Abercrombie & Fitch & truly moronic store policies

image While I am in the States, my family sends me orders for various items they would like me to bring back. Since I have three daughters and a rather dishy wife, that means shopping in places such as Abercrombie & Fitch, which are mall rat havens with pounding music, posters of meticulously depilated underage models artfully grabbing their crotches, and clusters of of sweet young things standing around staring into space, occasionally shouting “What?”. My standard approach is to bring a netbook or some printouts and convince one of these creatures to go get the stuff for me.

Usually this works out to everyone’s satisfaction, but not today. I found myself in the Abercrombie & Fitch store next to Faneuil Hall in Boston, looking for a specific top (pictured) in a specific size. The store had only one left, which they refused to sell to me. When I asked why, the salesperson (and, eventually, the store manager) explained to me that it was the last one in the store and belonged to the “Visual Team”, apparently an organizational entity with immense powers. They did offer to check whether it would be available in another store. The idea that they sell me their piece and get a new one from another store apparently did not occur to them.

A few years ago this would have occasioned some rather sarcastic attempts by yours truly to explain the lack of basic business instinct in this policy, but with advancing years I have come to understand that discussing anything with “managers” (who manage without authority, an interesting concept) is like hunting dairy cows with a scoped rifle, to steal a phrase from P. J. O’Rourke. So I shook my head and left.

As for the store policy, I just can’t get it: There is a recession, and retail is suffering along with everyone else. Abercrombie’s revenues are stagnating and their stock is down there with the rest of the market. And here I am, a customer wanting to buy a product they have, and rather than sell it to me they instead saddle me down with their own bureaucracy.

Someone once said that in all companies, we start out working for the customer and end up working for the CFO. In Abercrombie they work for the Visual Team – it clearly is more important how the store looks than whether any sales take place there. I don’t get it. But then again, I am just a lowly business school professor who thought selling stuff was what stores did.

I must be getting old. And sadly lacking in the depilation department.

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6 thoughts on “Abercrombie & Fitch & truly moronic store policies

  1. Julie

    Haha! Don’t worry, Dad, it’s not your age. I’m wearing Abercrombie right now, and I still have a pretty strong dislike for their stores. Remind me why shopping in the dark is a good idea. But let’s not forget that Hollister is an equally rubbish shopping experience, although they both beat shopping in Norway.

  2. Anonymous

    When evaluating a company’s strategy based solely on its observable behavior, I find it useful to keep an extremely open mind and apply knowledge from as many fields as possible. It aids my search for understanding.
    In this case I get the impression that you only use an accounting view of business and strategy in your analysis. “one more item sold, one more unit of profit made”.
    In this case, I would also apply some thoughts from fields such as branding and logistics.
    – Branding: A&F run a tight ship with regards to image. Their stores are to look cool and flawless at all times. Empty shelves indicate to the shopper that there is something missing; that there are options not open to them. Shelves with the same garment in various (unchoreographed) shelves, gives a visual mess.
    – Logistics: restocking shelves is easier when you see what is supposed to be there.
    – HR: people working in clothing stores, especially stores like A&F where their looks are important factors in employment, are not necessarily the brightest of the bunch. Expecting them to understand and communicate company policy and strategy is rather optimistic.
    Before scoffing at my first two points, it is worth remembering what happens if you try to take an item that is on display at IKEA, rather than from the shelf. You will find it bolted, cut, or otherwise mutilated; so as to stop shoppers from taking it. To criticize A&F for keeping one item of each garment, is similar to criticizing IKEA for destroying some of their own merchandise, and thus stopping a hopeful customer from taking the display piece when all the others are sold.
    Whether my observations are correct with regards to A&F strategy I do not know. However, there is, more often than not, a method in the madness. I would expect a professor of strategy to try to understand it, than to scoff at what he does not immediately understand.

  3. Espen

    Well, Njål,
    I hear you, but still think their approach is overcentralized, patronizing and ridiculous. Perhaps I should have added that the item in question was not marked (at least not in a way visible to the customer) as a display item, but was hanging on a rack with about 20 of the same garment in a different color. As for the restocking, A&F moves the stuff around all the time – and the people in the store constantly have to ask the others where this or that is hanging today….
    As for the employees in clothing stores being hired for looks rather than skills, yep A&F has been there too (www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/12/05/60minutes/main587099.shtml).
    I think my point remains – A&F is more interested in the look of the store than in the sales, and run such a tight ship that the employees have no leeway. And without a need for a brain, you quickly lose the ability to use it. Or at least to display that you can use it, though the loud music doesn’t actually help in achieving a meaningful dialogue either….

  4. Anonymous

    I agree walking into an A&F store is an experience. I have also walked into one of their flagship stores with a printout of a list of stuff to get my sister. It took them 45 minutes to find it. Whether it was the salesgirls incompetence or the chaos in the store I do not know.
    Though with that said, I don’t think we should credit A&F with dummying down America. The retail clothing industry is extremely competitive. Attaining a differentiation that allows for a markup is difficult. Retaining a competitive advantage harder still. A&F offer an experience and thus do distinguish themselves, albeit making it nearly impossible to get help choosing a pair of jeans because of the dim lights and loud music, and have managed to command a respectable markup.
    This strategy has been in place for some time now and they have attained growth in most of this time. Surely the fact that the sharp fall in consumer confidence seen in the US this past year caught them by surprise should not surprise nor give cause for ridicule.
    To a large degree, I agree with your personal opinion of the “shoppers joy” I get from going into an A&F store. However, I try not to mix those feelings with a review and evaluation of their corporate strategy.

  5. David

    Behaving as idiots is intentional, apparently:
    “As current and former employees of A&F will attest, the company is extremely focused on maintaining its “unique presentation” and appears to be less concerned with customer satisfaction.
    In the past, management at A&F branches were encouraged to “act superior” to customers, and to ignore them when possible, a former store manager confirmed to FT Alphaville.
    Company marketers believed customers would respond to this treatment by buying the outfits worn by the employees in order to achieve the same level of superiority. This policy is no longer as explicit, following a series of PR gaffes in 2000. ”
    http://ftalphaville.ft.com/blog/2009/05/29/56412/marketing-before-market-share-a-lesson-for-abercrombie-fitch/

  6. Eh

    As a manager at A&F, I feel like some of your observations are correct. Sometimes, I find it awkward to explain to customers that our visual team owns an item. However, it is policy, and we can’t just ignore that. The company prides itself on a certain sense of quality and aspirational lifestyle. As a result, we can’t sell you an item that has been stretched out, scrunched, softened, pinned, and stapled onto a mannequin and then taken off. If we sold items like that, customers would still complain about the fact that we’re selling shoddy merchandise.
    Besides, based on the other comments, I don’t think we should make generalizations about the intellectual caliber of people who work for A&F.
    Our number one priority (as I’ve learned), is customer service regardless of past lawsuits that may suggest otherwise and if the store you went into made you feel like you weren’t being helped, then maybe we should consider the flaws of that particular store and not the entire company?

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