If Gap is closing 20 percent of its North American stores this year, it shows that times really are tough in the clothing business. I’m sure I speak for more than a few in Gap’s potential market when I say I like Gap’s stuff but I can’t afford it. A decade ago when I was a regular mall shopper I would sometimes buy things from Gap’s sales, or more often from the clearance rack. I remember admiring how well Gap could label a stack of blue jeans and how precisely the jeans were constructed, so that if you wore one of the 45 common sizes you could find jeans that fit you in a minute. It is a moot point for most shoppers, though, if the tag reads $69.95. Obviously there is a place in the mall for high-priced, highly competent basics, but it is a smaller place than it used to be.
I still have one Gap store purchase in my closet, an olive drab sleeveless zip front hoodie from around 2003. All the other Gap items in my wardrobe, though, I purchased at thrift shops. That, I think, is emblematic of the challenge Gap faces. Shoppers, particularly those under 30 years of age, complain that Gap designs are so predictable and so anonymous that you almost have to give up your identity to wear them. In the age of personal branding, people no longer want to look exactly like everyone else. I gain an advantage in that respect when I wear designs that were in the store five or ten years ago. At least these aren’t the designs you would see everywhere you turn this year, or worse, last year.
Thrift shops with their endless variety are stiff competition when everyone is trying to create an individual look, but so is H&M, which seems to pop up in every news article about Gap’s woes. The clothing at H&M might not be so well-made or durable, but it also costs a lot less, and you have the implicit guarantee that it won’t be in the store for longer than a few weeks. With more variety and more turnover on the racks at H&M, you don’t run the risk that you will look just like half of your friends. Instead, the risk is that the item you are looking at is sold out in your size, never to return.
Clothing is more durable all around, and part of the challenge facing clothing stores is that people don’t need to buy so much clothing. With personal branding, people buy even less. Earlier this month I went to some trouble to create a summer office look for myself. This summer you will only see me wearing a narrow range of colors, in solid colors or narrow vertical stripes of white and one other color. It is all somewhat predictable, but that’s one of the objectives of personal branding: you want to make it easy for people to recognize you when they see you. Now that I have worked that out, it will be hard for anyone to sell me clothing for the next three months. For me to buy it, it has to fit my look exactly and cost hardly anything. If many other people are doing the same thing, where is the profit opportunity for a store like Gap?