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — Even casual observers can see that declining mall traffic and the low prices offered by fast fashion competitors are crippling apparel retailers. On Friday, private equity firm Sun Capital Partners, owner of The Limited, announced it will close all 250 stores and cut thousands of jobs. The announcement comes after a difficult holiday season for those that remain, including Gap, J.Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch, which offered deep discounts and other promotions long before Boxing Day.

The trouble is nothing new. Gap Inc. (which owns Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy and Athleta) has seen comparable sales decline in nine of the last 11 quarters during which a weak brand identity at Gap, the brand, has proven to be a problem. Old Navy, the company's bright spot, has shown signs of recovery from declines in the first half of fiscal 2016 after the departure of chief executive Stefan Larsson, now at Ralph Lauren, in November 2015. Net sales at the company have barely increased over the past decade, clocking in at $16.2 billion in 2015, up from $15.9 billion in 2004.

Abercrombie & Fitch (which owns Abercrombie & Fitch, Abercrombie Kids and Hollister) has seen comparable sales decline in 14 of the last 15 quarters. Following the departure of chief executive Mike Jeffries at the end of 2014, who has yet to be replaced, the company has overhauled the Abercrombie brand image in order to cater to an older consumer, but its 1990s identity has proven hard to shake.

J.Crew (which owns J.Crew and Madewell) has seen comparable sales decline in 10 of the last 11 quarters. In addition, the company has about $2 billion in debt, including about $500 million in bonds maturing in 2019. Reports surfaced this autumn that J.Crew is seeking to buy back those bonds at the reduced market rate by transferring the rights to its brand name to a separate subsidiary and borrowing against those assets. Sources have also suggested that J.Crew might sell or spin off Madewell. The thriving sister brand left the parent company’s New York headquarters for its own offices in Long Island City in April.

Despite efforts to turn their businesses around, J.Crew, Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch have yet to dig out of quarter after quarter of negative sales slumps because too many factors — declining mall foot traffic, the threat of Amazon, lengthy supply chains and price-conscious shoppers — have converged, rendering the situation untenable. And time is running out.

A lack of compelling brand identity

“The answer lies in one critical point, which is that consumers are looking for personal style,” says Richard Passikoff, founder of marketing research firm Brand Keys. In the firm’s 2016 loyalty rankings of consumer engagement, Gap dropped 20 spots from the previous year. J.Crew also dropped 10 slots, topping only Forever 21 and Gap among apparel retailers.

“I don’t think there’s any kind of a clear sense about what Gap stands for,” says Passikoff. Despite the excitement about Rebekka Bay’s leadership — who is credited with the successful development of H&M sister brand Cos and was creative director at Gap from 2012 until early 2015— her vision was not felt on the sales floor. (In 2015, she was hired by Everlane as head of product and design.)

"Gap is not a design-led company and thus I had very little say in what ended up in the store," Bay told the Wall Street Journal. Chief executive Art Peck told the paper he views creative directors as "false messiahs." But Gap's product assortment has been indistinct and not compelling, leaving it open to cannibalisation by sister brands Old Navy and Banana Republic (the latter of which is in deep trouble too).

The answer lies in one critical point, which is that consumers are looking for personal style.

“There just hasn’t been a discernible trend for them to grab onto,” says retail analyst Gabriella Santaniello. “They are over-assorted, you can tell they are grasping at straws.”

Meanwhile, J.Crew did not evolve with its social media-savvy consumer. “At one point they were actually leading consumers in terms of a style direction, and I think that they’ve gotten stuck in a rut,” says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of retail consultancy Davidowitz & Associates.

To address this problem, J.Crew brought Madewell designer Somsack Sikhounmuong to lead women's design under president and creative director Jenna Lyons in 2015, when chief executive Mickey Drexler announced a renewed focus on heritage products over more eclectic high fashion pieces that alienated the remaining core customer. The Spring 2017 collection presentation, featuring friends of the brand instead of models, was well received by the industry.

But these changes have yet to transform sales. New reports suggest that Drexler, working on a new business plan with consulting firm McKinsey & Co., is considering a greater focus on activewear — a segment Morgan Stanley predicts will grow to $83 billion in sales by 2020 — after launching the brand's first collaboration with New Balance this autumn. At the same time, J.Crew shuttered its bridal line.

Abercrombie & Fitch has taken the most steps to distance itself from the logo-heavy, over-sexualised and exclusive brand identity of its late-‘90s, early-aughts heyday. In spring 2015, it announced plans to ditch stores’ dark lighting, heavy fragrances and shirtless models to attract an older shopper. The company hired new designers, most recently promoting men’s designer Aaron Levine to oversee women’s collections, too — and rebranded its marketing.

Despite an uptick in sales in the last quarter of 2015, the changes haven’t translated into sales. “They’re trying to walk away from an image,” says Santaniello. “That just doesn’t happen overnight.”

Consumers expect low prices and promotions

“She’s loyal as hell until we go wrong," said Drexler in a March 2015 conference call about J.Crew’s shopper. “Then she wants it on sale.” A highly promotional environment plagues all three retailers, whose customers have grown accustomed to seemingly constant discounts in the last several years. “Price is more critical than ever before,” says Davidowitz.

And shoppers are spending less on apparel in general, especially younger ones who prefer to spend on electronics and experiences. According to 2015 data released by the Commerce Department, the share of total consumer spending allocated to apparel has reached historically low levels.

“[J.Crew’s] price points are out of whack for what’s going on in the market right now,” says Santaniello. Madewell hits a sweet spot, however. “It’s little bit elevated for the crowd they’re going for, but it’s still attainable,” she says.

