Out of style: What churches can learn from Abercrombie & Fitch

November 10th, 2014

While the church continues its handwringing over the purported mass exodus of millennials, Abercrombie & Fitch is quickly becoming a retail Titanic because it can’t figure out how to reach the ever elusive teenage demographic.

Welcome to the club, A&F. Christians don’t know what we’re doing either when it comes to reaching teenagers. Or young adults, apparently. So say the religio-pundits anyway.

Abercrombie’s third quarter sales plunged 12% ($118 million) year over year, and the company’s shares hit a new 52-week low last week. Analysts blame a number of factors, including declining mall traffic, too many players in the teen apparel segment, Abercrombie (and sister store Hollister) not keeping pace with changing tastes, and overall lack of teen interest in apparel shopping.

I can’t say I’m disappointed at the news. For the better part of two decades, Abercrombie has used what has often bordered on soft-core pornography to sell its products, and the company has been one of the ring leaders promoting the sexualization of teenagers and children.

A study released in 2011 showed that among 15 national retailers, Abercrombie Kids was the worst offender among chains carrying children’s clothing with sexualizing characteristics. 72% of their merchandise falls into that category.

As for teens and young adults, for years now the big irony has been that a retail chain could be so successful using near-naked people to market clothing.

Sex sells, to be sure, but I suppose it can sell only so much to an already oversexed society. And Abercrombie & Fitch’s poor sales performance may be bearing that out.

It looks like young consumers and their parents are coming to the conclusion that, like the models in Abercrombie’s ads, the emperor has no clothes. There was a time when an expensive name brand was social currency. It still is to some degree, but the value of that currency has dropped. For now at least.

Teens are eschewing logos, and Abercrombie knows it. In late August, the company announced that it was taking its North America logo business down to practically nothing. But here’s the dilemma the company faces. Without the logo, if Abercrombie doesn’t do something unique to differentiate its apparel from everything else out there, it may as well be Aeropostale or American Eagle.

Many teens are now buying their clothing at newer, cheaper, and edgier retailers, and their moms are shopping for more of their kids’ clothing at stores like Ross and TJ Maxx. That means overpriced established brands like Abercrombie are being left out in the cold.

There’s not as much loyalty in retail as there used to be. The same goes for churches.

Mark Driscoll

Name brand denominations mean much less now than they did a half-century ago. Even newer nondenominational churches with multiple campuses are discovering that brand loyalty doesn’t go as far as it used to. Consider the recent events surrounding Mars Hill Church. What was a relatively tame church scandal by modern standards led to the breakup of a 13 church network. The Mars Hill name was so connected with the Mark Driscoll name that the church’s perceived positives could not overcome Driscoll’s negatives.

I guess a name brand only gets you so far.

Underneath all the marketing, churches may be realizing that not only do they need real substance to thrive, they also need to somehow separate themselves from the rest of the pack if they’re going to attract people and keep them.

It's almost a paradox. Name brand churches don’t mean much anymore, but churches making a name for themselves by owning a niche may mean more than ever.

Especially when there’s always a brand-new church starting up somewhere nearby.

But the biggest lesson in this for churches could be the danger of relying too much on trends to fill chairs.

Fox Television

A few years ago in an episode of the Fox animated series King of the Hill, Hank Hill’s son Bobby joins a trendy Christian youth group where the youth pastor is cool and the kids have tattoos and listen to Christian rock. Bobby loves being part of this subculture, but Hank isn’t too happy. So he takes Bobby home and shows him an old box filled with toys and various fads that Bobby bought into at various points during his childhood. There’s even a picture of Bobby in a Ninja Turtles costume.

Bobby: I look like such a dork.

Hank: I know how you feel. I never thought that Members Only jacket would go out of style, but it did. I know you think stuff you're doing now is cool, but in a few years you're going to think it's lame. And I don't want the Lord to end up in this box.

Retailers that devote too much of their energy to setting and chasing trends often grow quickly but eventually discover that when the winds shift, their empires crumble almost overnight.

The cool kids used to wear Abercrombie. And someday they might again. But right now they’re going elsewhere for their clothes. Do you think some A&F executives might be wishing that they’d built their business on a stronger foundation than sexual imagery and the changing tastes of American teenagers?

Nah, probably not. But they should be thinking that.

Knowing who you are can help you weather many storms, economic and otherwise. Foundations are important, for both businesses and congregations.

What’s your church’s foundation?

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