The New Albany, Ohio-based company, which operates stores under its namesake brand and Hollister, announced Friday that store associates will not be hired "based on body type or physical attractiveness" and it will no longer call them "models" but "brand representatives." It also announced it will no longer have "sexualized" photos used in marketing materials in its stores and on its gift cards and shopping bags, starting in late July.
The moves are part of a new set of changes the retailer announced Friday as it distances itself from the controversial sexualized image established by former CEO Mike Jeffries, who abruptly resigned in December amid sluggish sales. Jeffries was at the helm more than two decades. But analysts wonder: if Abercrombie ditches the "sexy," what new marketing gimmick will the retailer embrace to get shoppers back in its stores?
"Abercrombie & Fitch has to find its niche. I don't know what that's going to be. Edgy was it," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics LLC, a retail research firm. "You are not going to see totally wholesome, but I think the era has passed it by. They need to do something different."
Jeffries had reinvented the chain from an ailing retailer of hunting apparel to a seller of teen clothing that became a must-have brand for young consumers fueled by racy ads and catalogs and eye candy associates that helped keep sales sizzling.
But since the Great Recession, the brand has stumbled on hard times. Young shoppers are reprioritizing and spending more money on gadgets like iPhones than clothes. And when they do buy clothes, they do so differently than past generations who found comfort in dressing like their peers. Today's teens shun the idea of wearing the same outfit as the girl or guy sitting next to them in chemistry class. And many are opting for inexpensive fashions at H&M and other "fast fashion" chains, which constantly refresh their stores with the latest styles.
As sales slumped, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. came under fire for being too exclusive. The outspoken Jeffries had stirred up controversy for statements about how Abercrombie & Fitch goes after attractive kids who can fit into its clothes, alienating customers who don't mirror the brand's image.
The company has posted 12 straight quarters of declines in revenue at stores open at least a year. That's a key indicator of a retailer's health because it excludes the impact from recently opened or closed stores.
In the release issued Friday, Abercrombie & Fitch said that it will continue to focus on its commitment to diversity among its sales staff. It noted that more than 50 percent of its store associates are non-white. It also noted that it will also focus on improving customer service and will ensure check-out lines are kept to a minimum.
"Abercrombie & Fitch will recruit and hire the best associates whose focus will be on offering our customers an excellent in-store experience," said the letter sent Thursday to regional managers and district managers. "We will not tolerate discrimination based on body type or physical attractiveness and will not tolerate discrimination in hiring based on any category protected under the law."
The changes were brought on by Christos Angelides, the president of Abercrombie & Fitch brand, and Fran Horowitz, president of Hollister brand, both of whom joined the company last year.