Mike Jeffries, the former CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, is the kind of guy who reminds women, and men, of their first husband – and not in a good way. That could be because his personality reminds us of the awkward guy who couldn’t date the cheerleader or quarterback in high school, so he took it out on those around him as he advanced well past middle age. The septuagenarian, long notorious for making it clear that he did not want “fat chicks” shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch stores, resigned from the company in 2014 as it struggled during two years of decreasing sales.
But as is the case in many scarring marriages, Abercrombie & Fitch also chose not to enter into another relationship, and has not replaced Jeffries since he left the company. The rudderless organization saw its sales plunge, which is partly why leading business publications have been screaming at the company to hire a new CEO. Now, Abercrombie says it is ditching six-pack abs in favor of a more “wholesome” image, but its attempt to ditch its fashion bully reputation may be too late.
A recent CNBC report highlighting the company’s new strategy reveals that instead of targeting the “popular crowd” (whatever that means), Abercrombie’s apparel and stores will focus on customers’ “best self and inner confidence.” The company realizes it is now competing against fast-fashion giants such as H&M, Zara, Uniqlo and even Target. So, hanging out with the cool crowd means foregoing sales, a tactic that for years has driven Wall Street analysts insane.
As the company’s chief merchandising officer, Fran Horowitz, told CNBC: “Image is less important than character.” Gone are the shirtless ads that made many of us feel unworthy as we entered Abercrombie’s dark mall dungeons full of clothing that 20-somethings are now less inclined to buy. And in another move to compete with brands such as Forever 21 and American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch says it will change its marketing focus to one that carries a more “casual luxury” message.
It may be too late for the company, which also owns Hollister (the surfing brand, not the California town). The cool kids are no longer shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch, evident in the fact that sales have declined for 14 consecutive quarters. The teens who once shopped at those stores are now 20-somethings, and the brand Bloomberg describes as now “amorphous” is not succeeding at luring them in. Gone are the A&F logos on apparel that attracted customers on their own, leaving shoppers even more confused. Hence the company recently announced that it will close 60 more stores.
The fact that mall traffic is down, and flagship stores designed to attract international visitors in big cities are also failing, also explains the company’s decline. By the end of the year, Abercrombie & Fitch will be down to 684 operational stores, down from 946 locations in 2012. Business journalists responded in kind, with Barron’s describing the company as a “teenage wasteland.”
But the bottom line is that Abercrombie & Fitch dug its own financial grave due to having an overgrown teenager’s personality dictate its mission. From discriminatory hiring practices based on looks, to cultivating a brand that emphasized exclusion, not exclusivity (as in Prada or Louis Vuitton), Jeffries left a stain on the company that its current posse of executives cannot bleach out.
The cool kids who once flocked to these stories have grown up, can no longer rely on their parents to fund their fashion tastes, and many millennials now want to shop at stores that at a minimum display some trace of social and environmental responsibility. Abercrombie & Fitch offers none of the above. Jeffries’ legacy could leave the company with a similar fate to the country’s first retail brand, a high-end outdoors sporting goods company founded in the 1890s that eventually declared bankruptcy in 1976.
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