Selling to the “Cool Kids”

July 19th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

The CEO of a retail giant has apologized for incendiary remarks about its preferred clientele, but has the damage been done?

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The Responsibility Project

It seems everyone I know, even those who didn’t shop there in the first place, are now very vocally boycotting the retailer Abercrombie & Fitch.

The recent controversy stemmed from a Business Insider article citing the reasons the retailer doesn’t carry XL or XXL women’s clothing. “He doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store, he wants thin and beautiful people,” Robin Lewis, co-author of “The New Rules of Retail,” recently told Business Insider about Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries. “He doesn’t want his core customers to see people who aren’t as hot as them wearing his clothing.” The only reason Abercrombie offers XL and XXL in men’s sizes is to appeal to football players and wrestlers, Lewis insists.

But this isn’t a recent turnabout in Abercrombie’s attitude toward retail. Those boycotts might have started sooner if people had read the Salon interview with Jeffries 7 years ago, when he identified that sex appeal is “almost everything” in his stores. “That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people.” There are the cool and popular kids, and the “not-so-cool kids,” he told Salon. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids […] A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

The Business Insider story prompted a petition by 18-year-old activist Benjamin O’Keefe, who urged the company to carry larger sizes and ultimately met with Abercrombie executives, according to a Forbes article.  “Abercrombie is not synonymous with cool. It’s synonymous with cruel,” he told executives at a two-hour meeting. He and other representatives, including Lyne Grefe, the CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association, presented the execs with 68,000 signatures of people who had joined the petition. According to Forbes, the controversy has prompted a statement from the company, saying that it would vow to “take concrete steps to demonstrate our commitment to anti-bullying in addition to our ongoing support of diversity and inclusion.”

Meanwhile, Forbes noted that Abercrombie had already been losing market share to retailers like H&M and American Eagle, both of which have introduced plus-sized lines.

For his part, Jeffries posted on the company’s Facebook page that the quotes had been taken out of context, and that he is “completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics.”

Too little, too late? Or not enough at all? Many people believe that the search for the all-American “cool kid” is part of the retailer’s DNA. Can Abercrombie reverse its exclusionary reputation? Weigh in.