I went to opening day of the new Abercrombie & Fitch store prototype. I’m not sure it is an Abercrombie & Fitch store. And that may be the point.
Perhaps with the new spring / summer product the new environment will make more sense, but right now, I’m wondering how current and future customers will react. The new store design is decidedly NOT the A&F we think we know. Unfortunately it is not clear just what it IS.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful store with some interesting elements, but it could be any well-designed store.
Is Heritage Relevant?
When I was asked to weigh in on the new Abercrombie & Fitch prototype I realized I hadn't professionally considered the brand or it's customer experience in quite some time. The retailer (and maybe even, brand) has been through a significant ups and downs over the last decade. Is it still relevant?
The new leadership has much ground to make up; from both retail fundamentals and consumer experience perspectives. There is heritage and then there is recent history. The 1892-based heritage is well known, if not somehow part of our consumer culture. And then there is the meteoric growth started while it was part Limited Brands (now L Brands). That growth exploded once spun off from the parent company, based on a fresh, sexy and strategically controversial branded approach to retail marketing; customers bought into their veneer of prestige.
As the very building blocks of success became less and less relevant in the marketplace, then-leadership didn't service their customers’ needs--including price and emotional accessibility. The product and experience (online and in-store) suffered and their customers moved on.
The current leadership has made significant moves to signal change. Aaron Levine, formerly of Club Monaco, the new SVP of Design is walking the lines between A&F heritage, current fashion and the rigors of chain retail.
His goal is to become the "best low-key casual American brand on the planet."
You can see portions of the spring/summer 2017 men's collection in this Esquire profile: here.
I dig the subtle 70’s references to the original M*A*S*H movie.
When I first saw the images from the pre-opening news release, I was underwhelmed and skeptical. It looked flat and so decidedly NOT Abercrombie & Fitch, it was hard to tell what it was actually trying to be.
But I know one has to be there, in-person, to really assess a store experience. So I went. On opening day.
Situated on the lower level of Polaris Fashion Place, on the northern edge of Columbus, Ohio, the storefront stands apart from the other stores. The heritage-y logo in the window is about as heritage-y as it gets. I may be old school, but nowhere on the store front or in the permanent store design does it actually say that this is an Abercrombie & Fitch store. It seems they should be declaring that this, too is Abercrombie & Fitch.
Abercrombie & Fitch visual merchandising.
Up front, a center display island presents men’s and women’s apparel together; a sort of runway statement signaling a departure from past practices.
The compressed entrance is flanked by two jewel-box like showrooms for seasonal fragrance product.
The sales floor is densely packed with merchandise; a smooth division between men’s and women’s. The staff is well-trained, open and approachable.
Overall, there is little visual relief for the shopper to orient and understand where product is. It’s not clear if that back room is denim for all or just women, for example.
The denim bay at the back of the store is a standard configuration. A visual merchandising reference to the front-of-store runway divides women’s and mens’ sides.
The women’s side of the store is configured very differently from the men’s side. Small collections on uniform racks and simple tables evoke an urban boutique. Up-lights along the wall provide an airy feeling to this side of the store. This area is a bit of a visual jolt compared to the rest of the store, but it works well.
Pricing is accessible; decidedly not out of reach. Styling is classic with modern updates to details like piping and edging.
Neatness and operational efficiency are built into the fixtures. Details like this make a big difference from a presentation perspective, but it was a bit difficult seeing a full garment on the rack.
The Fit Rooms
Abercrombie & Fitch are very proud of their new flexible fit rooms. The configuration of suites, consisting of two rooms with a bit of common space between them, can be made private for groups shopping together. Music and light controls are available to “customize” the space.
The common lounge area features a stunning tiled wall with beautiful sconces scattered about to create a focal point. If they are taking advantage of this space to reinforce a brand experience, it’s not clear what that is supposed to be.
The most interesting innovation in the store is this wall opposite the fit rooms. The compressed space is somewhere between the open sales floor and the stock room. The variety of colors and sizes not on display on the floor are stacked up here to easily service shoppers in the fit rooms. This area was heavily staffed.
The main cash / wrap area is backed up by a transparent wall looking into the fragrance area. It is intimate with a subtle beacon in the large desk-mounted lamp that visually orients the shopper.
Also, there are two transaction spots discretely tucked into the sales floor also. These allow quick transactions and relief during busy times.
A New Experience
Abercrombie & Fitch’s new store is a major departure from the past. It is clear they have considered and re-thought everything: people, product, price and presence. And, nothing was sacred. The quality of the buildout is second to none; as expected. It is a beautiful and engaging store.
But, most malls are filled with beautiful engaging stores.
For me, I still wonder what this store does for their current and future customers. As product, purpose and positioning evolve, this format will serve as a nice backdrop but it alone is not enough to tell the whole story and keep their customers engaged.
This feels like the start of something new and interesting. The challenge for the folks in New Albany is to return the brand to prominence in the American sportswear category with a whole new set of brand reasons in which their customers can believe.
Go to http://fyeahretail.tumblr.com/ to see all the pictures of, uh, really good retail that I see in my work and travels.
Chuck Palmer is a retail expert who focuses on the nexus of consumer behavior, technology and innovation. He works with world class brands and retailers such as Airstream, JPMorgan Chase, Dell, Nintendo and The Home Depot. He posts about retail experiences and his opinions are his and do not reflect those of his clients.