- The Washington Times - Monday, June 24, 2002

Abercrombie & Fitch has come a long way since the days when it clothed President Theodore Roosevelt for his trips to Africa and sold fishing equipment to Presidents Herbert Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Today, barely clothed, hunky guys and waifish girls adorn almost every corner of its 500 stores as teens scour through the racks of undersized shorts and T-shirts.
The Ohio-based retailer, which has about a dozen stores in the Washington area, has made a name for itself in teen circles and continues to target the wealthy, young shoppers with new looks and new controversies.
"If you're over 22, they don't want you shopping there," said Lori DiBisceglie, an instructor in the fashion merchandising department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "They don't want their customer to grow old with them."
That's obvious by its merchandise selection sporty clothes with a sexy twist and high price tags targeting a group of buyers who are considered a wealthy demographic whether they get the spending money from their parents, after-school jobs or even saved-up allowances. While the company says its target is college-age shoppers, teen-agers much younger also are hitting its stores.
"This is typically a high-consumer segment," said Holly Etlin, a principal at Crossroads LLC consulting firm in New York.
The company seems to court controversy. In addition to racy catalogs sold in shrink wrap and Asian-themed T-shirts that have offended some people, Abercrombie's latest controversy was a line of little-girl thongs with risque sayings. Its shopping bags can be cut out and turned into pinup posters.
"Abercrombie likes to be provocative," said Dorothy Lakner, a retail analyst at CIBC World Markets Corp. "They like pushing the envelope."
Abercrombie's subscription-based quarterly catalog, which requires ID if it is bought in the store, has come under fire by groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving for its detailed "Drinking 101" edition in 1998.
Illinois Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood started a boycott of the clothier in 1999 and has begun an online effort, www.StopAandF.com, to stop the retailer's provocative ways.
Her latest complaint is the $6 summer catalog, "Wet, Hot Summer Fun XXX."
But some retail officials think the controversy is what keeps curious customers coming back for more.
"It's been good for business," Ms. DiBisceglie said.
At the end of the first quarter, Abercrombie had 507 stores. That's a nearly 300 percent increase since 1996. The retailer plans to open another 114 this year, according to its annual report.
As with many specialty retailers, merchandise isn't flying off the Abercrombie shelves, thanks to a sluggish economy, an uncertain job market and the effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Same-store sales the best measure of a retailer's profitability have dropped for two consecutive years, and the company reported another drop in the first quarter.
The company, nonetheless, is profitable, reporting net income last year of $168 million, a nearly 7 percent increase from 2000. Five years ago Abercrombie posted $24.7 million.
For most of its existence since 1892 Abercrombie sold high-end fishing, hunting and camping gear, and sporting goods and clothes. But by the time the Limited bought the Abercrombie chain in 1988 from Oshman's Sporting Goods, it was a Brooks Brothers-style store with tailored men's clothing.
When current Chief Executive Michael Jeffries joined the company in 1992, he began transforming the brand into a youth-oriented retailer.
And that's exactly what the midteen to early-20 age group was looking for.
"[Abercrombie] saw a void in the market, and they're staying focused," Ms. DiBisceglie said. "They're not trying to be everything to everybody."
Now Abercrombie is faced with competition from companies such as American Eagle Outfitters and Hot Topic all vying for the same consumer.
When the company went public in 1996, Abercrombie promised a new concept about every two years. In 1997, the retailer introduced its children's line of stores, targeting youngsters aged 7 to 14. In July 2000, Abercrombie started Hollister Co., a clothing brand targeting teens aged 14 to 18.
By the end of the first quarter of 2002, the company, which spun off from the Limited in 1998, had 53 Hollister stores and 153 children's stores.
"The key is to continue to evolve and have the ability to correctly anticipate where the customer base is going," Ms. Etlin said.
"They have to constantly be onto the next thing."

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