February 26, 2004, 12:00 AM

Abercrombie & Fitch: Replicating stores` lifestyle atmosphere on the web

“Our electronic commerce mission complements the brand message of the chain and delivers the same atmosphere we deliver at the store,” Joe Dittmar, manager of e-commerce for Abercrombie & Fitch, told the eTail 2004 conference this week.

Anyone who has shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch knows just how far this 112-year-old merchant has moved away from its original mission of being “where blazed trail crosses the boulevard,” a reference to the chain’s original preference for merchandise that fit the Teddy Roosevelt brand of rugged individualist.

The focus is still on the outdoors, but the target customer is 18 to 21 and very hip and very trendy. Model-like sales associates match the age of the youthful clientele and are as casually dressed. Televisions in the store play videos of scantily-clad models frolicking at the beach, blowing kisses at the camera, and generally behaving as spring breakers do. Other videos show real sales associates dressing for hiking trips and driving in open Jeeps to them.

Go to the A&F; web site, and you find the same merchandising videos in the lifestyle section. “Our electronic commerce mission complements the brand message (of the chain) and delivers the same atmosphere we deliver at the store,” explained Joe Dittmar, manager of e-commerce for Abercrombie & Fitch, speaking before an audience at the eTail 2004 conference this week in Palm Springs, CA. “We create a branded lifestyle experience in action on our web site. The site is all about having fun, because our target market is 18 to 21.”

A&F;’s use of lifestyle videos on it web site reflects a broader trend in the use of rich media in web merchandising, which in turn reflects the growing use of broadband connections to retail web sites. But A&F; is careful not to rely totally on lifestyle images to sell product on the web. “We look at our site every day and try to figure out how to improve it,” said Dittmar.

He provided several examples of easy-to-use merchandising applications on the web. Its “Changing Room” function, for example, allows shoppers to easily mix and match tops and bottoms to create the desire look. When a shopper selects colors from swatches of apparel, the site removes a swatch if that color is out of stock. The same is true with apparel sizes. The idea is not to create an expectation in the shopping experience that can’t be delivered at check-out. “If the customer sees it on the web and finds she can’t have it (at checkout), it will only let her down,” Dittmar said. And the moment a back-ordered product is put into the shopping cart, the web shopper is informed that it’s on back order. “We want to avoid surprises at check-out,” he said.

The site uses other tools to leverage the fad consciousness of its youthful clientele. Its “e-mail to a friend” feature allows web shoppers to send pictures of “a product that’s cool” to a friend of the shopper who’s just ordered it. Such e-mails, noted Dittmar, result in a remarkable 20% click-through rate.

Said Dittmar, summarizing his web site’s philosophy: “At our site, we stress clean design, fast content, music, style and fun.” Maybe A&F; hasn’t moved that far from Teddy after all.

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