Monday, April 13, 2015

Guest Voices! | Letter to Arthur: A Very British Report, Part III...

Interior of the more olden, notable Abercrombie & Fitch
at South Street Seaport, Manhattan, NYC.   |   Image, Peter M.
         HI ARTHUR,

Boy! What a 12 months it has been for the A&F family of brands: Gilly Hicks has gone the way of the dodos, and Mike has taken his flip flops, polo shirts and ripped jeans to the retirement home of ex A&F models! I bet he was gutted when they didn't have space in the parking lot for his private jet! Sales have continued to decline across all brands; so the big question it all doom and gloom like a fierce-enhanced tumbleweed blowing through an empty store, or are there green shoots appearing replacing those damn plastic palm trees? Well, I've just returned from my annual trip from the good old U.S. of A, and, this time, went to the Big Apple where I managed to take in a flagship store, standard store format ,and even a U.S. A&F outlet!! So I'm in a pretty good place to give you my unbiased views on how I see the state of the A&F family of brands. Got you interested? Keep on reading then!!

Right, I'm going to break this post down into three categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I will be mainly focusing on A&F with a nod in the direction of Hollister. The stores that I visited while on my trip were A&F and Hollister at Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey; A&F South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan; A&F and Hollister outlets in Jersey Gardens outlets in Elizabeth, New Jersey; and finally the Fifth Avenue flagship, A&F and Abercrombie Kids.

Ok, The Good: After the turmoil of falling sales, relevance and ignorance within the fashion industry (and also to some degree to its own customers), some of the changes that Mike introduced - much to his chagrin, I'm sure - Arthur has continued with alongside fellow Brit Christos, and I'm pleased to report that, to some degree, I do see signs of green shoots within A&F. So let's look at these in more detail.

The Good - A&F Essentials: Clever and a good idea, ideally in retail you need three price points: your entry level price point, your mid-level, and your premium top-level price point. Essentials finally gives A&F an entry level price point. While I still feel there are additional areas A&F could apply the essentials range to, it does at least give a more price-competitive edge to A&F and brings things more into line with other fast fashion retailers. However, I would really like to see Christos address the top-level price point; I personally would love to see either the reintroduction of Ruehl or Ezra Fitch as the premium price point within the A&F brand. There is so much heritage there waiting to be utilised  - whether through online exclusives or flagship exclusives, and I for one would also welcome both sub brands back into the A&F fold.

The Good - In-store Environment: I've become so used to the iconic Bruce Weber grayscale / black-and-white photography used within A&F, so I wasn't sure how I was going to take the new colour photography. I'm pleased to say any concerns I had faded away within a matter of moments as the colour photography, used in-store, gave a brighter, fresh feel to the environment which, while only cosmetic, made for a more up to date shopping experience. Also welcome was the removal of those god damn awful plastic palm trees while, too, less sprucing of garments, lighter and brighter rooms, better controlled clearance stock in the fabled back rooms and finally the playlist! I actually found to my surprise that while shopping I was Shazaming some of the tunes I really like - with my personal favourite being Odesza's "White lies", and all I can say is beautiful music sums up this track. While there is still work to do on the in-store environment (that I will cover in The Bad), the subtle changes made so far have been an improvement to my retail experience within A&F.

Interior of A&F South Street Seaport, womens.

The Good - Customer Service: Did you just spit out your beverage? Because you did read that correctly (even though you will also find an entry for customer service in The Bad to balance things out: after all, this is A&F, don't you know!). A big shout out goes to the good customer service received at South Street Seaport, Jersey Gardens Outlet, and Garden State Plaza, and you may have noticed there is one noticeable exception, the Fifth Avenue flagship, but we will get onto the reasons on why I haven't included this store later! At the first three mentioned locations, store associates were actually polite, helpful, willing to do size checks and promote the website if a garment in the size I wanted wasn't available in the store. This made a refreshing change from the more aloof, couldn't-care-less attitude that has been very much evident in A&F for years.

Another interior shot at A&F South Street Seaport, mens.

The Good - A&F outlets: About blooming time is all I can say. I remember the bad old days of the late 2013's when the back rooms in A&F had almost taken on a life of their own and were trying to engulf the whole store: walking into A&F was like walking into a discount clearance outlet with just a splattering of new arrivals for good measure thrown in as an after thought. Now, I know A&F in the U.S is only just embarking on ramping its outlet presence, but those of you who regularly hit the outlets know that all major brands have a presence. The price point and mix of merchandise was about right at the Jersey Gardens Outlet, while the in-store environment was easy to navigate. Hopefully, when A&F has enough outlets, the fabled back room full of clearance will move out of the mall retail stores, to the outlets, leaving the mall stores to concentrate on increasing their range of current merchandise.

