Shirtless no more: Can Abercrombie & Fitch widen its appeal?

Abercrombie & Fitch announced it will make changes to some of its longstanding brand policies, including putting shirts on its male models. Will these policies improve its bottom line, or is it simply too late?

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Abercrombie & Fitch announced new store policies.

Abercrombie models will now wear shirts. And they won’t be called models anymore.

In a statement released Friday, teen apparel store Abercrombie & Fitch said the chain will revamp its policies and no longer use employees’ physical appearance as a selling point. The changes come in an effort to boost sales, which dropped 10 percent last year.

Will toning down the store’s infamous hyper-sexualization help the brand’s image, or is it already too late?

Abercrombie said that with the policy changes comes a desire to move forward. The brand went through a rough phase in the media – long-time CEO Michael Jeffries stated in 2013 that the brand was only for “cool kids.” In the last few years, the company has also faced multiple lawsuits alleging discrimination in hiring practices. Mr. Jeffries retired in December, giving the brand the space it needs to reinvent itself.

“We are focused on the future, not the past, and there is complete alignment that these are the right changes,” said Abercrombie brand president Christos Angelides, according to CNN Money.

One of the most obvious changes: Abercrombie will discontinue use of shirtless male models in stores and advertising. Store clerks, formerly referred to as models, will be called brand representatives. Abercrombie also committed to making its employee demographic more diverse and inclusive of physical appearances, body types, and ethnicities.

But employees are not the only ones facing changes. Stores will also receive makeovers, as scent, lighting, and decor are updated, to give shoppers a “more pleasurable shopping experience,” reported CNN Money. The company's once-ubiquitous “sexualized marketing,” will also come to an end. Racy images will be removed from photos, shopping bags, and gift cards.

These rebranding efforts come amid other changes meant to revive sales. Last summer the company removed its once-prized logo in response to decreasing brand allegiances and a desire for more individual style among teens. The store is also admitted to testing nearly 100 percent of its product line last summer to gauge demand, a significant financial investment that may or may not pay off.

Michael Carter, former writer for the Motley Fool, says that perhaps the company is doing too much too fast to create positive change for the brand. 

“Often when a business has many ideas it lacks focus on any one idea. This might be the case for Abercrombie & Fitch right now. With the company making so many changes at the same time, it might have a hard time pinpointing what works and what doesn't,” Mr. Carter wrote after Abercrombie’s changes last summer.

Younger consumers are looking for more than just branding; more than ever, customers purchase products based on corporate philosophies and brands they believe better society.

“For the first time, ‘social consumers’ are willing to put their money where their ideals are,” said David Giannetto, a business consultant and author of “Big Social Mobile,” in a previous Monitor story. “This is different behavior than previous generations, where their ideals did not influence their actual propensity to buy, their loyalty, or price sensitivity.”

With Abercrombie moving away from its “exclusive” approach to gaining customers and committing to diversity and acceptance, they could see improvement. But only time will tell.

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