Abercrombie & Fitch: Marketing in the Grey Area

Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F), the popular teenage and young adult clothing store, targets only young, thin, pretty consumers. Its surfing apparel theme and laid back style attracts primarily affluent middle class teenagers. Chief Executive Officer Mike Jeffries has plainly stated his view on how he sees A&F’s customers. In response to a reporter’s question about the importance of sex appeal through clothing, Jeffries said that his company only hires attractive people to clerk in its stores “because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.” (Denizet-Lewis). In a 2006 interview with Salon, Jeffries candidly stated:

“’in every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. 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’” (‘Since When Was a Ten Plus-size?’).

When referring to the employees who work in the brick and mortar stores, he said, “I don’t want our core customers to see people who aren’t as hot as them wearing our clothing” (Cuffin). Jeffries has a strong opinion of what looks “hot” and what does not and he is not afraid to say exactly how he feels about the topic.

The way Jeffries made his point about A&F’s primary target market was aggressive, rude, and offensive. In the United States, the business’ primary audience is a sliver of the youth population. The consumers the company markets to are typically affluent, attractive, popular, and white. The company’s target market is so clear and direct, albeit selective, that it is easy for A&F to attract its ideal customer. Moreover, A&F seeks to retain its “cool” brand image so that kids at school will think of themselves as cool and promote the A&F brand.

In A&F’s brick and mortar stores the sizes for females go up to size large in shirts and size 10 in pants. In its online store, however, the sizes are larger — female shirts go up to size extra large and pants go up to size 14. Why is this? The answer is that the company only wants lean and “attractive” potential consumers to enter its physical store.

A&F advertisements only show models with unrealistically slender and muscular bodies. The company also promotes its apparel by showing very minimal amounts of clothing on the models in the advertisements.

I draw the line with the company’s ethics when Jeffries states that only cool individuals can wear his products. He should not stereotypically divide youth into being cool or not cool based on their looks and first impressions. Being “cool” simply does not mean a whole lot. What is cool to me probably is not cool to Mike Jeffries. To me, it is not cool to judge someone based solely on their looks. Jeffries is saying he only wants cool people to wear his clothes. In my opinion he could have taken a much cleaner and complacent approach to deliver the same message to potential customers.

Talk show host and comedienne Ellen DeGeneres also disagrees with Jeffries’ way of conducting business to which she contends A&F discriminates against individuals who do not fit the A&F profile. She argues that his strategy omits a huge cohort of young people. She responds to his comments:

“What you look like on the outside is not what makes you cool. At all. I mean, I had a mullet and wore parachute pants for a long, long time. And I’m doing OK. What’s important is that you’re healthy and that you’re happy. That’s the most important thing” (“’Since When Was a Ten Plus-size?’”).

DeGeneres argues that it is wrong for a company to tell society which looks are “in” and which looks are “out,” or more importantly, that a certain type of person does not fit the “right look.” She gives her audience the message that everyone is beautiful, no matter their shape or size.

Other critics who support DeGeneres say that Jeffries’ comments and way of conducting business lowers youth’s self-esteem and self-confidence, which can have lasting negative consequences. Poor impressions of oneself are problematic in America and on the rise. Retail stores like A&F contribute to this increasing trend.

Co-author of The New Rules of Retail (2010), Robin Lewis, has a different business perspective on Jeffries’ comments. She argues that offering only smaller, petite sized clothing is self-limiting for the company given the fact that even “a model might not fit the future” that Jeffries has in mind (Jarvis). “Plus-size shoppers now make up 67 percent of consumers” (Jarvis). She explained that Jeffries “is a brilliant visionary. He really crystallized this core consumer he was going after. I think the young people today want cool, but as they define it themselves” (Jarvis). Lewis seems to understand both the social trends and the norms important to A&F’s target market, millennial shoppers. She believes that the market size is too narrow and therefore A&F will not sell enough merchandise because the majority of the population cannot fit into their products. The company’s desire to project only a “cool” image, in Lewis’ eyes, risks excluding potential customers who do not fit their desired look.

Lewis was correct in that A&F’s target market was too narrow; as a result sales decreased because the company could not market to everyone. After Jeffries made his public announcements about his ideal consumer, the company’s sales plunged 12 percent (Peterson). “The retailer made $911.4 million in [that] quarter compared to $1.033 billion over the same period” the year prior (Peterson). Perhaps it was not even a limited and precise market that decreased the amount of sales the company made. Maybe it was former customers becoming angry, disappointed, and offended with the CEO’s comments about who should shop at A&F and who should not.

