Abercrombie’s shirtless models are about to cover up

April 24, 2015, 12:45 PM UTC
Abercrombie-Teen Blues
FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2011, file photo, a shopper carries her Abercrombie & Fitch purchase, in Phoenix. Shares of Abercrombie & Fitch tumbled Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, after reporting weak sales as more teens shop elsewhere. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
Photograph by Ross D. Franklin — AP

Farewell to the shirtless teens and college students that stood outside of Abercrombie & Fitch’s mall stores. We hardly knew you.

The teen retailer on Friday unveiled a handful of key changes to shake up its image — moves that are needed, as the owner of the Abercrombie and Hollister brands has faced significant sales pressures as teens are spending their dollars elsewhere. Among the key changes: both retail chains will no longer use shirtless models for store openings and events.

Other actions Abercrombie (ANF) disclosed included the elimination of sexualized marketing on shopping bags and in-store photos. The retailer also wants to focus more on customer service. It remains to be seen just how quickly these changes at Abercrombie can be enacted. It can take a while for a business to change its internal culture, though the retailer is indicating it will move quickly.

Abercrombie has been criticized for past messages that it wanted to only market to “cool, good-looking people.” But today, teens are increasingly spending more time shopping at fast-fashion chains such as Forever 21 and H&M, while the logo-adorned shirts Abercrombie sold have fallen out of style. Sales have slumped and late last year, controversial CEO Mike Jeffries retired.

Here are some of the most significant changes Abercrombie unveiled on Friday:

1. Toning down the sexualization of A&F’s employees

Abercrombie often made national news for its controversial practice of using young models for sexualized marketing campaigns. The epitome of that effort was the retailer’s racy catalogs, which often featured naked models and conveyed images that promoted sexual promiscuity, at least according to some that lamented the company’s practices. By the end of July, Abercrombie said there will no longer be sexualized marketing used for in-store photos, gift cards and shopping bags. The company will also no longer use shirtless Hollister “lifeguards” or A&F “models” at store openings and events.

2. Promoting more diversity

Abercrombie said over 50% of the retailer’s store associates are non white, and the company is also moving to achieve greater gender diversity among its senior ranks, with women accounting for one third of directors and 75% of executive vice presidents.

These changes are long overdue, as Abercrombie had long been criticized for in-store practices that favored white employees, as well as accusations that minorities were forced to work in less high profile roles in the stock room. Much of the marketing the company was known for focused on white models. Abercrombie is at the center of a case that reached the Supreme Court, involving a battle over the company’s Muslim headscarf policy. The court will make a ruling on that case by the end of June.

But Abercrombie has to see that the times are changing. The Millennial generation is the most ethnically and racially diverse in the nation’s history. To better address the consumer landscape today, it makes sense Abercrombie would want to promote more inclusion.

3. Don’t call them “models”

Retailers are known to love the unique titles they come up with for their store employees (think Starbucks’ baristas). At Abercrombie, store associates were called “models,” but that’s changing too. They’ll be called “brand representative,” to align with the new focus on customer service. Store associates will also not be hired “based on body type of physical attractiveness,” and the new dress code is intended to be more individualistic.

4. Better customer service

The culture at Abercrombie long promoted aloofness. Customers had to approach the “models” for help, rather than be asked if they needed assistance. That is also changing, as Abercrombie wants to operate a more “customer-centric” store model. New sales goals and other incentives will also drive managers to focus on customer service, Abercrombie said. The company believes that the knowledge its employees can share with customers can ultimately drive sales.
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