Friday, May 17, 2013

Abercrombie & Fitch vs The World

Barb Wallace@realBKW  
#fitchthehomeless Donating Abercrombie & Fitch clothes to homeless. Good idea to embarrass A&F CEO or insensitive to homeless? #Conundrum

I sent out this tweet after reading a story about a young guy named Greg Karber who was on a mission. A mission to make Abercrombie & Fitch, and its CEO Mike Jeffries, look bad, really bad, because of their corporate policy, as stated by Jeffries, to sell their brands only to a small, segmented market of attractive and “cool” kids, as well as its practice of destroying excess inventory rather than donating it to charity. 

Abercrombie has two main brands, the flagship brand/store Abercrombie and Fitch and the even cooler, even hipper brand/store Hollister. (While Hollister gives the impression it’s California surfer dude in origin, it's not. The world headquarters are actually hidden away in the countryside outside Columbus, Ohio. Not exactly the city that comes to mind when one plays word association and is given the clue “surf city.” But they do broadcast live video from Huntington Beach, CA in its stores, giving one the impression that's where it all started.) 

So what triggered Garber’s social consciousness was an article in Business Insider that referenced and quoted an interview Jeffries had given to Benoit Denizen-Lewis, then a thirty year old writer for who was working on an article about A&F’s turnaround and, primarily, Jeffries’ leadership that brought it about. In that interview Jeffries made it clear that the chief market, in fact its sole market, consists of “cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.” Well, you have to give him marks for honesty.

Garber also discovered that A&F was burning its unsellable (or at least less profitable to sell) out-of-season and irregular clothing rather than donating it to organizations that aid and clothe the homeless population, which many clothing companies do. Other companies, of course, profit from many of these items by selling them at reduced prices in outlet stores, often with the label removed or marked out; in eponymously named outlet stores; or in stores associated with their corporate identity but with their own names. A&F does not do any of this. It neither donates nor sells clothes that do not meet the current selling season’s standards, it destroys them. So they are nonsalvageable, by burning them. No dumpster diving for discarded goodies at A&F. Are you kidding? They probably don’t even have dumpsters. They probably refer to them as something like refuse relocation units. I mean, this is the same company that calls its sales staff models and regularly sends them out into the mall to look for other cool, good looking kids they can recruit to work in the stores. Nerds and fuglies need not enter the stores to apply for jobs. Or to shop. They don’t want you, no matter how much it costs them in revenue. And judging by the prices the “young and hip” (and rich) are willing to pay for the same clothing they could buy at Target, that’s quite a bit of revenue they turn away.

At any rate, I was intrigued by what Garber did. He skillfully used social media to alert the masses to Jeffries’, and thus A&F’s, corporate strategy. He appealed to the social consciousness of today’s young people, and to us older folk as well, by youtubing a video he made about his answer to A&F’s refusal to donate its goods. He had himself filmed at a thrift store where he purchased as much A&F and Hollister clothing as he could find. He then was filmed as he went around Skidrow, an area of Los Angeles populated by many homeless people, and passed out all the A&F brand clothing he had found. He created a hashtag campaign for Twitter, #fitchthehomeless, to publicize what he’d done. News of his actions went viral, picked up and promoted by sites like The Huffington Post. His youtube video ( has over 6 million views. Yes, SIX. Million. Who knows how many have tweeted about his cause, or shared it with their Facebook friends. When I got a tweet about it I had no idea just how far and wide this had spread. I’m not sure if “trending” even covers how huge the issue had become.

There were many Karber supporters, many who were willing to accept his challenge to empty their closets of all A&F product and donate it to homeless shelters. That seemed like an honorable, very socially and politically correct action to take. But there are naysayers, and many of them have valid points for disagreeing with Karber’s campaign. For instance, on the one hand Karber was challenging a huge, and I mean gargantuan, clothing company to change not only its corporate policy of destroying product, but also its marketing campaign, which is what made them such a huge, gargantuan behemoth of a company. On the other hand, he was literally doing exactly what he accused A&F of doing, developing a target market to cater to, to the exclusion of others. Yes, the homeless make up just as valid a target market as any other group. And worse, Karber was using the homeless to further his agenda, not for charitable purposes. After all, he was distributing ONLY A&F labeled clothing. Clothing which has a different sizing system than the mainstream (all their clothing “runs small”) and has an extremely limited size range. Just because one is homeless you cannot assume s/he will be the same size as a scrawny but “cool” teenager. And many of the people shown on his video do not fit the youthful market A&F targets. Wearing some of the Fitch clothing would make them look and feel out of place. It’s obvious on his video that some of the people he was trying to give the clothing to were a little hesitant to accept it.

