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Jun 18 2010 4:11pm EDT

Bringing Racy Back

A&F Quarterly

Is sex better the second time around? Risqué apparel retailer Abercrombie & Fitch is hoping that the afterglow from the return of its controversial A&F Quarterly this July can quicken shoppers’ pulses and breathe some much needed new life to the fading brand.

First launched in the fall of 1997 as a mix of articles, artsy (and racy) photographs, and a sprinkling of clothing items for sale, the quarterly was quickly and heavily criticized as soft-core porn. By the time it was pulled from stores in December of 2003 after multiple boycotts by religious and women’s groups, the quarterly had essentially become a collection of images of semi-clad, and nude, models. Apparently, sex doesn’t always sell, especially for a brand targeting the tween to 22-year-old demographic.

Abercrombie intuitively knew then what every company knows now: that for a brand to succeed, it needs to have outreach across several platforms. And 1997 was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-MySpace. So the company—which was started by two college friends intent on selling safari-like clothing to wealthy outdoor enthusiasts—tried to keep in touch with its customers by giving them a reason to come back through its doors every three months.

At the time, Abercrombie was on a major sales-uptick, posting revenues of $805 million, a 35 percent gain, in 1998, followed by just over $1 billion in sales the following year, although at a more modest gain of 10 percent. The company first saw signs of trouble in 2000, where revenues fell 7 percent, a trend that would continue for three more years before a return to meager profitability in 2004 and a much more robust bottom-line in 2005 with $2.78 billion in sales.

Flash-forward to 2007 and the start of the economic downturn. The specialty brand started to suffer once again. Heavily criticized for raising prices across the board, the brand was deemed “overpriced” for its customer base. The economic pressure led to store closings, the shuttering of it’s higher-end Ruehl stores, and massive markdowns which took a toll on the company’s balance sheet.

So it’s not a wonder that coming off a year where sales slumped 23 percent, the company felt it needed to shake things up. Now a player on the social media front—its Facebook page has more than 1 million fans, its Twitter feed has a modest 2,323 followers (although some individual stores have their own feed), and a MySpace page keeps listeners updated on in-store music. Abercrombie also posts two shirtless male models outside its flagship New York City Fifth Avenue store, in an attempt to lure in tourists and entice locals to check out its wares.

But that wasn’t enough for the company. Last year, Abercrombie announced it would bring back the quarterly to London, saying that the Brits were more open minded. The experiment must have worked. What remains to be seen is whether U.S. customers are ready to embrace the old-new-again campaign and return to the aging brand.

Romy Ribitzky is an associate editor at
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