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You Won't Recognize Abercrombie & Fitch This Time Next Year

By Rich Duprey - Mar 17, 2014 at 8:14PM

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And the market thinks that's a good thing.

Economist John Maynard Keynes is reputed to have remarked, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

The facts have apparently changed for Abercrombie & Fitch ( ANF -1.08% ) since it's seemingly changing its mind on what it wants to be. Once the epitome of preppy fashion, all sleek-bodied and popped collars, the teen retailer is hitting the changing room to come out looking more like the rest of the kids in the mall.

Although not completely abandoning its roots, Abercrombie realizes the fashion world is passing it by, so it will be adopting the fast-fashion sensibility represented by H&M, Forever 21, Century 21, and Zara that young consumers find more in tune their style and wallets. It will reposition its Hollister brand within that realm of disposable clothing while still adhering as close as possible to the California beach style for which it's best known.

After reporting its ninth straight quarter of declining same-store sales last month, it became clear at last to even the teen retailer it needed a new wardrobe. With teen unemployment at Depression-era levels, the retail landscape isn't pretty, but some, like Gap ( GPS 2.58% ), still found it within their ability to record a 1% rise in comps in the fourth quarter.

The seeds of Abercrombie's change started last year, after comments made by CEO Michael Jeffries resurfaced showing him disparaging teen consumers who didn't mesh with his own vision for his company's target demographics. A&F subsequently agreed to start selling clothes that would fit more customers than just its typical tanned and toned models, realizing that when even the bold and the beautiful won't darken its doorways, it needed to broaden its horizons. Then it said it was getting rid of its intimate apparel brand Gilly Hicks, which styled itself as Abercrombie's "cheeky cousin from Sydney, Australia."

Yet those episodes were only part of the catalyst that led activist shareholder Engaged Capital to declare it no longer had confidence in Jeffries to lead the company, as he had presided over a culture of value destruction for shareholders. Earlier this year the board stripped Jeffries of his CEO title in an apparent effort to appease the hedge fund.

Further indications of the makeover include its willingness to partner with ( AMZN -1.38% ) to have its clothes featured on the e-commerce leader's website (with customers directed to A&F's to complete the sale) and most recently agreeing to not only sell more third-party items in its stores, but also allowing third-party retailers to sell its clothes.

Last year it started selling Keds in its stores and online, and last week it agreed to begin selling a line of SeaVees men's shoes that will be sold exclusively through Hollister. While no third-party retailers have been named yet that will feature Abercrombie threads, it's clear the teen retailer made good on its promise to begin an extreme makeover. The markets have bid its shares up 15% over the past month, apparently believing it's a change for the better, but whether we'll recognize it as the company we once knew -- or, more importantly, whether teens will want to shop there -- remains to be seen.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis – even one of our own – helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.

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Stocks Mentioned

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. Stock Quote
Abercrombie & Fitch Co.
$34.93 (-1.08%) $0.38, Inc. Stock Quote, Inc.
$3,389.79 (-1.38%) $-47.57
The Gap, Inc. Stock Quote
The Gap, Inc.
$16.72 (2.58%) $0.42

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