Monday, June 2, 2014

Guest Voices! | Letter to Mike: A Very British Progress Report – Part I...




Dear Mike Jeffries,

After your journey into home office – a quick catch up with the daily financial results for all brands – I'm sure the second most important part of your day is to catch up on the posts on The Stitch on Fitch. You may well remember my first post on October 3rd, 2013,  regarding promotional sales, merchandising and clearance, so I read with interest last November 8th, here on TSOF, the post regarding Abercrombie & Fitch's future business plan. I've now returned to the US where I have experienced the louver-less A&F mall based stores and also the new Hollister storefront at Wellington Green mall, and I wanted to share my views with you on where I feel progress has been made where there is still work to do.

Armed with an even stronger Pound to the dollar, as the UK economy continues to recover from recession, I was intrigued to find out if there were signs of "green shoots" in the A&F and Hollister mall-based stores I have been visiting in Central Florida. Well I'm pleased to say there are a few but, equally, I have a number of concerns I need to share with you not only with what is happening within your stores but also online as well.

So let's start with the stores. Now, I've been a fan for the long haul – well into double digits in years – so I remember the louver less stores of old. And I must admit, while there was a certain elegance and mystique with a storefront covered in louvers, now that they have been removed I feel this does not detract from the just makes them feel more "mallsy" which, let's be honest, 99% of them are!

And I do like the new Hollister storefront which I saw for the first time at Wellington Green mall: the video wall in the entrance with the beach works well and helps set the SoCal theme. It does now mean that the store blends into the rest of the mall's stores, but there is no point in standing still, and I for one think the beach huts have had their day. And have you added some more spot lights? Walking into the store, it actually seemed brighter. I could actually see the merchandise, and all you need to do now is get rid of those damn plastic potted foliage. Let's be honest, they do get in everyone's way especially in the smaller stores in the UK!!

Back to A&F. Now I'm not going to lie, Mike. I was a bit fearful going into the stores as fresh in my mind was my last experience of stock piled high of reduced merchandise. It was like the back room had taken a life force all of its own and had slowly started taking over the rest of the store. I knew things were bad and wasn't surprised how bad they were when A&F financial results were released for 2013. Well I'm pleased to say the mall-based A&F's are almost back to normal, with only a few racks of reduced garments leading into the back rooms (even the back rooms weren't full of last season's leftovers)!

Now onto this season's range, Mike. I'm not going to beat about the bush here, but there is one word I would use to sum up the men's Spring-Summer collection and that is "uninspiring". While there is a wider spectrum of colours used in the women's, in my opinion, the men's is dull, dreary and drab. Mike, this season's polo tops have to be the dullest I can recall. Now I know plain bold polos might be the fashion, but the fact that all polos are reduced to either US$29 or US$39 would tell me otherwise. Where has the uniqueness and individuality that made A&F so great gone? It's certainly lacking in most of the menswear range, that's for sure. I will give you some clues: I do like the limited edition tees, and I only hope and pray that some bright spark in Home Office decides to do a limited edition re-run of an Ezra Fitch tee or Ruehl tee. Come on, you know this is what we want!!

Continuing the merchandising theme, one of the items on my list to purchase was a couple of pairs of skinny corduroy pants. Finding them on the website was a challenge but nothing like what I faced trying to find them in stores. Seven stores visited in Central Florida, and I couldn't find a single pair so I decided to use the "find in store" option on the website – first putting in Orlando with no such luck, then Tampa same as this is when it gets interesting. I stuck in Miami again. Nothing. Then Boston and again nothing. But guess what? I could pick them up from the 5th Avenue flagship store in NYC!! Now these are not even flagship exclusives, so the question that needs to be asked is just how many stores actually carry any of the corduroy pants range??

Mike, I finally see in your Q1 results earnings conference call on May 29th, and what we call "click & collect" in the UK is coming to your stores in the US – yippee, and about time too! Major stores in the UK have had this service operating for a number of years, and I find it incredulous that it has yet to be rolled out across the brands. I do hope that once this is rolled out, as a tourist visiting the US, if I'm unable to find an item in store, I can order that item and have it delivered to a A&F / Hollister or Abercrombie Kids of my choosing in the US? Also in most stores in the UK, this operates on a next day delivery basis: will you be able to offer the same level of service? Can I also suggest to help boost store traffic and generate store sales: why don't you include some in store coupons with direct to store purchases? You would have certainly got some additional sales out of me had this service been available during my most recent trip to the US.

My final point on merchandising, Mike, is this: there is very little difference in range in smaller stores compared to what is available in larger stores and space utilisation still needs improvement. Now I don't expect you to be able to carry the complete range but, with the lack of availability, it would be naive of you to think that all paying customers are going to order what we cannot find instore online instead. Smaller quantities and a fuller selection of the current range would be helpful. After all, some of us actually want to try before we buy.

Oh, by the way, what's going on with the bags? Retro handles or simply saving a few cents me thinks.

Ok, Mike, last point. models and store associates, or lack of. Now I know a thing or two about retail and know one of the highest costs to any business is personnel costs. My concern is there is a genuine lack of sales staff working in stores. Now I know there may have been sickness, lunch breaks etc., but there is a very fine line between having too many and too few sales associates working instore. For example, one large store had only two people working on the store floor on a busy Saturday afternoon. With the line at the registers at least 10 deep, I put down my purchases, and I wasn't prepared to wait. I wonder how many more people did the same thing. Customer service needs to be your holy grail for your instore customer experience. I hope that in tougher times you haven't been reducing your staffing to dangerous levels across A&F / Hollister stores as this will only have a negative impact on customer service, affect model and associate morale, and potentially reduce store revenue.

Thanks for reading this, Mike. This concludes part one. Next I will be tackling the A&F website so stay tuned, there's more to come...

A&F Citrus Park

A&F Wellington Green

HCo Wellington Green (one of the recently upgraded U.S. HCo stores).

HCo Wellington Green, sideview

HCo Wellington Green, the entrance feat. video feed

Written content composed by Peter M. as Guest Voices contribution at The Sitch on Fitch. Images in this post are by Peter M. for The Sitch on Fitch, and they may not be used/altered with out permission by the author.