Meeting new demands in retail during a pandemic: Abercrombie & Fitch

IBM talks with Eric Johnson of Abercrombie & Fitch Co.

By | 4 minute read | October 1, 2021

Retail apparel performance overview 

In the apparel industry average price growth has been a relatively low -2.9%, but during the pandemic, year-over-year growth dropped to -12%. Yet, Abercrombie & Fitch considerably outperformed in 2020, enjoying a 43% increase in digital net sales. What does it take for retailers to win in these fast-changing and challenging global conditions? And how did Abercrombie & Fitch manage to overperform, while others lagged in the vital shift to digital and ecommerce?  

As a member of the cross-functional team that partnered with Abercrombie & Fitch in their digital transformation effort, I caught up with Eric Johnson, Group Vice President of Digital and Retail Solutions at Abercrombie & Fitch. We explored what it takes for retailers to thrive in uncertain times, looking at insights and key takeaways from Abercrombie & Fitch’s experience. 

Highlights of our talk follow. Watch the replay of the full session, Retail Remix: Personalization, Omnichannel and Platforms” here.

Challenges of scaling CX for global ecommerce 

Before COVID-19 hit, Abercrombie & Fitch had been focused on improving data analytics and gaining a better understanding of their customers across touchpoints. They were already going through a transformation with the goal of delivering more personalized customer experiences – wherever those customers interacted with Abercrombie & Fitch. But the pandemic made it necessary to scale-up and accelerate those efforts.  

 “Prior to the pandemic we had been on a journey to really get closer to our customer [and] a deeper understanding of our customer starts with things like data. What can we learn about our customer? . . . So we had started to lay the foundation . . . these were in place and the momentum was there. What we faced . . . was really just accelerating those efforts,” said Eric. 

Like many retailers, Abercrombie & Fitch was working with various different technologies to manage complex collections of media and assets. They had multiple processes and tools. They wanted to centralize content with powerful tools which content authors and marketing managers could use to flexibly deliver experiences to where customers are.

Describing some of these challenges, Eric noted that, “Assets and media that we had managed in many different ways with different tools and . . . in a disparate environment made it hard to pull together the right sorts of assets. So it was key to start to centralize that and bring it together.”  

Among the challenges in the personalization effort were operations, technology, identifying people with the right skillsets, and the change management process to bring new approaches and tools to life. Add the global scope of the business with languages, currencies and platforms and you have some idea of the complexity it took to scale the new capabilities globally. 

Tools and resources include a strong e-commerce platform  

A big advantage in the personalization effort was that Abercrombie & Fitch already had a strong global commerce platform as a foundation. This was essential in the acceleration and scale-up that became necessary as the pandemic wore on. They added a customer data platform (CDP) to collect and structure real-time data into individual, centralized customer profiles, using insights to match customers preferences with personalized, content-driven experiences. A modernized design system and Adobe Experience Manager helped to get changes rolled-out globally, across mobile, in-store and online. The design system is tightly coupled with the new content and asset management tools, providing the relevant attributes, product information and product data. 

“We knew that our legacy tools weren’t going to meet the needs of our marketing teams and meet the needs of our business. Certainly not able to keep up with where our business was going . . . We stood up the [Adobe] Experience Manager suite and assets, in order to be able to deliver content spots across the sites, and across our apps, and then have an easier way to manage our digital assets,” said Eric, describing parts of the solution.  

Digital commerce transformation results 

It’s clear that Abercrombie & Fitch used their timely preparation for digital business—and their desire to better serve customers—to enviable advantage. Their share of digital sales revenue grew from 33% in 2019 up to 54% over the course of the pandemic.  

“I think the learnings for us are being able to pivot,” said Eric, summarizing the takeaways. “We set off with a road map that was pretty broad and aggressive. Now that we’ve learned and adapted and adjusted, we’re getting even sharper with where we want to take things. So we continue to supercharge [and] we’re super excited about where it goes.”  

With support from IBM, Abercrombie & Fitch migrated more than 3 million assets (2.7TB) from on-premises data storage to Adobe Experience Manager assets. And they reduced content creation cycles from up to 1 month to as little as 10 minutes. Their new digital capabilities appear to leave them well-positioned for whatever comes next. 

Watch the entire session from Adobe Summit 2021.