Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, can expect a C-suite invasion any day now. Some guy is going to come climbing over the side and say, “Look at me. Look at me. I’m the captain now.”
The problem is simple. Somehow A&F drifted out shipping lanes. It lost it’s navigational signals. Sales fell. Wall Street got like so mad.
This is odd because Jeffries was once indisputably a captain, not just of A&F, but retail writ large. He seemed to know exactly what consumers wanted. As Matthew Shaer puts it in a recent New York Magazine,
“From 1992, when [Jeffries] was hired at Abercrombie, to the early aughts, Jeffries presided over one of the more impressive runs in the history of modern American retail. And he did it by turning an all-but-moribund clothing brand, best known as a fusty safari outfitter, into a multibillion-dollar behemoth with more than a thousand storefronts and a style that competitors were tripping over one another to imitate. Unlike his peers, who tended to view the youth market with clinical detachment, Jeffries had a Peter Pan–like ability to commune with the whims of the average American teen.”
(Mr. Shaer’s excellent essay can be found here.)
But time and teens move on. And Jeffries somehow lost touch.
A company designer gives us a glimpse why. She told Shaer: “[Jeffries] has a tough time moving past that classic American aesthetic of jeans and polo shirts”
Retail analyst Wendy Liebmann has something like the same story to tell. She told Shaer: “The sexy collegiate image fit into the age of Gossip Girl and 90210 but now it feels like it’s grounded in an era that’s at least ten years old. I don’t think shoppers in the U.S. and Canada have totally walked away. But, as a whole, I think shoppers have moved on.”
Erik Gordon at the University of Michigan’s business school has studied Jeffries. “If our hero has a fatal flaw, it’s that the world changed and he hasn’t.”
It’s a pretty standard problem. Along comes a guy like Jeffries who seems to have a perfect sense of what the consumer wants. What he does not see is that this is an illusion. What he knows is merely what he wants. This just happens to be what the consumer wants…for the moment. Eventually taste and preference will change. And when that happens, there is a sudden, cataclysmic loss of consumer interest and investor confidence.
It’s hard to feel sorry for Jeffries. All he had to do was drive through Brooklyn to notice that the preppie look was losing share and that in fact most people preferred to look like survivors of the American civil war. (You know, I’m just an anthropologist, but I feel confident that “preppie” and “civil war” are quite different looks.)
And this is why you hire a Chief Culture Officer, someone who spends his or her life listening to culture, monitoring consumer taste and preferences, watching for trends and, when necessary, yelling, “OMG. Something is happening out there.” The CEO can still “go with his/her gut” but now he/she has someone standing by to report on disruptions. And save you from your illusions.
Everyone likes to think they have perfect pitch when it comes to retail. And when you have a run as long as the one Jeffries has had, you are entitled to a sense of your own infallibility. But we have to know that reading a world that thrashes with change is fantastically difficult. And no one can be right all the time.
Or think of this way. It has to be better to share a little power now (with your new Chief Culture Officer) than have to give it all away when someone climbs aboard up and says, “Look at me. Look at me. I’m the captain now.”
For my book Chief Culture Officer, please go here.