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Way back when, all the way back in the 1990s, Abercrombie & Fitch was the source for some very strange retail stories, due to its remarkable and rather disturbing corporate culture. Having started as an outdoor equipment provider, it had morphed into a gatekeeper. The brand became known—by design; it aggressively pursued its image—for dressing really good-looking, mostly White, cool kids in pastel polos with popped collars. The smooth-chested young men who greeted customers outside the stores’ doors were all shirtless.

The retailer’s marketing leaned into such heavily sexualized imagery of young people. Store employees were hired for their attractiveness and were instructed to act aloof and cold toward customers. Sizing was the opposite of inclusive. The largest women’s pants size stores would carry was a 10. Larger customers need not step foot in the heavily perfumed, dark, loud, snooty, but still somehow extremely compelling stores.

In an infamous and ill-advised interview in 2006, the brand’s then-CEO Mike Jeffries explained the point: “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

By 2015, with a changing set of sensibilities, plummeting sales, and Jeffries gone, store greeters finally got to put on some shirts. Thereafter, Abercrombie & Fitch began looking for ways to regain its status as a strong and appealing retail brand—experimenting with a broader range of sizes, developing better quality clothes, training friendly sales associates with a variety of looks, putting out less sexualized marketing, and adding brighter lighting to stores. It has changed nearly everything except its signature scent, Fierce, which still fills the air of every Abercrombie & Fitch store. But in a nod to progress, bottles of Fierce are available in both the original packaging, which sports a picture of a muscled, shirtless torso, and a new design, with no nakedness at all.

Some of these changes appear to have worked. In reports about the appeal of Abercrombie & Fitch’s curvy line of jeans, the company also emphasized its efforts to target and market more actively to a more mature demographic—though in this case, “mature” means people in their 20s. It’s recovery is not a given though; Abercrombie & Fitch posted disappointing earnings in the first quarter of 2022, leading to a 30 percent drop in its stock value.

Therefore, it is going even bigger. Take a deep breath (unless you are actually in an Abercrombie & Fitch, in which case you will get a lungful of perfume) and imagine the latest initiative to rejuvenate the brand: The Gateway. This “refreshing new store experience” expressly aims to evoke the feeling that people enjoy on the first day, at the start of a long weekend, according to a press release. The Gateway stores—which will open first in Los Angeles and Milan, with plans to expand moving into 2023—are designed to appeal to young millennial and zillennial shoppers. With an aesthetic similar to a high-end, chic hotel lobby, the stores provide a check-in desk, as well as fitting rooms with customizable lighting.

But even while they are in the Gateway stores, Abercrombie & Fitch invites customers to engage in an “immersive interpretation” of the brand and explore the store’s “omni-hub capabilities.” The wording might seen like jargon, but the idea is that visitors to The Gateway can do a lot of different things while they are in the store, including trying on clothes, picking up online orders, and hanging out with friends.

Of course, due to its recent struggles, Abercrombie & Fitch also need to attend to its expenses and costs. The current CEO thus announced commitments to finding ways to limit or offset the increased shipping and production costs thatconfront all supply chains, as well as make strategic marketing, technology, and customer investments. Such claims are far less controversial and attention-grabbing than comments that actively insult millions of consumers, but they likely will prove more effective for long-term performance.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think Abercrombie & Fitch’s new Gateway stores will be sufficient to change its image and improve the company’s bottom line?
  2. What else would you recommend Abercrombie & Fitch do to increase its profitability?
  3. In the past, Abercrombie & Fitch’s marketing focused on its exclusivity instead of its inclusivity. Can brands be profitable today if they try to turn some customers away? Which ones?

Source: George Anderson, “Will a New Store Design Turn Abercrombie & Fitch into a Getaway Shopping Destination?” RetailWire, August 9, 2022; “Abercrombie & Fitch Launches New Getaway-Inspired Store Design Concept,” corporate.abercrombie.com, August 8, 2022; Veronika Bondarenko, “Abercrombie & Fitch Is Trying to Grow Up,” The Street, August 8, 2022; Jessica M. Goldstein, “The Teens Who Hated Abercrombie Are the Adults Shopping There Now—And They Can’t Believe It Either,” Washington Post, November 23, 2021; William White, “Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) Stock Drops 30% on Disappointing Earnings,” InvestorPlace, May 24, 2022; Dana Ben Arye, “Unbelievable Stories from Former Abercrombie & Fitch Employees,” http://www.history-a2z.com, July 6, 2022; Rebecca Jennings, “End of an Era: Abercrombie’s Chiseled Greeters Will No Longer Go Shirtless,” Racked, April 24, 2015; Ashley Lutz, “Abercrombie & Fitch Refuses to Make Clothes for Large Women,” Insider, May 3, 2013; Susan Berfield and Lindsey Rupp, “The Aging of Abercrombie & Fitch,” Bloomberg, January 22, 2015; Marianne Wilson, “Abercrombie & Fitch Swings to Loss; Lowers Outlook,” Chain Store Age, May 24, 2022