So people are questioning the insensitivity Karber’s crusade shows towards the homeless people he purports to be helping. As well, one has to question Karber’s intent. It would be interesting to see if Karber has a history of charitable giving, of goods or of his time and effort. There are many ways to help the poor and homeless besides using them as your own cause. Many homeless are proud people who would be uncomfortable being identified as somebody’s “project.” Is Karber ignoring the sensibilities of those he appears to be helping? Is he abusing their plight for his own gains? I don’t know. And therein lies the conundrum of which I tweeted.

I did a little fact-checking, tracing the story to its source. And found that the original Salon article appeared in January of 2006. Nearly seven and a half  years ago. So why the outrage now? Where was it then? Did people object in ’06 or did the original story just not reach enough, or the kind of, readers who would respond to it as young Greg Karber did? The story was resurrected recently by Business Insider in response to clothing retailer H&M’s recent addition of plus-sized clothing to its line. I suspect that article is what caused Karber to respond to Fitch’s and its CEO’s practices. But how much of its sudden popularity can we attribute to the Business Insider story and how much to Greg Karber’s efforts, or to the power of social media? My money’s on social media.  I think no matter who decided to initiate this kind of war against capitalism and a corporation’s right to set its own policy, once it hit social media sites it would have taken off like wildfire, as it did. 

But like any wildfire, there are alternate ways to battle it. One way  is to accept that some large corporations are just not that into being socially responsible. Not everybody wants to run a Ben & Jerry’s kind of company. Some CEOs and corporate boards have tunnel vision and are just focused on the bottom line. Honestly, in a capitalism-based society we have to recognize that that is exactly what capitalism is. And Jeffries has made no excuses or apologies for his corporate vision. In fact, it is something of which he is extremely proud and, given his and the company’s financial success in past years, he has every right to be. In Jeffries’ words “"Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either," he told Salon.” Valid points.

Nobody can argue with Jeffries’ success in growing the A&F brand. A once struggling company was revamped and is now worth billions of dollars. But under his leadership it has paid out millions to settle lawsuits that have targeted the company for things like its hiring practices, discrimination, offensive clothing and marketing campaigns, and even charges by shareholders concerning Jeffries’ outlandish compensation package and stock trading activities (dumping stock based on insider knowledge of negative performance before the information was announced). It has survived all these charges by settling the suits, which is a well-known corporate strategy in which a company can avoid the high legal fees of litigation without admitting wrongdoing. And it has certainly seen, and weathered, its share of boycotts and public outcries. Yet it continues to rake in the cash, though it has stumbled along the way. (What business hasn’t, in this economy?) Some business experts are urging A&F to let Jeffries go when his contract expires in 2014. At that point Jeffries, born in 1944, will be seventy years old. Already mocked as being a caricature of the cool kid his marketing targets, and given some bad decisions he has made in his steerage of the company ship, it’s likely the board will agree and Jeffries will be forced to retire from A&F.

But as far as the recent attempts by Greg Karber to humiliate A&F into changing its policy? I think Karber’s campaign will lose steam and people will move on to other causes. Especially when they realize the public outrage his campaign has stirred up as “news” of Jeffries’ Salon interview goes viral is seven years too late. Or when the protestors think about the clothes burning practice logically and realize it’s a corporate strategy that is perfectly legal and the campaign is really not that effective. Or when they accept the fact that their attempts at changing A&F’s corporate strategy are just as offensive to the homeless as the advertising style at A&F is to most of middle America. Or when they recognize that the people at Abercrombie & Fitch really don’t care what the huddled masses think.

So in researching and writing this piece, I think I have solved my conundrum. While I agree with Karber that the clothes should be donated, I can’t agree with forcing the company to do so. As far left as my politics can be, I recognize that in this country we have a pretty good balance of socialism and capitalism, and that we need to allow certain capitalist freedoms to corporations, else they will take their business to a more receptive and less antagonizing environment. I can’t argue with A&F’s marketing practice of selling clothing of certain sizes as it is a sound business practice that has served them well, despite criticisms. And one must also consider that there are other companies that market to certain segments of the population to the exclusion of others.

