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Got a vision? Understand teens? Want to be our CEO?



Mike Jeffries may have left Abercrombie & Fitch, but his “look policy” legacy continues to plague the company. The Supreme Court recently sided with plaintiff Samantha Elauf, overturning a lower courts ruling that her rights weren’t violated by the company’s hiring policy. And yet even with a history of less-than-successful results, the teen-oriented retailer continues to use superficial beauty-contest tactics to fill jobs.   Only this time, the job they’re filling is Jeffries' former post of CEO.

Recent reports have said the retailer is having three internal candidates “duke it out” while at the same time asking an outside executive search firm to find back-up candidates “just in case” one of them doesn't make it.

What’s the criteria for this selection? According to the company’s chairman, Abercrombie is looking for a “very clear strategic perspective” and the successful candidate will have to demonstrate knowing how to appeal to the teens who used to shop the chain in droves.

In other words, the company’s board of directors and current leadership is lost, not sure what the company is or should be, why it exists or what its target customers might want from it – and they’re looking for a candidate who might know.

Whether or not one agrees with the way Jeffries led the company – and any responsible business leader likely wouldn’t – he did seem to have one thing going for him that the new CEO needs: he knew his customer. The problem was that he knew them in a very static way: for the brief period of Abercrombie & Fitch’s success, he had his finger firmly on their pulse. 

But teenagers grow up and tastes change quickly and a retailer seeking to understand and sell to young consumers has to constantly evolve. And that was something Abercrombie & Fitch was slow to do. Rather than truly acting like the teen it wanted to serve, Abercrombie acted more like an aging man perpetually fixated on a single moment in his past, unwilling to let go of a style that made him happy.

So, other than the need to evolve, what should the 50-ish year old candidates for Abercrombie’s top job know about today’s teens and how are they different from Jeffries target customer?

Today’s young people aren’t as superficial as you might believe. Young people today are overwhelmingly making choices that demonstrate they are not the teens of the ‘90’s.   A recent report by advertising agency Sparks & Honey used social listening to determine that “making a difference” and “making an impact” were key goals of the Gen Z demographic, with more than 1 in 4 of them spending time volunteering and “social entrepreneurship” being a desired career choice.

Status isn’t something they look for in a brand.   It goes without saying that a young person focused on “making an impact” in the world may not be the most likely target for apparel or gear emblazoned with large logos.   Today’s young shoppers have grown up confident in themselves and aren’t generally looking to define their personalities through brands. Rather, they’re looking for quality products that enrich their lives while not diminishing lives of others – so companies and products with sustainable efforts, responsible practices and high quality products are the ones they’ll patronize. Today’s young shopper is a far cry from the logo-bedecked teen of recent years.

Shopping and buying stuff isn’t an “experience” or entertainment. According to Sparks & Honey, Gen Z consumers are less interested in the sort of “experience” shopping that was a retailing trend when the first wave of millennials were teens. Today’s teens are more focused on the product itself and the value it provides. At the same time, they are much more likely to buy online than older generations and they are less likely to see the act of shopping itself as entertainment.   These traits help explain why Abercrombie’s theatrical shopping experiences – from the ripped bromantic salespeople to the dock-themed store aisles – aren’t appealing to today’s teen shoppers.

Today’s shoppers are very different from those Abercrombie was successfully pandering to under Jeffries leadership – and they will likely be very different from shoppers to come next year and five years from now. Whomever Abercrombie chooses for its next leader needs to understand that consumer preferences are changing much more quickly than they ever did before. And it’s not just because teens can be fickle – rather, it’s because today’s young people have more information, more quickly than ever before.   They live in multiple, intersecting worlds both online and off, and are comfortable with the fluidity of those worlds. Yet, while their communications may be fast and superficial, their feelings and beliefs are deeply held. Any company that is going to build a vision that relies on their patronage is going to have to understand all of these aspects of their collective, generational personality.

 The task of finding an experienced retail CEO who understands this rapidly evolving generation is a big one; add to that criteria the need to show up with a ready-made vision for a struggling brand mired in controversy and you’ve got a pretty complex job description to fill.   The board of Abercrombie & Fitch needs to do more than allow current execs to “duke it out,” because in that fight the real losers are likely to be customers, employees and shareholders.

David Melançon