The End of an Era

A few days ago I was greeted by a rather surprising article a friend of mine sent me, J Crew is filing for bankruptcy, the article said. Now the main reason this friend sent me this article is that I once worked for J Crew and did not have a lot of nice things to say about the company. That aside I was always a fan of the brand, nobody made flannel shirts quite like them, they hit you right at the hip with a baggy look on around the waist but a nice tailored look on chest and shoulder.

Having spent about half of my life working in retail and fashion J Crew was always one of my favorite brands. They had a lot of great fitting items you could find a decent price, but for every decently priced v-neck shirt there was an overpriced pair of chinos, thus making the brand not totally accessible to everyone. I could spend $15 on a t-shirt but I did not have $100 to spend on a pair of chinos no matter how cool the colors might be. J Crew held a position among retailers as the place preppy middle-class people shop and as such it looked like the brand would be around forever.

So what happened to J Crew? How could a juggernaut of all-American preppy clothing fall in such hard times? The simple answer is, of course, they took on too much debt and a world pandemic didn’t help; but like with many other things, there is far more to it than meets the eye here.

I fully believe that J. Crew’s inability to adapt to the idea of an omnichannel is what ultimately brought them down. I have talked about the omnichannel for damn nearly a year now but it is just that important. We have come to a point in human history in which, for better or for worse, about half of our lives are spent online, and separating us from it abruptly is a major faux pas. J. Crew and many other brands have not quite gotten the memo yet and are now paying for it.

Before I talk more about it I want to back up, I want you to go on a mini journey with me to show you just how important our online lives are to our real lives.

When you wake up in the morning what is the first thing you do? If you said anything other than look at your phone you lied. The first thing most people do in the morning is to check their social media accounts, these accounts are a connection to a world bigger than them. From the moment they awake most people are already connected to the internet. This means that when they shop they do not want to be abruptly disconnected from the experience online.

So what is a brand to do to prevent this abrupt change in their customer’s experience? Well, you create a seamless transition.

One company I believe has done a marvelous job at creating this experience is Gap Inc. A few years ago Gap went all-in on their omnichannel experience. They invested in new technology for stores including iPods and iPads, they also gave stores the ability to order items directly from online, and while they had had the ability to do so from their POS they could now do it directly on the iPods. The iPods also allowed associates to charge people for clothes right on the spot, so now a brand ambassador could act as a personal shopper for a client, walk the store with them, show them and order stuff from the online store, and charge them right after they were done, lines be damned. The convenience of this cannot be understated.

By comparison, J. Crew associates are still beholden to the POS for transactions and orders. While you are able to order online and pick up your purchase at the store with J. Crew Gap recently introduced BOPIS capability, you can now buy stuff online and pick it up at the store. It is clear that J. Crew’s slow adaptation of a seamless online and in-store experience along with some questionable business decisions has put this once staple of American apparel in a vulnerable position.

We are living in a very turning point of retail, blurring the line between online and in-store is more crucial now than ever. Providing your customers with the ability to freely travel the on and offline world back and forth will do wonders for your sales.

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