Stay Away From Abercrombie & Fitch, All You Misshapen Geeks

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, when everything is permanent and scandals are forever young, Abercrombie & Fitch finds itself under fire for something its chief executive said seven years ago.

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” Michael S. Jeffries, CEO of the clothing retailer, told Salon magazine in 2006. “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.”

Jeffries added: “Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

The remarks have sent the online world into a tizzy. Angry people are petitioning on to ask Abercrombie to stock larger sizes. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, columnist Robin Abcarian called the company’s approach an “obnoxious marketing scheme.”

Obnoxious? Yes, absolutely.

Author Meredith Belbin once wrote of Peter Drucker’s “remarkable ability to temper diplomacy with frankness.” By contrast, Michael Jeffries might do well to temper his frankness with some diplomacy.

But Drucker certainly wouldn’t have had a problem with Abercrombie’s basic business strategy. In fact, he would have appreciated it.

"StandOut" by AzureGothBunny
“StandOut” by AzureGothBunny

Drucker liked to point to Marks & Spencer, a British retailer, which mastered the art of customer segmentation when it turned itself from a variety chain into a specialty chain. “The decision enabled it to decide who its customer was and should be; what kind of store it needed and when; what pricing policy to follow; and what market penetration to aim at,” Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices.

Another marker came in 1950, Drucker explained. “Just when most everybody had accepted socioeconomic income groups as a law of nature, a new consumer market segmentation . . . appeared, superimposing itself on socioeconomic income groups: segmentation by ‘lifestyles.’

Among the companies that responded best to the shift was Ford Motor, which profited by cranking out new “lifestyle cars”—Thunderbirds, Mustangs and Mavericks. In other words, the kinds of cars that cool people would drive.

What do you think of Abercrombie & Fitch’s “cool kids” approach?