The bell has been tolling for a while for Abercrombie & Fitch. For years, observers have noted its dwindling sales, struggling image, and legal challenges. Finally, the clothing retailer has determined to redefine itself. But the question is what that redefinition ultimately will mean for the beleaguered firm.

MHHE005223Criticized for its focus on appearances, including its insistence on hiring sales staff who reflected a certain standard in their body type and physical features, Abercrombie & Fitch now has promised to alter its personnel practices. For example, rather than referring to in-store staffers as “Models,” it will call them “Brand Representatives” henceforward.

Faced with complaints from parents that its marketing was too overtly sexualized, it also has committed to minimizing the amount of nudity featured in its catalogs and direct mail, as well as on advertisements on store walls. The models on shopping bags and gift cards also will be fully clothed from now on.

Noting trends toward greater individuality, and away from brand logos emblazoned on clothing, Abercrombie & Fitch and its sister brand Hollister will start stocking more standard fare, without any evident brand logos.

After hearing from consumers that they were tired of dark, perfume-laden stores, where tree branch decorations blocked clothing displays, the retailer has turned up the lights, turned down the scent machines, and removed the trees.

But even as it promises all these changes, observers wonder how it will set itself apart. Without the huge “A&F” logo, what makes its sweatshirts any more appealing than a similar offering from another retailer? Without nearly naked models, how can Abercrombie & Fitch promote its cutting-edge, risky image?

There likely are good answers to these questions. Unfortunately though, it does not appear as if the retailer has found them yet. Its sales continue to decline, even after the announcements and implementation of the radical changes. According to one branding expert, “They are going to turn up the lights and put shirts on the dudes, but there is no accompanying story.” Although executives with Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister insist that their brands remain strong, consumers seem uncertain about what that means. Can brands really be iconic if no one recognizes the icon anymore?

Discussion Questions:

  1. How is Abercrombie & Fitch changing its strategy?
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of such a change?
  3. Do you believe the changes will be positive for the firm?


Source: Suzanne Kapner and Joann S. Lublin, The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2015