How do you sell to teenagers, a notoriously fickle but tantalisingly lucrative market? Let’s begin by imagining retail hell on earth for anyone over 30. No one knows where anything is. You can’t see what anything is. The music pounds, the ambient smell is the store’s own-brand perfume and the staff are all better looking and wearing fewer clothes than you. If you’re over 30 they’re also much younger than you. But, hey, if you’re over 30, what are you doing here in the first place?
Admittedly, this could be any number of stores on the high street but one chain has taken the modus mis-operandi, turned it into an art form, and provided a glimpse of a more fragmented retail future in the process.
If virtual shopping on the internet is inexorably cannibalising actual shopping, then arguably, the only way the real version can survive is by creating an experience that can’t be replicated online.
Hollister, the southern Californian (or in Hollister speak SoCal) “surfer” brand has rounded up the marketing orthodoxy and kicked copious amounts of sand into its face. It’s paying dividends. While Hollister’s better-known (in the UK) sibling brand Abercrombie & Fitch has been buffeted by the recession — most recent net sales figures were down 26 per cent on the same period a year ago — Hollister is holding up. Its UK store in the Westfield shopping centre in West London has had queues snaking outside its clapboard-cladded front right through the downturn.
The opening last month of the 40,000 sq ft flagship (or in Hollister speak) Epic store in SoHo has endowed Manhattan with its first real teen destination store. The Topshop that opened in SoHo earlier this year is probably out of the price range of most 13-year-olds; American Girl, the vast “premium lifestyle” store on Fifth Avenue that sells $95 and upward dolls and accessories alongside a teashop where thousands of little middle-class girls are encouraged to bring along their American Girls dolls, targets the 3 to 8s.
According to marketresearch.com, America’s teen population is growing faster than the overall US population. In the UK, it has been shrinking since 1995 but it’s still tempting, low-hanging fruit. Get them young, and you can siphon them towards your other brands later on (Hollister’s sibling labels include Ruehl no 925 and Gilly Hicks). Yet apart from Jack Wills, a brand that has an invented history, as does Hollister and Abercrombie, and a similar hoody-and-sweatpants aesthetic, albeit with a distinctly British, neo-Sloaney tinge, no British companies have created teen-targeted environments. Jack Wills has doubled revenue each year, although it’s deliberately niche, with around 35 stores, including the original one in Salcombe, Devon, and a turnover last year of £42 million against Hollister’s 1,100 US stores and revenue of $1.5 billion.
The biggest British retailer in the nine-to 15-year-old market is New Look, which sells its 915 range in 395 of its stores. But while New Look uses e-mail and Bebo to talk to its young customers (its Bebo group has so far amassed 32,000 friends), in the store it does nothing to create an area specifically to target to this group. “No one in the UK does,” says Moira Benigson, managing partner of the MBS Group, an executive search company. “And if they think they are, they’re deluded. Then again, the British teen market is increasingly sophisticated, probably more so than in the US, with the internet a key player, and vintage making a comeback, along with a Camden Market-type atmosphere.”
As it happens, the Hollister Epic store does have a slightly vintage-meets-Camden-meets-polished-California veneer. Not that anyone at Abercrombie & Fitch Co, Hollister’s parent company, officially pays any attention to market research. Founded in 1992 (although accorded to its invented lore, it was established in 1922) by Mike Jeffries, the Hollister/Abercrombie HQ, which staff refer to as its campus, is based in Ohio, a surprising choice perhaps, until you consider that US clothing giant The Limited (which includes Victoria’s Secret) is also based there.
Press shy and regarded as something of a seer by his staff, who refer to “Mike” in the same reverent tones that Dorothy et al refer to the Wizard in Oz, 62-year-old Jeffries likes to think of the new Epic store as a Disneyland for teen shopping. “Mike sees Hollister as an education,” Hollister’s head of brand marketing tells me (no one apart from Mike likes to give out names). “He’s not opportunistic. He’s not doing this to appeal to a gap in the market. It’s more of an artistic vision.” What Jeffries has really done is taken Ralph Lauren’s famous Rhinelander store (the historic building on Madison Avenue, New York, that Lauren turned into a monument to his Wasp vision of American fashion 30 years ago) and re-created it for teens.
Like the Rhinelander — or for that matter Disneyland — The Epic has a narrative. Staff sport bikinis or, if they’re male, shorts and waxed, worked-out chests. Giant screens transmit 77 live feeds from Huntington Pier, California; time your trip to the cash register right and you’ll get some buff surfer catching a wave right at you. There’s a (semi) secret Hollister language too, although it’s not blatantly telegraphed, because “kids like to find this stuff out for themselves”. The store is divided into his (dude) and her (betty); the warrens of rooms are called shacks (on the dude side) and cottages (on the betty side); the temperature, scent and music are all coordinated by a designer (there are dedicated scent bottles behind the scenes with strict instructions for the staff; three pumps from a distance of six inches).
It’s dark as Hades (although there are strategically placed spotlights), noisy too (although there are strategically placed leather armchairs for the exhausted parent).
It’s also throbbing with energy and no expense has been spared — the dark panelling, vast antique-looking chandeliers, Parisian-fronted perfume shops-within-shops and furniture have all been custom made. The four floors certainly help to foster the illusion of a happy, beautiful, hermetically sealed surfie eco-sphere: outside is a hot sweaty Manhattan street, which in six months will be a freezing Manhattan street. Inside it will forever be a feel-good July in SoCal.
Being a tight-lipped sort of company, Abercrombie & Fitch won’t reveal how much it spent on the Epic, but it clearly cost millions. What categorically isn’t part of the theme is conventional service.
The staff are unashamedly chosen for their looks rather than their ability to locate a T-shirt in your size. Hollister gets away with this by advertising for “store models” and holding castings rather than interviews. There were 5,000 applicants for the Epic store — unsurprisingly since the most recent ad campaign, shot like all of Hollister’s iconography by Bruce Weber, stars a store model.
I visited the Manhattan Epic with my teenage daughters as cover. Ironically, we all had a similar visceral reaction: you can’t help but be impressed by a store that has gone to such trouble with its fixtures and fittings, when other chains at this level shove everything on plastic hangers or leave it to get trampled on the floor.
The good-natured enthusiasm of the staff charmed us too. The American “have-a” mantra may be fake but give me insincere cheer over heartfelt curmudgeonliness — a very polite friend was thrown out of the Westfield branch of Hollister recently because she had the temerity to complain about something. We all coveted the chandeliers. We were suckers for the clothes. And we all wished that the staff knew where anything was because climbing up and down those four sweeping staircases is exhausting.
Perhaps the generation gap isn’t as distinct as Hollister maintains. I recommend the swimwear department in the basement to bikini-wearers of all ages: it had a fantastic selection of styles and shapes at a time when the rest of New York had sold out and the subdued lighting in the changing rooms comes into its own when you’re trying on a strapless bandeau and frilly briefs.
But creating an idealised teen-theme park enables Hollister to create a point of difference for its merchandise, which is the kind of classic, off-duty American wear — checked shirts, faded jeans, leather jackets, hoodies, casual, drapey knits, all in super-soft combed cotton or cashmere mixes — that probably needs some theatrics to make it edgy My daughters found a stack of clothes they wanted (beware, prices are much higher than Primark) but agreed that if you are in a hurry, it’s best to shop online and save the store for an excursion.
As for me, I just wish there were more stores paying this much attention to creating an idealised adult world.