When I first began seeing outrage in my Facebook feed over Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries’ alleged comments about not wanting larger people shopping in his store, I immediately headed over to Snopes.com to see if it was true. It sounded like it “had the makings of a tall tale turned legend, similar to the false lore about Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” origins or the bogus story of Oprah throwing designer Tommy Hilfiger off her show following racist comments.
It turns out this one is true – sort of. Business Insider and ABC News took it upon themselves to investigate whether large sizes can be found at A&F stores. When they couldn’t find the sizes, they dug up a 2006 interview in Salon Magazine, where Jeffries is quoted saying, “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.”
Coupled with some unflattering comments from retail analysts and a refusal of comment from A&F, the teen clothing giant has a bit of a crisis on its hands – again.
The truth is, every brand has the right to identify its customer and cater exclusively to that customer if they so choose. I know a lot of size 4’s who won’t find a thing in their size at Lane Bryant, which caters to plus-sized women. If we want to go deeper down the rabbit hole, what about non-pregnant women who will have trouble with Pea in a Pod? Where are bras to be found at Men’s Wearhouse?
It may seem like a silly analogy, but it’s true. It would be a double standard to ask A&F to be required to carry sizes above 10 when Lane Bryant doesn’t carry sizes below 12.
The problem lies not in A&F’s product choices, but in the lack of human empathy contained in Jeffries’ public (albeit seven-year-old) comments. A&F has always been criticized for being insensitive and overly sexual, especially for the pre-teen age group they target. The question is whether A&F actually craves or laments negative publicity. Many say that A&F’s strategy falls in line with the “all press is good press” mentality, for better or worse. This latest scandal is just more fuel for the fire, but it seems to have a struck a deeper chord than ever. Jeffries calling minors unattractive and poking at their self-esteem is just plain mean and frankly, shameful.
A&F and Jeffries could continue selling their clothes and marketing to their dwindling size 0 target audience while focusing on the positives of their customers, rather than attacking their non-customer.
But, the truth is, the good guys don’t always win. According to Yahoo Finance, it’s too soon to know how the controversy will affect the brand’s sales, but the publicity has pushed the stock price to its highest on the year. It reminds me of a Chic-fil-A’s anti-gay marriage comments, which spurred many protests but helped the retailer achieve record growth in 2012.
It boils down to knowing your customer and keeping a close eye on how their attitudes change over time – and adapting with them. Chic-fil-A’s conservative customers were quick to back them with more loyalty than ever before. But with mom controlling the purse strings for teenagers, and many noting that more than two-thirds of American consumers are plus size, A&F’s marketing strategy may be just as outdated as Jeffries’ fateful Salon interview.
It will be interesting to see if the so-called cool popular kids of today’s post-millennial generation are willing to fight for their brand. If they do, I gotta Instagram it. #YeahRight #GrowUpJeffries.