A couple of months ago, we explored whether it can hurt business when an executive vocalizes a controversial opinion (TradePost, 3/27/13). By and large, we found that it has not negatively impacted that company's bottom line in the past. However, we may have just found the exception with Mike Jeffries of Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F), which has recently experienced a media backlash as words from his 2006 interview with Salon magazine have resurfaced.
Jeffries has worked wonders for A&F's bottom line since joining the company in 1984. He is referred to as a creative, yet business-minded individual with style and drive, and he is considered largely responsible for the company's impressive rise from a small clothing brand to one of the most popular lifestyle brands. The company's success, according to Jeffries, can be attributed to the fact that it has remained a highly exclusionary brand, openly targeting only thin and attractive consumers. The brand does not produce women's clothing above a size Large, and they only produce above men's Large to accommodate muscular athletes. He also notes that they hire good-looking people to work in their stores in order to attract other good-looking people as customers. Said Jeffries in the Salon interview:
"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. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."
Uproar over A&F's exclusionary philosophy is nothing new. In 2005, the retailer settled a $50 million class action lawsuit with minority applicants and employees who claimed they were discriminated against during hiring and placement. Six years later, the company offered Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, of Jersey Shore fame, money to not wear its clothing for fear his image would tarnish A&F's brand.
Though these two incidents were very much in the limelight (the lawsuit filing even prompted a featured report on CBS' 60 Minutes in 2003), the recent controversy seems to have inspired more vitriol from journalists, bloggers, and celebrities due to the viral spreading of the interview across social media. Many customers are even mailing back their previously purchased A&F items and are calling for a boycott of the company. Others are donating their used A&F items to the homeless to ensure they are seen on those Jeffries would exclude from his "cool kids" club.
While Jeffries' comments are certainly unsettling to many, some have called into question the similarity between this company and others, such as plus-sized or big & tall retailers, or those that target specific ethnic groups (Medium.com, 5/8/13). While these comparisons seem perfect on the surface, it is the reasoning behind the business plan that makes the difference here. No mainstream store that markets to larger or ethnic consumers has tried to exclude other consumers on merit; they market to their chosen demographic on the basis that their needs and wants are underrepresented in other stores.
While all companies have a target demographic, the fact that A&F purposefully excludes many shoppers sets it apart. Not only are larger people unable to shop there and are alienated without choice, but those consumers that belong to Jeffries' "elite group" may be sympathetic toward those who don't fit the bill, thus alienating a possibly significant portion of his target demographic. Arguments about weight and attractiveness have changed in recent years in order to offer a more inclusionary view of people, and acceptance of people's differences is becoming an important quality to possess.
It is yet to be seen if this recent publicity concerning Jeffries' seven-year old interview will pose a problem for the company's profits, but it can be inferred that sales will likely drop due to the fact that many people, whether or not they belong to the groups that can shop there, do not appreciate such a negative attitude toward a large portion of the public.
Readers: Would you continue to shop with Abercrombie & Fitch if you fit into their clothing?