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When Sex Won't Sell Clothes -- Abercrombie & Fitch Brings Its Risque Quarterly Back

Abercrombie naked guySeemingly unfazed that he's pissing off his shareholders, Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) CEO Mike Jeffries continues to be a poster boy for the I-don't-give-a-rat's-ass-I'm-doing-what-I-please school of management. For his next trick, Jeffries is dusting off the old A&F Quarterly (remember the magazines full of naked dudes?) and trotting it out in time for back-to-school shopping. As head-turning as a well-chiseled six pack and matching jawline can be, it's doubtful the mag will have an impact on the bottom line.

Here's why:

  • It didn't work the first time. The first runs of the Quarterly drew plenty of outrage from the likes of conservative groups and news sites such as Focus on the Family. Criticisms ranged from accusations of soft porn to "promoting group sex to teens" and from outright boycotts to giving parents pause before they let their impressionable tweens shop its stores.
  • It won't really increase store traffic. If parents with credit cards aren't comfortable escorting their kids into the too-dark, heavily fragranced, bass-thumping environs of the A&F stores now, it's less likely a risque 176-page magazine is going to lure them. Even if it is full of the legendary photographer Bruce Weber's artistic images. And even if it is "part of a larger marketing campaign that ties in with in-store happenings in July."
  • It won't help sales. If these "in-store happenings" don't go beyond featuring scantily-clad sales staff (think discounts), they'll probably be a bust. With the exception of Improv Everywhere's shirtless stunt at A&F's Fifth Avenue flagship (in which 110 actors of all body types sauntered in topless) having a good looking guy stripped to the waist and posted at the door is not generating the kind of sales Jeffries would hope. Sales were down 23 percent last year and first quarter 2010 revenues are barely over what they were in 2006.
  • Social media will trump price. At $10, the magazine is well-priced for its production quality, but thanks to social media no one actually has to buy the Quarterly to see the images. When the first issue debuted in 1997, Facebook and Myspace weren't even on the horizon and bloggers were just discovering how to spill the contents of their brains on the virtual page. Now who's to stop the flow of scanned images that are sure to be in heavy circulation once the book hits the stores on July 17? It's unlikely that A&F will be able to police the personal FB pages of its 1.2 million loyal followers.

If Jeffries wants to turn the ship around and provide some real value to customers he'd do well to offer a coupon at the back of the Quarterly for a serious discount -- none of that 10 or 20 percent off business. What would be even better would be a Willie Wonka-esque promotion. Place a "golden ticket" in a few selected Quarterlies and allow the winners to be backstage at the next photo shoot and give them a discount too. Then he'll have customers lining up around the block.

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