A&F outlet store at The Mills at Jersey Gardens, Elizabeth, New Jersey.

O.K., let's get onto The Bad - The Clothes: Is it me or has anyone else noticed the significant drop in the cotton content used in A&F garments? Now, I know that to achieve a price point sometimes quality has to be compromised, but every single A&F graphic tee is a cotton / polyester mix. So in just under a year of being able to buy 100% cotton tees, you now can't get a single one in the spring collection. But it's not stopping there, polyester is creeping into henleys and polos too! This really does worry me about the longevity and genuine quality of the garments available to purchase at A&F. Surely there is even more reason to have a top tier Ezra / Ruehl range in A&F made of genuine quality materials and looks and styles that warrant a premium price point.

The Bad - 5th Avenue Stagnation: The A&F Flagship on 5th Avenue should be the zenith of the A&F retail experience, but why, oh, why does it feel like it's stuck in time and a reminder of the excesses of the Mike Jeffries' era. Now, before you say it, I know Mike is only four months into his A&F retirement home, but Christos, this store badly needs an up to date makeover. Many a time I've stood in line just to enter this fabled flagship store - not on this trip. Apart from Abercrombie Kids on the top floor, nothing else has changed from my first visit in 2008! O.K., the louvers have been removed from the store front windows, but why not remove them from the front of 56th street? This might require a bit of work. but A&F should be using the front windows to sell itself to the passing public. The store also needs to be drastically "lightened & brightened": modern fast-fashion retailers are all about being light and bright, and the A&F 5th Avenue store needs to move with the times: for too long this store has been standing still, it needs to be the beacon of light guiding all other A&F's before it and not just remind everybody about the past - which, by the way, isn't helped when you can still buy AbercombieHot cologne at full retail from the first floor counters. I mean, how long ago was AbercombieHot long in the clearance sale prior. I know: pack them all up, and send them in a care package to Mike - or better still, send them to Jersey Gardens outlets.

AbercrombieHot cologne still lingering at A&F Fifth Avenue,
though now full-price. Had been placed into long mark-down period
instores and online in the U.S. before being removed online.

The Bad - 5th Avenue Customer Service: Oh boy, just when I'd seen such an improvement in the other stores I visited I was brought back to reality when asking for a size check at A&F 5th Avenue! This made my blood boil! I wanted the Millers Fall navy stripe flagship exclusive shirt in XL: I did my research before I entered the store by using the "find in store" search facility provided online, and it was showing that my choice was available, but that's where my problems started! I went down the main staircase as this shirt is displayed on the basement level, and surprise, surprise they only had one shirt out and in small!! Now, as I had already checked online, I approached the nearest sales associate to ask him if he would mind looking for an XL for me in the stockroom only to be told - his words, not mine - "What the website shows when you check store stock online does not reflect what is available in-store and does not update regularly." I couldn't believe he was basically dissing his own company website. Well, I wasn't satisfied with that at all, and I insisted that he check the stockroom for me. Bear in mind that they only had small on display: After 5 mins waiting, he came back to me to tell me that they had every size in the back apart from XL (which was the size I wanted!). A couple of things crossed my mind here: 1) Why weren't the other sizes on the shop floor in the first place? Surely A&F want to sell its wares?; 2) Is the A&F "find in store" stock checker that wrong that it isn't worth using in the first place?; 3) was the male associate just not interested in helping me find the shirt in my size (after all, I did interrupt him mid-conversation with another associate). I'm going to let you decide the answer, but all three possibilities did cross my mind! As the "find in store" stock checker was still showing the shirt as available in XL three days later still, I decided to pop back into the store, and what did I find on display? Said Millers Fall navy stripe shirt in XL! Now, as a customer, I know which one of the three possibilities I believe in, and in that instance, all the good customer service in all the other A&F's was undone by this one male associate. Christos, I'm sure you know this, but there is still some work to do when it comes to giving the consumer the right level of customer service.

