Abercrombie & Fitch | Losing their Pants & Cool at the Mall
Seems that Abercrombie & Fitch isn’t recession-proof either, as kids (and parents) are turning to ‘like’ brands at a price, and newer streetwear & fashion brands for more up-to-date looks. The Bruce Weber homoerotic photography and overpowering scents pumped through the store may have finally played itself out too. The store environment was so overdone it felt like a gay club, and Jeffries was stuck on an aesthetic that never evolved– it seems to have finally stagnated.
In terms of product & presentation, A&F is the epitome of a one trick pony with little innovation in product or presentation over the years– and the pony ride just might be over. Someone I knew used to say– “when you’re coasting, you’re actually going downhill,” and this seems to be the case with A&F–they’ve coasted for too long. American Eagle, Aeropostale, etc. are now eating their lunch as the kid who fell in love with A&F years ago has moved on, and the new kid has either traded down or is more forward.
Either way, they’re failing to see what all the fuss is about. Ironically, Hollister may also have added to the downfall through cannibalization– as the two brands are fairly interchangeable, with Hollister being sharper on price. A good recession exposes all your weaknesses, and A& F is feeling it hard.
At the entrance to almost every shopping mall in the country, you will find a directory that, if you are spatially coordinated, will give you an approximate lay of the land. You can gauge the distance fromAbercrombie & Fitch to its younger-skewing cousin, Hollister, or its older cousin, Ruehl, and find the way to their closest competitors in the teenager and young adult category, Aéropostale and American Eagle Outfitters.
But you will be no closer to discerning what drives the modern youth from one store to the next; what differentiates one’s frayed cargo shorts from another’s; or why one of them, Abercrombie, is facing a consumer revolt, while others are paradoxically upbeat. A clue: It has to do with price.
This spring, spending by teenagers, a closely studied but rarely understood segment of the population, is off by 14 percent, a direct reflection of the economy, according to a report this month by the investment bank Piper Jaffray. And that is having a profound effect on an already unraveling mall culture, where deep discounters and stores known for heavy promotions are suddenly the popular destinations and aspirational brands are struggling to fit in.
Teenagers are noticing. “Labels are becoming less and less of a priority for people throughout my school,” said Chelsea Orcutt, 17, a senior at the Mount Saint Mary Academy near Buffalo, where the Walden Galleria shopping center includes all of the above-mentioned stores, plus many more options for teenagers who favor a sunny West Coast surfer style or those who prefer a goth ensemble to highlight their black nail polish and lipstick. Ms. Orcutt, a bit less casual in her personal style, favors Macy’s, Old Navy and American Eagle, which, she pointed out, keep teen budgets in mind.
“Labels and designer purses — I’m not seeing them as frequently,” said Ms. Orcutt, who had participated in a survey on teen spending for the Hearst Magazines network of Web sites and was approached to speak about the subject for this article. When asked why that might be, she replied, without hesitation, “because of the crisis.”
During years of rampant consumerism, where teenagers shopped was often more closely tied to what was happening in the pages of US Weekly or InStyle than their families’ financial circumstances. Empires like Abercrombie & Fitch were built on the premise that their products, even $80 jeans and $30 T-shirts with provocative graphics, would be perceived as luxury items if they were sold in the right way. But as teenagers’ priorities rapidly shift away from brands they now perceive as too expensive, the pecking order of mall stores has changed.
At Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., on a Friday afternoon, Abercrombie & Fitch was nearly empty. As two young men walked out of the dimly lighted store, past a photograph of a shirtless man with his hand submerged beneath the waistband of his jeans, one of them, trailing the eye-watering scent of the store’s perfume, said, “This stuff is too expensive.”
At Ruehl, which is Abercrombie’s more upscale store for slightly older consumers (and even darker inside), there were no customers at all. But at Hollister, where the prices average 12 to 15 percent lower, the line at the register was seven deep.
To maintain its prestigious image, Abercrombie has stood alone among mall retailers in not blaring its sales — a strategy that Wall Street analysts have blamed for its current decline. The company reported a 34 percent drop in sales for March at stores open at least a year, the worst performance of mall retailers that month. Abercrombie executives did not respond to written questions about whether the brand — as some business columnists suggest — has lost its cool. In the past, the chain has said it doesn’t want to tarnish its image with big discounts, but the risk is that consumers may retain the habit of thriftiness even after the recession ends.
“I’m not sure customers are going to ever go back to shopping the way they once did,” said Betsy McLaughlin, the chief executive of Hot Topic, a competitor for the teen market, which posted a gain of 7.1 percent in March, largely on the strength of licensed products tied to the “Twilight” vampire series. “There’s just so much retail out there. I think the people who will win are the ones who provide something different. It’s not just a price war.”
The styles at Abercrombie & Fitch, which have changed little in the last decade, are similar to those at the company’s Hollister or Ruehl stores, except for the prices and logos. In the same mall, there are plenty of retailers that specialize in Abercrombie-esque casual-collegiate-cum-surfer-dude styles for even less. A new store, WHO.A.U., sells frayed cargo shorts and appliquéd T-shirts that are displayed next to black-and-white portraits of hunky shirtless models, ahem. And behind the register at the Aéropostale store in Paramus is a poster showing a frolicking group of teenagers, like a tamer version of Abercrombie.