Abercrombie & Fitch goes to college with a new store concept

Photo: Getty Images
Jul 06, 2018
Matthew Stern

Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) is still looking for the right way to reinvent itself. So, the once-popular apparel brand is heading to college campuses with a new small-store concept, where it might learn a new path forward.

A&F is launching a small format “Learning Lab” store concept near two college campuses — one in the Gateway-University District near Ohio State University in Columbus, OH and one near the University of Southern California, according to Columbus Underground. The company plans to use a brand ambassador program on campus to build loyalty, and will use the stores to garner insights on experiential marketing and driving revenue with smaller footprint locations.

This isn’t the chain’s first exploration into downsizing, as the retailer has been trying out stores with smaller footprints, reports WWD. The Learning Labs will be less than half the size of a traditional A&F store.

A&F has, however, had mixed results with some of its other attempts in recent years to find its footing in the new millennium.

In 2015, to demonstrate a move toward maturity, the chain removed bare-chested male greeters from stores and events while relaxing its dress code for employees.

A year later, the chain began pursuing a rebranding in an attempt to appeal to the 18-to-25-year-old demographic rather than its traditional teen audience.

In 2017, A&F continued making changes, including the launch of its first new store concept in 15 years. The new unit, which opened in the Polaris Fashion Mall in Columbus, OH, features store-within-the-store concepts for denim and fragrances as well as improved fitting rooms, cash wraps throughout for easier checkout and a buy online, pickup in-store service.

Despite its various initiatives, the retailer continued to see sales decline until its fiscal first quarter on this year when net sales jumped 11 percent year-over-year and comps rose five percent. Direct-to-consumer net sales increased 14 percent.

The chain has also been discussed as the potential object of an acquisition. Last year, American Eagle Outfitters in conjunction with private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management were reported to be working on a bid for A&F.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think the information garnered in Abercrombie & Fitch’s Learning Lab store concept will be valuable for the reinvention of its regular stores? Do you see A&F’s future moving more towards its new Polaris, OH concept or its Learning Lab locations?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"College stores are the latest step on the road to recovery."
"I think that stores on the leading edge have to always be carrying out constant analysis about where their current and future customers are going..."
"The first thing that came to mind is a lyric off of KYLE’s new record making fun of someone whose lady “still wears Aeropostale.”"

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17 Comments on "Abercrombie & Fitch goes to college with a new store concept

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Max Goldberg

While a small sample, Abercrombie & Fitch’s Learning Labs can provide the company with valuable insights about their core demographic. Company management is trying many ways to reinvent the brand. And it never hurts to be close to your consumers.

Phil Chang

Abercrombie & Fitch is stuck in the middle. Literally in the middle. That is the one place that BrainTrust folks have been advocating not to be. They have non-descript, non-unique product with a high price point. While they’re doing good things to learn, Abercrombie & Fitch probably needs to go back and figure out what is unique about the brand and re-do their branding and their product line. Easier said than done, I know, but we know what happens to boring retail …

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

The Polaris store concept holds more potential than Learning Lab campus stores. Polaris is full-out modern retail serving a wide demographic with quality merchandising. Student life is busy and a half-sized store offering questions over product selection is a research program. Both have their place, in particular if elements of the Learning Lab can be added to Polaris. Something tells me that each came from a different part of the marketing department.

Neil Saunders

Abercrombie & Fitch has been making good progress and there have been marked improvements in product quality, store design and marketing. Under-performing stores have also been closed. All of this is delivering better results.

College stores are the latest step on the road to recovery and I see then delivering three benefits. First, they take Abercrombie & Fitch to where the customers are. Second, they introduce younger consumers to the Abercrombie & Fitch brand and allow them to connect with it. Third, they help Abercrombie & Fitch learn about their core audience and afford them the opportunity to test new products and ideas.

Dave Bruno

I am not sure if the question is which format (Polaris, OH or Learning Labs) represents the future for Abercrombie & Fitch. Rather, I believe both concepts add value to solving the two biggest challenges retailers face today: developing unique, relevant assortments and creating experiences that engage their target audiences.

If Abercrombie & Fitch hopes to really connect with 18-to-25-year-old shoppers, then the college campus locations seem like great places to listen to their customers to experiment with assortments that have high appeal on campus. The Ohio location seems like it represents an opportunity to experiment with new experiences to find the services and options that most appeal to shoppers. The learnings from both formats can then be compiled and applied to future store strategies.

Ken Morris
Ken Morris
Retail industry thought leader
1 year 6 months ago

Abercrombie & Fitch’s small-format stores near college campuses are a smart strategy from a location and testing perspective. In a way, it is similar to consumer goods companies testing new products in test markets to gauge interest. Identifying new trends and top selling products in the Learning Lab store concepts will be valuable insights to extend to Abercrombie & Fitch’s other store concepts.

Retailers are trying new retail formats to adapt to evolving customer expectations and shopping preferences. Abercrombie & Fitch will probably not choose one format over the other. Instead, they will offer a mix of store formats based on regional markets and customer demographics.

Art Suriano

I think Abercrombie & Fitch is on a better path with both concepts. The college campus should provide them with a captive audience and, if they’re smart, they will utilize marketing opportunities by giving students college savings when making purchases. These savings could be purchase vouchers for books, food or other needs students may have. Smaller stores have proven to be successful for many chains, and I see Abercrombie & Fitch having similar success. As for their new concept store in the Polaris Mall, that too has potential but may take some time for Abercrombie & Fitch to perfect it and for the public to respond.