The Bad - In-store Garment Size Availability: How many times have you gone into an A&F store looking for a particular size, worked your way through said garments, only to find the very size you want isn't on the shop floor? But why when you ask an associate, more often then not, they then proceed to bring out your required size from the stock room! Surely, in the 21st century, A&F have a software solution that associates can use - I would say "find in store", but after my 5th Avenue experience, maybe A&F needs a more reliable software solution! - to check store stock inventory to ensure all sizes are out on display? How many sales are lost due to certain sizes being in the stock room and not on the shop floor? Surely, garments size availability should be checked prior to stores opening and by associates during the trading day?

And now, finally, The Ugly - 5th Avenue discount price points: Maybe this is me as I just don't get it any longer: say there is a 50% off promotion running, but the 5th Avenue store is excluded from the promotion (as we well know, the flagship doesn't run promotions). So what do the clued up savvy shoppers do? Jump on the subway down to the A&F at South Street Seaport and buy the same garments at 50% off!! I can understand A&F not wanting to include flagship exclusive items in discount sales at 5th Avenue (as the only other option to purchase these would be online), but when it is a standard garment available in any A&F, it makes sense to run the discounts across all stores: the cynic in me says that because of the location, A&F is naturally trying to fleece as much money as they can from the tourist traffic that passes through the 5th Avenue store. Well, maybe it's time to treat the customer with a little more respect. You never know, this might also lead to an uplift in sales within the store!

50% off at A&F South Street Seaport, a subway ride down
from A&F Fifth Avenue (excluded from promotional discounts)
with both being easily accessible from each other in Manhattan.

Promotional discount card at A&F Jersey Gardens.

The Ugly - Continual Discounts and Price Points: How often in the last few years have you actually paid full retail for a garment at any of the A&F family of brands? It's discount warfare out there, and in the seven days that I was stateside, both the A&F website and in-store were running 50% off selected spring styles and 70% off clearance, followed by 40% off the entire store, and more promotions besides. My point is, with such deep cutting price promotions, wouldn't it be better to look at the whole pricing structure within the A&F family of brands and bring them more into line with their direct competitors? The consumer has gotten so accustomed to the discount culture that has firmly settled in over the last few years that, on my regular trips to the U.S., I normally expect to only pay full retail on 10% of my purchases from A&F. I'm not complaining, but continual discounts degrade the brand while affecting the profitability of the business; I really think there is still some work to do on price points as long as it isn't to the detriment of quality. Please no more polyester!!

The Ugly - Hollister: Boy. this is a tough one. If you have been keeping up to date with the company's financial results, you will know that Hollister is facing the biggest challenge when it comes to year-on-year falling sales now below the US$2 billion mark (something not seen since it surpassed 2 billion in FY2009 and climbed on until recently). The challenge of turning Hollister round is potentially the greatest the Company has ever faced: while I think the new store format is an improvement on the old beach shack format - giving a more modern mall feel to the refurbished stores - I still feel that the Hollister identity of being a teen fashion brand does not help itself as this is the most fickle area of the market to cater for. Forever 21, H&M, and Express are able to appeal to a wider demographic while still catering for the core teen demographic which Hollister seems to struggle to achieve. Hollister needs to widen its demographic. Although this may have a knock-on effect on A&F, I also feel that A&F could appeal to an older demographic, too. Certainly, a repositioning of the key target demographic for Hollister would only help it compete in the cutthroat world of fast fashion.

So Arthur, to summarize, progress is being made - more slowly in some areas than others, and 5th Avenue needs a top to bottom 21st century facelift. My biggest A&F concern is the reduction in quality of materials being used in the garments and how far this will be pushed in the current retail climate. I'm really looking forward to seeing the Christos' effect in the Back-to School  / Fall 2015 collection, and here's hoping for some Ezra / Ruehl-inspired quality, heritage-led garments that really inspire and hark back to classic periods of A&F. Anyway I'm looking forward to seeing for myself when l return to the U.S in September. Stay tuned, Arthur. Christos, there be more to come soon!!!


Editor's note: Arthur Martinez is, as of 2014, the Chairman on the A&F Board of Directors and, while the Company is in search for the next CEO, he leads the Office of the Chairman (which includes Christos Angelides, brand president of Abercrombie & Fitch and abercrombie kids; Fran Horowitz, brand president of Hollister Co.; and Jonathan Ramsden, Chief Executive Officer) currently governing operations of Abercrombie & Fitch Co. during this sans-CEO interim period.

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Written content composed by Peter M. as Guest Voices contribution at The Sitch on Fitch; edited by C.E.R. Images in this post are by Peter M. for The Sitch on Fitch, and they may not be used/altered without permission by the author.