Originally billed as "push up triangles," the bathing suits sparked a swift and searing backlash from mommy bloggers and news pundits. A&F quickly repositioned the swimwear tops as "lightly lined" but the retailer isn't the first to rock the cradle of its youngest customers.
British clothing chain Primark withdrew a line of padded bikinis for 7 to 14 year olds following criticsm from The Children's Society accusing the company of "premature sexualisation and unprincipled advertising." Before you gasp, consider that came after two other UK retailers' missteps. Asda pulled push-up bra aimed at young girls and Tesco withdrew a pole-dancing kit from its toys section.
Precedents aside, A&F's built an entire business model on peddling the provocative. Note how the company - even in the throes of slumping sales - trotted out a new edition of its controversial A&F Quarterly (remember the magazines full of naked dudes?) last fall, just in time for back-to-school shopping. The first runs of the Quarterly drew criticism that ranged from accusations of soft porn to "promoting group sex to teens" and outright boycotts.
The good news for parents is that A&F's ploys weren't responsible for rising profits. In fact, for the fiscal quarter ending October 30, 2010, net sales increased 18 percent to $885.8 million and comps rose 7 percent - most due to management biting the discount bullet and lowering prices to be more competitive with other teen mall retailers such as American Eagle (AE).
And even though A&F was quick to change the offending name of the bikinis, its "Kids" site is still replete with skin-tight "super skinny" jeans, even tighter jeggings, breast-baring camisoles, and the like. If parents want to sound off, they need to not single out one product but instead look beyond to A&F's big picture with all its, err, stripped down "classic" styles and put an end to their kids shopping there.
While they're at it, they may as well consider whether they want their tweens browsing Victoria's Secret (LTD) Pink boutiques (the number one loungewear in the world, according to the brand) and American Eagle's Aerie shops as well. Aimed at college co-eds, those stores appeal to an ever-younger contingent of girls seeking alluring combinations of slouchy pj pants slung just low enough for a printed thong to peek out or slashed-neck, shoulder-baring sweatshirts a la Flashdance.
Is this any surprise considering girls reach puberty a heck of a lot younger than they did even ten years ago? Some bloom as young as seven thanks to a diet high in sugar and fat, declining physical activity and exposure to endocrine disrupters, chemicals in the environment that act on hormones.
Though it may not be right, again it wouldn't be the first time a retailer saw a marketing opportunity and jumped. A&F is just seizing an opportunity. Parents hold the buying power in their wallets.
Image via Abercrombie & Fitch