In order to better address the needs of price-conscious shoppers, retailers are expanding their off-price business. As of October, J.Crew added 28 Mercantile locations (off-price product stores located outside outlet malls) in 2016.

Brick-and-mortar woes

It’s no coincidence that all three retailers are cornerstones of American malls, which are seeing decreased foot traffic because “millennials don’t want to go to malls,” Davidowitz explains. In May, retail analyst Jan Rogers Kniffen told CNBC that he predicts 400 of America’s 1,100 enclosed malls will close in the coming years, and only 250 of those remaining will thrive.

“There is still value in brick-and-mortar,” says Santaniello, who distinguishes between local regional malls, which are dying, and what Wall Street calls “A+ malls” — destinations where shoppers can spend an entire day on a range of activities.

In response to the change in behaviour, Gap has announced several rounds of US store closures in recent years: 200 stores in 2011, 175 in 2015 and another 75 in May. Total online sales, which reached $2.53 billion in 2015, have grown 62 percent since 2011, but only 1 percent in 2015. In the latest earnings call, Peck said the company is focusing on converting mobile traffic, calling it the company’s “biggest opportunity right now.”

Abercrombie & Fitch closed 60 stores last year and 200 in the last two years. In 2017, half of its domestic store leases will expire, providing opportunities for further store closures. Direct-to-consumer sales grew 2 percent in the third quarter of fiscal 2016, reaching 23 percent of total net sales. The company has also launched in-store pickup options for online orders and, in October, it debuted a redesigned website to coincide with a refreshed marketing strategy and holiday campaign.

While J.Crew is reportedly considering store closures in the future, it also announced a partnership with Nordstrom in August to sell through select stores and online — and acquire new customers. Nordstrom has been selling Madewell since 2015 and is the only place either brand is available outside J.Crew's own channels.

Lack of supply chain flexibility and speed

Elevating design, lowering prices and streamlining stores are only Band-Aid solutions for a much deeper problem that none of these retailers have fundamentally addressed: a lack of design speed and flexibility in a company’s merchandising culture. In order to minimise losses due to markdowns of unsold product and sellouts of popular styles, apparel retailers need overhaul their approach to risk through fast-and-flexible supply chains.

“Everybody talks about speed to market … but it really is not an operational issue at all,” says John Thorbeck, chairman of Chainge Capital LLC, who demonstrated the link between flexible supply chain speed and market capitalisation in his research with Professor Warren H. Hausman of Stanford University. “I can’t stress enough that it requires a different business model and different metrics.”

Thorbeck and Hausman's analysis on the "Zara Gap" shows that retailers can increase profits by as much as 28 percent and market capitalisation by as much as 43 percent if they reduce lead times and delay finished product commitments in order to respond quickly to changing consumer demand. None of these struggling brands have embraced the strategy, says Thorbeck. (Zara can get new product in stores in less than a month. The norm for American specialty retailers is about ten months.)

Those who think they are going to merchandise their way forward are competing in a very different horse race.

At Gap Inc.'s November earnings call, Peck said the company is in the process of building “responsive supply chain capabilities.” While declining to state just how much faster production has become, a representative for Gap Inc. said that progress is being made season over season. The company has moved a small amount of manufacturing to the Caribbean to cut travel time down and is buying fabrics in bulk before finalising designs. The head of design no longer approves everything, and some categories have more merchant oversight than others. (Representatives for J.Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch were not available for comment.)

Companies need to adjust more than the supply chain itself, says Thorbeck. “Retailers have treated this as a functional problem in the supply chain and I don’t think that comes anywhere near what’s required to compete with the fast fashion leaders,” he says, adding that the term “fast fashion” has become a misnomer: it’s not about speed, it’s about disseminating risk. “Fast fashion is the ability to deliver fashion more often and at less risk. Those who think they are going to merchandise their way forward are competing in a very different horse race. And that’s what’s different about today versus 10 or 20 years ago.”

In the long term, these American retailers can’t compete with international apparel retailers like Zara, H&M, if they don’t address their company culture, says Thorbeck. Meanwhile, Gap Inc. and Abercrombie & Fitch are closing or diminishing their international presence while still struggling to defend their domestic businesses.

“Anyone who walks up and down Fifth Avenue knows that the international retailers dominate, and that’s no different in New York than it in is in London, Paris or Madrid. That kind of dominance requires more than an incremental response,” says Thorbeck. “None of [the American retailers] have made a transformational commitment.”

The threat of Amazon

It’s no secret that Amazon is intent on dominating fashion retail. Cowen and Company, a financial services firm, predicts the online giant will overtake Macy’s as the biggest US apparel retailer this year. (On Wednesday, Macy’s announced plans to close 63 stores and eliminate 10,000 jobs in the face of declining sales.)

“Bottom line, you’re vulnerable if you’re a category killer,” says retail expert Carol Spieckerman, explaining that highly-focused retailers specialising in a single category are no longer resilient business models. “[Amazon is] essentially willing to buy the business in order to stake a claim, and that’s very difficult to compete against.”

Unlike specialty retailers, Amazon can also cater to different price points. “It can sell down and dirty cheap t-shirts all the way up to luxury items and nobody says that any of it is out of brand,” says Spieckerman. “[Specialty retailers] have to stay in brand because their brand is really all they’ve got.”

It’s also costly to compete against the Amazon Prime customer experience, which has become the new standard, she adds.

Moving forward, specialty apparel retailers with substantial free cash flow have the best chances of survival, if they invest in omnichannel retailing and customer service and make speed and flexibility a priority across the entire company, not just supply chain departments. But the consequences for inaction are dire. “I think we are going to have another wave of attrition where some of the brands will go away,” says Spieckerman.

Licensing remains a silver lining, however. “The options for transferring brand equity to another business model have never been more numerous,” she says.

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