While people complain about A&F selling only smaller sized clothing, there are other stores that do so as well. Then there are the men’s “big and tall” stores that sell only larger sizes, or women’s plus sized stores. Where is the outrage against these companies? The thing is, not all stores cater to all people. There’s nothing illegal about it. You can’t legislate that a store cannot sell one size and not another. And you can’t legislate what a company does with its unwanted clothing, whether it’s wearable or not.

So while I think Greg Karber’s campaign is a noble one, and I wish him well, it’s not a cause to which I will give much more thought. I don’t see it as having long term impact and I choose to support other causes that do a better job of helping the poor and homeless. But one good thing I DO like about his campaign is the way people have responded to it, and how it has promoted the good that can be done when social media is used with good intent. At the same time, though, we must be wary of the potential for the same resources to be utilized for not-so-charitable purposes. 


Hockey Night in America. What's for dinner?

A Taste of Mexico, A Little Bit of Heaven!

So tonight was another "Hockey Night in America!" In the midst of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the New York Rangers had traveled to Boston to play my beloved Bruins in the first game of their best-of-seven second round series. Huge game! Time to order up some chow and settle in. I was going to go with the traditional sports viewing meal of pizza. As I started placing my online order I thought, well, maybe a couple of wings as well. But in the midst of  going back and forth on three websites, trying to decide just whose pizza I wanted, I decided maybe I'd give a nearby Mexican restaurant a shot. The place used to be a sports themed restaurant that specialized in wings and pub food. But there was some problem with the owners wanting to show college and professional sports on their multitude of wide screen TVs while at the same time having an aversion to paying licensing fees. So the franchise headquarters pulled the plug and the local owners pulled outta town. 

The place sat empty for awhile, and then one day it had a "coming soon" sign on it for a new restaurant called El Tolteca. I'd eaten there once since it opened, and was really happy with the food. Service was great, too, but this time I was ordering to-go. This really good Mexican restaurant is a neighborhood gem! The food is awesome, authentic. Much better than what you'd get at a large chain restaurant. And they have a huge selection that is very reasonably priced. But the decor...let's just say the decorator went to Michael's AND The Party Store AND Dollar General and bought one of every Mexican decoration they had. Then she went to World Market AND Pier One and bought out their Mexican, Mayan, and Aztec inspired decor. And put it all in one place. Calling it overdone is an understatement. Literally all the space that wasn't covered by a TV was decorated in an "I'm not really sure what it is but it looks Mexican so let's get it" kind of style. At least it keeps customers entertained while they wait for their food!

Then there was the poster advertising a Mariachi Band in Indianapolis -really, there's no Mariachi Band closer to Cleveland?- featuring Pedro, Diegoberto, and...Dudley. Nothing against Dudley. I'm sure he's a very good musician. It's just that the only man named Dudley I've ever heard of was a Canadian named Dudley Do-Right. And he wasn't real. But hey, I know an Irish guy from Boston named Matt who lives near Los Angeles and loves to sing with the Mariachi bands at restaurants and clubs. He's so good they let him sing solos! So I guess maybe being named Dudley isn't THAT unusual for a Mariachi band member! And he did look like his ancestry was more Mexican than Canadian, and he IS real, unlike the aforementioned Canadian Dudley, who is actually a cartoon Mountie. This Dudley was indistinguishable from his bandmates in their matching mustaches and costumes complete with sombreros. They looked so much alike they could have been brothers!

But to get back to the restaurant... As I was deciding on my to-go order, I saw something I'd never heard of on the dessert list. it was called Xango. I checked it out online and it looked good so I thought I'd try it. OMG! It was delicious! It's pronounced chango (thank you Google) and it actually looks like an egg roll on steroids. It's a cheesy, almost cheesecake kind of filling wrapped up egg-roll style in a flour tortilla, then deep fried until the wrap is really crunchy, and then sprinkled with cinnamon sugar! Who can resist anything with cinnamon sugar on it? It was a multi-cultural delight! A Mexican dessert that was kind of like an Italian cannoli but looked like a Chinese egg roll! If you see this baby on the menu, make sure to save room for it because you HAVE to try t! Deelish! Enjoy!