by Emily Birch, Strategy Intern

With change comes opportunity, yet brands are failing to capitalise on potential gain due to poor store experience.

Picture the scene. It’s the 3rd of May 2012, and an army of six-pack bearing models are assembling on one of London’s major shopping streets in a uniform of red shorts with ‘Hollister’ emblazoned down the side. Their mission? Simple. To ooze Hollister’s brand essence by looking pretty whilst cultivating a young, fun and carefree atmosphere to mark the opening of Hollister’s flagship store on Regent Street. Music is blaring, fists are pumping, and the cologne-doused models exude Hollister’s trademark ‘So Cal’ scent (‘a masculine blend of rosemary, frozen pineapple and white suede’ in case you’re wondering). You either want to be a Hollister boy, or date one.

Fast-forward to the 21st of July 2017, and the story couldn’t be more different. Following a store expansion, Hollister invited its customers to Regent Street to ‘see our new redesigned look’, with the first 50 people in through the doors receiving ‘a free drawstring bag or tote with any purchase’. Having bought in to Hollister’s brand and store experience in my early teens, I was keen to see how they had staged this revamp.

It’s no secret that Hollister’s popularity has taken a dive over the past decade, with Piper Jaffray surveys charting its decline from the second most preferred clothing brand of US teens in 2008, to the third ranked brand that they no longer wear in 2013. Evolving millennial consumer trends have signalled the demise of loud logo branding and hyper-sexualised imagery, sidelining Hollister alongside its parent brand Abercrombie & Fitch. Nevertheless, the Hollister brand is still hanging in there due to its clearly defined Californian inspired vibe and target audience, and has been Abercrombie & Fitch’s saving grace in recent financial years.

What then might lie in store for my Regent Street visit? Surely Hollister would be using the opportunity to capitalise on recent millennial trends of seeking experiences and engagement by creating a captivating in-store story. Might there be entertainment for the queue outside? Maybe even a revival of the interactive jukeboxes that used to serenade waiting customers with beats?

The Visit

It’s 9.45 am and the only sign of movement is Hollister’s store flag waving limply in the wind. Confused, I approach the two teenage girls checking out the store window and ask them if they are waiting for the store relaunch too. “Yeah, we’ve come all the way from Kingston for it…”. At 10 am, a sheepish looking assistant peers round the door and lets us know there have been technical issues overnight and that the store wouldn’t be opening for another half hour. I slope off across the road to Zara and accidentally end up spending £30 in the sale. Easily done.

Bored and now a little bit irritated, I finally walk through the doors at 10.45 am. Store assistants are still faffing over mannequins at the entrance and no-one says hello. In the frenzy of technical issues, music has been neglected and I venture onto a bizarrely silent shop floor. After passing through the expected plain pastel t-shirts, crop-tops and mini-skirts, I reach the heart of the women’s floor and remain utterly perplexed as to what could possibly have been changed in this supposed ‘redesigned look’. Ahead lies an entire wall dedicated to denim, framed by tables ladened with Hollister logo hoodies and t-shirts. The space is so crammed that there is hardly any visual stimulus by way of adverts or innovative references to California or the beach.

“I’m here because I heard there was a store redesign… what’s actually changed?” I ask an unsuspecting assistant. “Um, well, the new collection has just come in and there have been some renovations like it’s all been moved around…”. Now decidedly amused, I pull another assistant into conversation and receive an almost identical answer. This time, however, she is able to explain that the launch was to mark the opening of a new ‘Clearance’ area and a ‘Logo Shop’ in the space next-door but it hadn’t been finished in time. Ah.

I grab a pair of ripped jeans and make my way towards the changing rooms, mainly in the hope that it will be less hot and sweaty than navigating through the store. I emerge only hotter and sweatier, and return the item without exchanging a smile, eye-contact, or the offer to look for another size. After a quick sweep of the basement Gilly Hicks zone, I scarper empty handed and bemused.

Opportunity loss

Despite the digital wave, physical store presence remains critical in retail, and brands need to cultivate engaging store experiences to stay ahead. Hollister’s poor performance is not only damaging to their brand, but represents a huge opportunity loss. Back in 2012, the fist pumping semi-naked boys may have been a bit outdated even then, but at least they were part of a strategy to generate excitement around the brand. Instead of hiring store managers, brands such as Hollister must look to ‘experience’ managers that will be able to inject more innovation, energy  and clarity on the ground. If that means more short-shorts, so be it.