For those of you who don’t enjoy my ranty posts or attempts at analysing branding issues, I’d leave now as this is probably going to end up being one, or at least brace yourself!
Now I by no means profess to be a style guru or have any idea about fashion per se, but as a young adult with a good commercial awareness I am in a good position to make comments on some observations I have made about the clothing market in the last few years. Specifically I am going to be talking today about one of the most successful US clothing imports of recent times; Hollister and its parent company Abercrombie and Fitch.
Without beating about the bush, Hollister (and to a certain extent A&F) have become victims of their own success and as a result are at risk of becoming little more than a fleeting trend rather than a mainstay of the UK highstreet, or at least its most prosperous ones. The A&F brand a long history in the USA, but its foray into its current market segment started much more recently, in the mid 90’s, when the company overhauled its branding model and focused solely on casual luxury market. Hollister was launched in 2000 as a cheaper alternative for teenagers aged 14-18 (and Abercrombie being targeted at 18-22). In 2007 Abercrombie launched a flagship store in central London and from then on began an expansion into the European market, with Abercrombie ‘flagship stores’ being supported by numerous Hollister stores, normally located in shopping centres located in prosperous cities (at least this is the case in the UK). This model helped to ensure a degree of exclusivity, which was aided to no short extent by its pricing strategy; a polo shirt in A&F is usually around £65-£80 and in Hollister £30-35.
Many Brits (including myself) were already familiar with the brands thanks to their bold marketing campaigns and image, usually based around attractive models in various states of undress, and as a result some people brought the clothing back from US holidays (or in my case I ordered it from the States). However prices in America are generally around half that of in the UK, and the ubiquity of the brand amongst preppy college students as well as the relentless focus on aesthetics of both stores and employees has seen US sales level out in the lead up to the company’s expansion into Europe.
Given the fact that the clothes are dubiously priced, the stores are often loud and dark and the staff a strange mix of overbearingly friendly and rude would maybe suggest that this venture would not be successful for A&F, but in fact the company has gone from strength to strength and last year posted international growth of 37%. This coupled with an increasing number of new store openings being planned suggests that Abercrombie, and in particular the Hollister brand, is a company to watch over the next few years.
I agree with this statement, but maybe not for the same reasons as I have just suggested. Put simply the brand is losing its way…not in terms of products or anything quite so controllable, but rather in terms of who is buying their clothes and as a result the image that they are cultivating with shoppers. Hollisters target market of 14-18 was never going to stick in a market where clothes were double the price compared to the US, but whilst many university students were previously happy to use their loans on clothes from the brand, go into a Hollister shop today and the store is filled with 10-13 year olds dragging their parents around and making them spend their money. Even worse, the parents themselves seem to have taken the brand to their hearts and I would say that over half the people I see wearing Hollister clothes are over the age of 30! For a company who has built itself on exclusivity and youth, the sight of 50-somethings draped in their products is likely to send a chill down many executives spines. Equally the A&F brand seems to have captivated the minds (and wallets) of gym-addicted men and women in their late teens up to late 40’s! Maybe this is more down to brand image and pricing and therefore not so much a disaster, but the fact that A&F has offered ‘undesirable’ MTV reality stars money NOT to wear their clothes speaks volumes about the kind of image the company is worried about getting. What they can actually do to manage this change is questionable though, as short of having an age policy on the door not much will discourage the young and old(er) wanting a slice of Southern Californian glamour.