My post back in March this year where I explored the demise of Abercrombie and Fitch has proven to be one of my most popular ever. So, I guess it’s fitting that I should acknowledge the news today that the beleaguered retailer has finally managed to dispose of its founder and CEO Michael Jeffries. Does this mean they’ll now be able to fix their business?

Frankly, and not because the I owe them for the traffic that my previous piece generated on my blog, I hope it does. Having largely avoided American chain stores in the past I’ve been keeping an eye on this retailer as well as a few others and even bought stuff there. Maybe A&F have been making a few small changes along the way, or maybe the gym membership is paying off, but at least the stuff on their shelves seems to fit me these days!

I noted before that the business’s biggest investor had been trying to oust Jeffries for years. It certainly seems that he was a major obstacle to progress, so maybe, now that looks like a done deal, they can start to rebuild. However, I’ve seen this before – a young and vibrant management team forces out the founder of a business and then proceeds to send it bankrupt within six months, so onlookers have to be wary of the possibility that it was the conflict within that was causing the problems, while the founder’s reticence to change was actually serving to reduce the negative effects of the other managers’ efforts.

If that’s so, the clue would have been in the quote by Jeffries cited in the Retail Gazette article: “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. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

While this is presented here as a mistake, Jeffries was absolutely bang on the button. In fact he has been with some of the other so called “howlers” he’s been responsible for over the years. Maybe it’s just that people don’t like the bloke so they disagree on principle with everything he says, but the strongest brands are exclusionary, I’ve been saying this for years, so he wasn’t wrong there. Its also true that brands that try to be all things to all people fail. Again, as he suggests, being a panacea is just not something you can build a strong brand on. It may well be that A&F are aiming at the wrong group or not understanding their “brandships” well enough, but if this statement had been made by Steve Jobs, who I would argue was also exclusionary in his own way, we’d be hailing it as wisdom and printing it on bumper-stickers, so don’t let’s be too hasty in damning Jeffries for this.

Nobody could doubt that the next three years will be very exciting at Abercrombie and Fitch and I’d love to be involved with them as they lay the foundations of their future (Just in case anybody at A&F is reading this!) but you can be sure I’ll be watching the new initiatives roll out. Don’t waste this chance folks and definitely don’t become “vanilla”. Get it right and you could be featuring in editorial for all the right reasons for a change!

Phil Darby
December 11, 2014

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