How Abercrombie should spend its summer vacation

It's a phrase the millions of kids still locked in their classrooms for another few weeks certainly don't want to hear -- but it's already weighing heavy on the minds of retail executives.

Back to school.

The pre-September rush was front and center when teen-friendly mall staples Abercrombie and Fitch and Aeropostale reported earnings Tuesday.

Aeropostale, which was happy to disclose a first-quarter net sales increase of 21%, stressed a continued attention to accessories to help consumers reinvent their wardrobe at minimal cost. Over at Abercrombie, the picture was bleaker: the company lost $27 million in the first quarter and grudgingly acknowledged that it's finally going to lower prices.
The narrative here reads like the end of a Freddie Prinze Jr. film: the smart, unpopular kid triumphs, the cool clique gets knocked down a couple notches, the school year ends and everybody has the best summer ever (usually facilitated by one character's invisible parents' speedboat or lakeside cabin).

Well, Aeropostale can afford to have some fun this summer. By slowly reducing their price point over several years to levels comparable to Old Navy, they've positioned themselves to thrive in the first back-to-school season of the economic downturn.

But Abercrombie has proven to be precisely the type of store that's destined to fail in a recession because it falls neither into the cheap-supply category nor the splurge-because-the-quality-is-fabulous category. A Kleenex-thin graphic tee for $34? A cotton miniskirt for $80? Come on. It's going to take a lot more than putting a shirtless boy outside your store to get people to swallow those prices in this environment.

In fact, Abercrombie might want to bring the boy inside for a few other reasons. Marking down its merchandise is a great start, but if the store truly wants to compete with Aeropostale this fall, they might think about toning down their trademark skin-centric promotional style -- which usually includes stunts like the aforementioned boxer boys and ad campaigns that look slightly more highbrow than harlequin romance covers.

First of all, this whole schtick pisses parents off. And while Abercrombie, in years past, may have had the luxury of arguing for its racy aesthetic, this year it should be trying to capture every single customer it can.

Secondly, the immodesty theme runs through the clothes as well -- there are certain items at the store that parents simply can't send their kids to school in because of dress codes. Consider these $50 shorts, cut from a teeny swatch of white denim and finished with, um, an unfinished hem. They should be about four inches longer and about $30 cheaper.

Abercrombie, leave the beach trips and partying to Aeropostale this summer. You've got plenty of work to make up.
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