Fashion is a challenging business because it starts first with making sure you have the “hot” items followed by all the additional needs of running a successful retail chain. Abercrombie & Fitch was once “the” place for fashion, and if they can continue to get things back on track, they may one day be that place again.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Innovation and experimentation are good. If the new demographic is 18 to 25, I would expect the innovation close to college campuses to be more successful for determining a path forward.

Rich Kizer

I think that stores on the leading edge have to always be carrying out constant analysis about where their current and future customers are going, and discovering what they are demanding. There will always be a niche, but remember, generations change rapidly in taste and demands. This should be an ongoing project that never ends, because the landscape changes at a rate of at least 10 percent a year. Do a study every four years, and you’ve missed up to 40 percent of what is happening. I celebrate what Abercrombie & Fitch is doing, but every retailer should be doing this type of work to various degrees — constantly.

Roy White

It is highly laudable, indeed necessary, for retailers of all channels to replace the tired store concepts of the past that no longer provide the performance to survive in the 21st century. In the case of this new Abercrombie & Fitch unit in particular, the omni-functionality interplay is excellent, especially the interactive screens enabling customers to shop the entire site and move items added to their carts to in-store registers for checkout. However, the experimental store might have been more cutting edge had more technology been involved in the design, along with the marketing efforts.

Shep Hyken

This is a test. Let’s see if it works. One of the advantages of larger chains is they can try one-off stores. If it works, do another and another. Eventually you’ll know if it’s good or not, how to succeed or why it’s failing. We’ll all be watching!

Ryan Mathews

In my experience consumer-facing industries are notoriously poor at finding the right kinds of “brand ambassadors” because they tend to select people the interviewers identify with, not — in this case — real trend setters who may ruffle the screeners’ feathers. I’m always leery of strategies based on “one-off” perspectives on the future, so color me skeptical on this one.

Georganne Bender

If you want to learn more about your customers, you have to go where those customers hang out. Placing a new store concept that targets the 18-to-25-year-old crowd near college campuses is a smart move.

Abercrombie & Fitch has a way to go — there are still a lot of Millennials out there who remember the Abercrombie & Fitch of old as an expensive, loud, perfumed club that didn’t welcome all of them with open arms. Perceptions are sticky; it’s going to take a lot more than a new prototype to move on.

Whatever Abercrombie & Fitch uncovers about its new target customer in the Learning Lab concept stores will go a long way in strengthening connections with those customers. And that makes perfect sense to me.

Doug Garnett

A&F has a tough road ahead. I think of Banana Republic after its dramatic expansion in the 1980s. BR arrived because of a style fad. Once that fad is gone, continued existence is very hard.

BR made the transition — but it wasn’t a transition in store styles and types. It was to dramatically shift their clothing. The things found in a BR store in 1988 had virtually no connection with the things found in a BR store in 2000.

So what IS the way forward for A&F? Their tremendous success was by leaping on a sexy fad that appealed tremendously to an age group. Their problem is less about stores and more about focusing on a market where they can build strength.

At this point, I believe they’re trying to solve the wrong problems — they need to find clothing style that will draw people into their stores — regardless of size, innovation, or any other factors.

Joanna Rutter
1 year 6 months ago

The first thing that came to mind is a lyric off of KYLE’s new record making fun of someone whose lady “still wears Aeropostale.” I agree with Phil from Hubba when he says A&F has “nondescript, non-unique product with a high price point” — I am astounded that Abercrombie and their cardigan/khaki/polo amigos such as Gap, Banana Republic and Hollister have not all gone to the clutter drawer where I keep my old iPod nano stuffed with Switchfoot and Evanescence albums. You could put Abercrombie on the moon and I still don’t think that’d fix its product problem. Smaller formats can be a good play when you’re committed to listening to customers. I’ll be watching to see if that’s the case, or if this is just optics that will turn into rap lyrics later.

Ricardo Belmar

A&F’s real problem is with merchandise. They need to really understand what their target demographic, age 18-25 wants in apparel. Once upon a time, they knew this, but realistically they were riding a fad. Once their demographic ages out of the target, the new incoming age group won’t accept the same fads. They must continually evolve to succeed and survive, otherwise, they will remain stuck in the middle and as others here have pointed out, the middle is the one place you don’t want to be in retail today. Will they learn from their new college format? Hopefully! Perhaps somewhere between this concept and their Polaris concept lies the right path forward for A&F.

Craig Sundstrom

AF hit paydirt with (what I might call) soft core retailing. But once that idea became stale — or a sufficient number of people became revulsed by it, I’m not sure which — they lost their way. I don’t oppose this experiment (tho I question if two is a sufficiently large sample size) I’m not sure exactly what they hope to learn: selling clothes isn’t rocket surgery. And at the end of the day, they’ll face the same basic problem they have now: they’re “just another store”…one of (too) many.

"College stores are the latest step on the road to recovery."
"I think that stores on the leading edge have to always be carrying out constant analysis about where their current and future customers are going..."
"The first thing that came to mind is a lyric off of KYLE’s new record making fun of someone whose lady “still wears Aeropostale.”"

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