The teen sector may be in the doldrums, but Michael Jeffries feels good about the direction that Abercrombie & Fitch Co. is headed.
In an exclusive interview with the chief executive officer of Abercrombie & Fitch, Jeffries was candid in his snapshot view of where the company is going, and what fashion means for it today given the issues all teen retailers have had in connecting with their targeted consumer.
First and foremost, Jeffries was upbeat about Abercrombie’s future: “The company is headed in the right direction. I have absolutely and positively never felt better about it.”
Despite distractions such as pressures from investors to boost shareholder value and a lawsuit that was settled seeking improved corporate governance policies, Jeffries maintained he never took his eye off what was important to him.
“I always focus on the company. We’re committed to the highest standard of corporate governance,” he said.
The company last week reported second-quarter results in which earnings per share on an adjusted basis were 19 cents, compared with Wall Street’s expectations of 11 cents.
Jeffries in the telephone interview reiterated his comment last week during a call to Wall Street about the company bringing down the logo business to zero in its North American stores, while supporting the current logo product in its overseas stores.
But for Jeffries, logo products have a different meaning these days, befitting changing consumer tastes. Or, as chief operating officer Jonathan Ramsden told WWD last week, “Our consumer is less logo-oriented. They are [no longer] walking billboards.”
At Abercrombie stores, that means two things for logo product come spring 2015: Subtlety is in, and big and bold are out.
“Logo is still very important to us. However, we’ve significantly reduced the conspicuous logo component. It’s really the cross-chest appliqúe that’s gone. It’s not the bold, in-your-face branding,” Jeffries explained Wednesday.
In its heyday before the teen retail malaise hit, Abercrombie could rely on distinguishing its basic T-shirt or sweat pant from a competitor down the mall just by its brand name or having A&F splayed on the product. So if that’s no longer in your face, how does the company intend to distinguish its product offerings?
According to Jeffries, both the Abercrombie name and A&F will still play a role in the new product lines at its core stores next spring, only on a much smaller, and more subtle, scale. And it will continue to use its moose mascot as a brand identifier for Abercrombie, with the seagull continuing as the brand icon for the Hollister collection.
As for why those two animal icons were chosen, Jeffries said: “We sat in a room and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to use the moose as our icon [because of our] outdoor heritage?’ For the Southern California lifestyle of Hollister, the seagull was the obvious choice. It wasn’t brilliant.”
The overt use of logos will continue to be supported in its overseas inventory since the brand internationally is at a different point in its life cycle. The abercrombie kids line will continue to have a greater reliance on logos since “younger consumers are still interested in logo,” Jeffries said. Hollister, which has a greater component of logo in its mix, will see a more gradual shift in strategy since it will take longer to phase out the overt use of logos in its product offerings.
While use of the moose and seagull will “become more important” as brand identifiers, Jeffries said, “Most of the male product will continue to utilize the icon or inconspicuous logos. The female product will have a lesser percent.”
The shift in strategy, particularly in the women’s offerings, is what Jeffries refers to as an “offensive” move to capture back market share based on sales trends and extensive focus groups.
It’s part of an overall macro trend, one that also has impacted higher-end brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Michael Kors and Coach.
“This is a shift in consumer sentiment. It’s a shift where the focus is on fashion. I think logos will come back again someday,” predicted Jeffries.
So far the ceo is pleased with the direction of the fashion content in the retailer’s women’s product line, stating that it is “resonating with our customers.”
But what happens when the fashion offerings become the equivalent of little black dresses that look similar to those from its competitors? Given the known fickleness of the teen customer, doesn’t this mean more — not less — pressure on the company?
Jeffries was quick to acknowledge that there’s now indeed “more pressure to get the fashion content right season after season.”
The ceo emphasized, “We have to get it right,” and said the company is doing what it needs to do to stay ahead of the curve. “We are always monitoring trends and making appropriate decisions based on what we see. The number-one component that makes our product different from everyone else in the mall is quality. We have and will continue to own that.”
Of the family members representing the three As in the teen sector, Abercrombie has been always the higher-priced higher-end brand. American Eagle Outfitters represents the midrange price point, while Aéropostale is the value end.