Experts to Ailing Gap: Stand for Something or be History

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Can the gap be saved?

$16 billion Gap Inc. is on the block, and the company may consider a private-equity play or a breakup of its brand trio, Gap Stores, Banana Republic and Old Navy. Marketing executives are bailing out of the ailing Gap, as VP-Marketing Kyle Andrew, who oversaw the retailer's Product Red tie-in and Audrey Hepburn skinny-black-pant campaign, decamps for Kenneth Cole. The retailer's unrelenting woes led Advertising Age to ask the experts what they would do to repair the sales gulf at Gap.

Paco Underhill, author of "Why We Buy" and founder and CEO of behavioral-research firm Envirosell, New York: "They have to stick with Monday through Friday, which is where America works and plays, and not be distracted by Saturday night. They have to be in the uniform business rather than the costume business. They have to follow their customers. I wouldn't compete with Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle. I would focus on Gen Xers and boomers."

Lee Peterson, VP-brand and creative services at WD Partners, a retail design and development firm in Columbus, Ohio: "I'd hire better merchants and close some stores and spin off Banana Republic. There is too much similarity to the Gap and Old Navy, which goes back to the merchant problem. If you made a hard-core effort to hire some merchants, you could start to turn things around. They just have too many stores, and their fashion sense is just awful. If their target customer is really baby boomers and just below that cusp-something like 80 million people-they are just clueless to what those people like."

Joseph Beaulieu, retail analyst at Morningstar, Chicago: "They need to be less low-end at Old Navy. The store is starting to look like a cheap discount store. If you freed the Gap brand from having to avoid competing with Banana Republic at the high end and Old Navy at the low end, that could improve their target focus. They have these three segmented brands and don't want them to step on each other. It's more of positioning and merchandise issue."

Kerry Feuerman, creative director at Fallon, Minneapolis: "I'd live in the practical, and create campaigns for the next fashion season, but that's defensive. Offensively, I would have a team creating an image for them that is above and beyond clothing. If you can penetrate deeper, beyond 'Do I look cool?' and stand for something deeper, there's a long-term benefit to that. They are missing some form of reason to believe in the brand beyond the faded jeans and the new hoodie of the month."

Seth Godin, marketing guru and author of books such as "Small Is the New Big and 183 Other Riffs, Rants and Remarkable Business Ideas," via e-mail: "I don't think it can be done. The Gap represented a movement. It nationalized something regional at the same time they profited from the death of business dress. Both are over, quirkiness is back, and that's that."

Love Goel, a former Federated executive who heads Growth Ventures Group, a Minnesota investment firm: "I would work to really understand what customers want. You need people who understand the product, but the Gap has gotten so reliant on analytics and data, I would bring a balance to fashion merchandising and analytics. You can't let just data and analytics drive the business. You can't just have computer programming figuring out what the right assortment is for the season. I would also move into direct marketing and internet advertising and shift away from mass advertising on TV, which is too expensive."
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