A Brand that Needs to Get Unstuck

Last week was school vacation week here.  My children and I took a trip to New Jersey to visit my parents.  In close proximity to Paramus, the original shopping mall mecca, my 10-year-old daughter and I also took the opportunity to shop.

My daughter had been eyeing a sweater at abercrombie (the kids’ division of Abercrombie & Fitch) at the mall near our home in Massachusetts.  She had her heart set on finding it in Paramus.  We spotted the sweater prominently displayed on a couple of mannequins as soon as we entered the store. 

We couldn’t find the sweater on the shelves, however.  Upon inquiry to buy one off of the mannequin, the salesperson informed me that the sweater was from last year’s collection and that they are not allowed to sell the merchandise on the displays. 

A manager confirmed this, saying the corporate headquarters dictates the precise look of each display in each store.  He showed me the laminated card in close proximity to the display, detailing pictorially what the display should look like.

As a marketing consultant, I understand and support the idea of a consistent brand experience, so rather than argue I just asked the manager for the product item number so we could order it online.  I also know that displays can exponentially increase sales, so their out-of-stock situation was not surprising.

Alas, the sweater was nowhere to be found on the website either.  There was no search function to search for the sweater by product number.  There wasn’t even a corporate phone number to call the company about it.  You can only inquire by contact form.

Which I did.  Here is the response I received:


We’re sorry that you weren’t able to buy the sweater you wanted. One of our store models should have explained that the merchandise on our forms and displays is not for sale. The clothes and accessories on display are often cut, tied, pinned, or stretched to achieve a certain look.
We feel that these displays play an incredible role in the abercrombie store experience, but this also means that display items become too damaged to sell. Even items that look fine to you could have been damaged by the high intensity lighting we shine on our forms or by the signature scents we spray on them daily.You can either call us at 1.866.777.1892 from 7 AM to 12 AM EST with your reference #110228-002445 to place an order with free shipping, or you can place the or online at abercrombiekids.com and hit us back with your new order number for us to credit your shipping.We look forward to processing your new abercrombie kids order soon.Laurianda
Customer Service
abercrombie kids

Well Laurianda, if the store experience that abercrombie seeks to create is one of frustration and disappointment, the displays are doing their job incredibly well.

As I said above, displays ramp up demand for the featured items.  It’s easier to imagine buying a clothing item if you can preview how it looks and get suggestions on what coordinating clothes to buy from the display.  Supermarkets have long known displays’ power to drive sales, which is why they assemble a towering display of food items at both ends of every aisle.

Of course the difference is that you can buy the items off of the supermarket displays.

Displaying several unattainable items serves no positive business purpose.  It creates frustration which turns customers off.  It also makes the brand look foolish.

Delving further into the email and the brand’s website, abercrombie seemed to have a preoccupation with models and modeling.  Where Disney calls its employees “cast members,” abercrombie calls their employees “models.”  On a review website glassdoor.com, more than one former employee accused the management of favoring employees based on their looks.

abercrombie is going through a phase that I call Brand Adolescence.  A brand in adolescence is a relatively new product or service that gets off to a great start, chugs along fine for a while and then stalls.  Growth falters, stops entirely, or becomes very inconsistent.

The behavior of brands in adolescence mirrors that of many humans in the same phase.  In this case, the abercrombie brand is behaving in a remarkably self-centered manner and does not take the potential effects of its actions into account.

  • abercrombie thinks that protecting customers from what it considers less than perfect product is what is best for the customer, without considering the frustration generated by displaying products it refuses to sell.
  • abercrombie calls its employees “models” without addressing the potential message that name conveys (looks are prized above all) and the actions local managers may take based on that message that could reflect unfavorably on the brand.
  • abercrombie provides no search function or direct human contact mechanism on its website and thinks that offering free shipping will overcome the disappointment of denying customers a product they’d like to have.

And sure enough, the brand’s performance has been inconsistent and faltering the past couple of years.  Abercrombie & Fitch, the parent company, has yet to get sales back to its 2007 level.  Average transaction value and gross margin have slipped.  The company planned to close 60 stores in 2010 and another 50 in 2011.

While brand adolescence isn’t pegged to any particular age, the phase often occurs when the company is in its teens.  Abercrombie & Fitch launched the abercrombie kids brand in 1997, making it 14 years old now.

A 14-year-old behaving in a self-centered manner and overly concerned about appearance.  Does this sound familiar?

Like parents of adolescents, abercrombie management needs to help the brand refocus.  Brand consistency is great when it focuses on the consumer experience, but here it has run amok.

Management needs to help the brand thrill customers, not turn them off.  To help the brand start to refocus, they should:

  • Display only items in stock for sale. Clearly the “models” had fielded questions about buying displayed items from the displays when they were out-of-stock in the stores before.  We weren’t the first customers to be disappointed and walk away.  Disappointment is not a brand association you want to encourage.
  • Listen to customers.  Increase access for customers to tell the company what they want or inquire about products.  This goes beyond just having a phone number to call on the website.  One option could be a blog where customers could actually address issues and interact with the company.  The current Abercrombie blog has only 19 posts since it went live over two years ago (January 11, 2009), and only three posts deal with alleged customer questions.   Two of those three are Q&A about how to get hired to work and model for them.   The other 16 posts are all related to the advertising models.
  • Figure out what business they are in.  Are you in the retail clothing business or the modeling business?  Does this modeling obsession actually help or hinder clothing sales?

The abercrombie division was no doubt created to extend the Abercrombie & Fitch brand and catch potential A&F customers young.  But the reverse works as well.  Disappoint abercrombie customers young, and they may never see the inside of an A&F store.

My daughter, a prime potential customer for abercrombie, doesn’t think about all this marketing stuff.  All she knows right now is that the experience was disappointing and didn’t make her feel good.  She doesn’t want to feel that way again.

If you liked this post, you’ll love the next one.

To have future posts sent to your inbox... 

To Crash Is Human, To Backup Divine
Don’t You Love Me Anymore?