In spite of Mike Jeffries’ comments about only slender people being able to wear the A&F brand, some individuals mock the company by creating advertisement parodies.

Similar to Lewis’ response to the business ethics of A&F, a critic with the username Suzanne commented on an ABC News blog:

“Any store is entitled to sell whatever sizes/ styles/ merchandise they choose. It’s up to the consumer to shop or not shop. The writer said his [Jeffries’] marketing strategy and public statement are his business, but to burn bridges to consumers you MAY want to market to at some future date is not very smart. And to alienate any consumer from your brand is really not smart” (“Small Sizes”).

Likewise, another writer with the name Rosa also commented about the topic on the same article:

“So the CEO has a business model, great…skinny people know where to find clothes, as well as plus size people know where to look for their clothes. I only disagree with the term ‘cool’ since it is a subjective term. However, we must admit that generally thinner people ‘fit in’ easier in this society. I think that this is what the CEO is referring to. Also, what are people complaining about, aren’t we also fighting obesity? What is all the noise about? I guess this can be a way to get America to stay in shape and leave gluttony behind. From a business perspective, yes it is exclusionary, but if you are not exclusionary, then you don’t have a target audience” (“Small Sizes”).

Both Suzanna and Rosa view Jeffries’ promoting method from a business perspective and not necessary an ethical and moral perspective like DeGeneres.

The arguments above agree that A&F is a business whose sole purpose is to continuously make a profit. The views differ, however, over whether having a narrow, specific primary target market helps or hurts the business. Rosa and Suzanne believe that the smaller the target audience, the more specific the company can market its products and make a profit in the end. They argue that a narrow target audience seems better because the business can focus on its demographics and appeal specifically to them. Their critiques agree that Jeffries’ comments may not have been the nicest or most proper way of making a statement, but the marketing tactic was reached and it was a perfectly acceptable way of conducting business.

I agree with the business perspective articulated by Rosa and Suzanne’s critiques on discriminatory advertising to an extent. Businesses like A&F want to sell their products so that they can make money. The company does not have to accommodate all people because, frankly, it is a boutique business that simply appeals to a narrow cohort of individuals; they have the right to produce and sell whatever they want to whomever they perceive to be their core customer. If A&F finds it is losing sales as a result, as it did, then the company has the option to change its business model. A narrower target market in this case, however, was detrimental to the business. Just like the company decided to make clothes for teenagers or decided to have a particular clothing style, it is perfectly acceptable to make clothes fit another body type. Some may take issue that A&F is sending the wrong, even destructive messages to emotionally vulnerable teenagers that thin is in. But can’t stores like Lane Bryant, at the other end of the spectrum that sell mainly plus sizes, be criticized in just the same way?

I understand and see the truth in the various perspectives of the argument. On paper, the marketing plan that targets a certain type of body is totally acceptable, but the execution of the plan, with Jeffries making bold and harsh comments about body types and “coolness” was conducted poorly, in my view. I support and respect the idea that a business’ goal is to earn profits and to achieve its objective, so long as it is ethical, moral, and legal. I can see (but not fully understand) his marketing tactics to bring A&F a profit. I do not support, however, the idea of discriminating against an individual because that person does not fit an ideal look. There is a fine line between making a point and being mean. Clothing stores like Victoria Secret, Brandy Melville, H&M, Hollister, and American Apparel also target their products to consumers with a lean body type, but they are not blatantly discriminatory, so there is no controversy about their ethics.

Jeffries did not always get the response he wanted; former customers boycotted A&F and rallied to get others to join their movement. A probably cause for this protest was that their children felt victimized by Jeffries’ comments.

How people see it depends on where they sit. Perhaps Jeffries could have taken a different approach to promote the same type of clothing. He could have, for example, promoted healthy living by having fit models sell smaller sized apparel instead of boldly saying that only skinny people can wear A&F. These advertisements could have attracted leaner teenagers who could actually fit into their tight and contemporary style. In my eyes Jeffries lacked common sense and manners which has a negative domino effect on not only him, but also the A&F business.

