Minding the Gap: Reestablishing an iconic American brand

When troubled apparel retailer Gap announced last week that it will close a quarter of its 675 North American stores over the next few years, many analysts noted that the retailer seemed as much a victim of forces beyond its control as it was a victim of its own mistakes. Certainly, Gap isn’t alone in its troubles; rising income inequality has seen luxury brands and discount retailers thrive, while mid-market brands such as Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, and J. Crew suffer chronic same-store sales declines. Couple that trend with the slow death of American mall culture, and it’ not hard to understand why the once-iconic brand has stumbled.

Another factor in Gap’s struggles is the rise of chic, fashion-forward foreign retailers such as H&M and Zara that offer the latest fashions on its racks weekly at affordable prices. These vertically-integrated retailers that control their own manufacturing represent an existential threat to Gap, which must source its fashions over a longer product cycle and risk missing out on younger consumers who want the latest looks as soon as they see them online.

Some analysts have suggested that Gap needs to emulate affordable fashion-forward retailers like H&M to survive. Quoted in the New York Times, Kate Davidson Hudson, chief executive of Editorialist, said, “Everybody sees what’s on the runways on social media and on blogs, and everybody’s a critic, and shoppers want it as soon as they see it. Brands like Gap just feel very dated.”

To survive, in other words, Gap must turn itself into H&M. Any turnaround artist knows, however, that the retailer’s first task is to stop the bleeding and retain its most loyal customers. When we examined the audience of Gap loyalists to understand how their values and purchase drivers compare with those of regular apparel shoppers, however, we found that Gap shoppers aren’t necessarily interested in a Gap that tries to out-fashion H&M. Rather, Gap loyalists favor products that are durable, high quality and cost effective. On the personal values front, Gap shoppers over-index on the values of environmental protection, societal responsibility, and patriotism. Here’s a look at the indices:

The data suggests that, rather than try to emulate those fashion-forward retailers or be all things to all shoppers, Gap can perhaps differentiate by focusing on the fundamentals: selling stylish, affordable wardrobe staples known for their quality and durability. To enhance message relevance, Gap might launch a fresh social advocacy campaign, as they did with their Product Red campaign in the last decade. To counter the impact of its foreign-based competition, Gap might also reestablish itself in the minds of its customers as an iconic American brand. By understanding and acting on the values and motivations of its most loyal customers, Gap can emerge from its current doldrums and once again take its place as one of the most storied and successful companies in American retail.

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