The umbrella message of the A&F’s ethics in marketing is that nothing is in black and white. There is always truth in the grey area. Jeffries wants an attractive and popular target market to wear his brand and as a result only sells clothes to fit a minority of youth’s clothing sizes. His aggressive statements are loud and clear. Interpretations on his interviews varied and the company both gained and lost customers. Perhaps Jeffries’ plan all along was to promote the store. As the saying goes, publicity is publicity, whether it is good or bad.

I am standing on the knot in a tug-of-war game. All of the comments agreed that Jeffries was neither nice nor professional about his remarks promoting his business. The idea that he wants only cool and attractive kids to wear his clothes makes me sick. A grown man should not be stuck in a high school mindset where there is a jock table, a nerd table, a popular girl table, a Goth table, and so forth during lunch. A grown man should not tell children who is attractive and who is not. And a grown man should not lack manners and common sense when conducting business, or really anything. The side pulling the knot more to the unethical side of the argument, for now, is winning. I do not and will not purchase A&F clothing.

Works Cited

Cuffin, Eddie. “The 13 Most Ridiculous Things Mike Jeffries, CEO Of Abercrombie & Fitch, Has Said.” Elite Daily, 08 May 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <http://elitedaily.com/humor/the-10-most-ridiculous-things-mike-jeffries-ceo-of-abercrombie-fitch-has-said/>.

Denizet-Lewis, Beniot. “The Man behind Abercrombie & Fitch.” Salon. Salon, 2 Jan. 2006. Web. 05 Apr. 2016. <http://www.salon.com/2006/01/24/jeffries/>.

Jarvis, Rebecca. “Small Sizes an Overweight Distraction for Abercrombie & Fitch.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 09 May 2013. Web. 05 Apr. 2016. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2013/05/small-sizes-an-overweight-distraction-for-abercrombie-fitch/>.

Peterson, Linette Lopez and Hayley. “Abercrombie & Fitch Is Getting Stomped.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 07 Nov. 2014. Web. 07 May 2016. <http://www.businessinsider.com/abercrombie-and-fitch-is-getting-stomped-2014-11>.

“’Since When Was a Ten Plus-size?’ Ellen DeGeneres Hits Back at Abercrombie & Fitch’s ‘thin and Beautiful’ Customer Policy.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 17 May 2013. Web. 05 Apr. 2016. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2326317/Since-plus-size-Ellen-DeGeneres-hits-Abercrombie--Fitchs-beautiful-customer-policy.html>.

“Small Sizes an Overweight Distraction for Abercrombie & Fitch.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 09 May 2013. Web. 05 Apr. 2016. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2013/05/small-sizes-an-overweight-distraction-for-abercrombie-fitch/>.

Author’s Note

I began this essay with a different topic, one that had little controversy — the movie Across the Universe’s interpretation of The Beatles’ songs. At first I loved the idea that I was able to write about my favorite movie, but then soon learned that I did not have much to say about it other than that it was an excellent film. I then came across the idea of Abercrombie & Fitch’s marketing tactics when my roommate, a frequent A&F shopper, was talking about purchasing their clothes online one day. Sparks came to me when I remembered the statements CEO Mike Jeffries made about the company’s target market and I knew that this was the new topic I wanted pursue. Throughout the process of developing this essay I have thoroughly researched A&F, Mike Jeffries, and business ethics in general. I enjoyed writing this piece because I researched a topic that I had only little knowledge about, but then became and expert in the field of Abercrombie & Fitch. I am proud of my work and I hope that my readers are too. Please enjoy!

Acknowledgements

Multiple individuals helped me along the journey of developing this essay. First, I would like to thank my peer editors, Shannon Brown, Kody Clark, and Alexandra Miller, for providing me with constructive criticism about which steps I needed to take to improve my initial drafts. Thank you to my dad, David Cohen, for providing me with guidance about both which topic to discuss and which approach to take to best explain my argument. He gave me the confidence that it was okay to take a strong stand on either side of the argument, just so long as I could explain and defend both cases and then argue the case for my reasoning as to why both perspectives made sense and are neither right nor wrong. Lastly, I would like to thank my professor, Professor Harris, for teaching a wonderful, thought-provoking English 110 class. He has allowed me to go outside my comfort zone in my writing. Our conferences were always helpful and I learned a lot about what I am capable of writing, my writing technique, and my passion for writing along the way of this essay. He also encouraged me that it would be okay if I change topics, even though I had to catch up with the rest of the class. Once again, a special thank you to all of the individuals mentioned above — you all played a dramatic role in the progress and success of this essay.