There's a lot of talk in the retail industry about "retail relevance" without a lot of specific definition about what that means. Here's my take on retail relevance... A retailer is "relevant" when its merchandise has value, when what is offers is appropriate to the market that it's being offered to, when the personality of its shopping experience matches the personality of its consumers, and when its marketing messages and methods connect with its customers in the ways they like to connect.
In the 1990's when The Gap and its optimistic American style made a positive impact on the optimistic Americans who wore it, The Gap brand was relevant. The Gap identity and the identity of the person wearing The Gap were one in the same. When the Gap slid down the slippery slope of brand arrogance and expected that consumers would remain loyal to a brand image that lacked brand substance, The Gap brand became irrelevant.
So what is the evidence that the present-day Gap turnaround success is a result of a return to retail relevance rather than just a result of cost-cutting, store-closing short-term efficiency balance sheet manipulation strategies?
Actually, since Murphy took over as CEO in 2007, all those balance sheet manipulating efficiency strategies were tried first. The Gap cut costs, streamlined its supply chain, cut down its design and fulfillment timelines, reduced inventory, closed stores, cut jobs, etc. None of that was bad for The Gap. But in 2011 when customers still weren't buying what The Gap was selling, there was nothing left but to admit that The Gap needed to return to relevance.
Here's some examples of what that return to retail relevance looks like with The Gap today...
A retailer is relevant when its merchandise has value
- Leaders at The Gap promised that it would get back in touch with the "fashion" part of its apparel business and move away from the 1990s by paying attention to emerging trends. To fulfill that promise it got a whole new team of designers who re-designed the Gap identity for those shoppers who derive part of their own identity from wearing The Gap brand.
- Athleta has been winning the competition against lululemon with similar high-quality merchandise at a lower price point and a wider range of sizes.
A retailer is relevant when what is offered is appropriate to the market that it's being offered to.
- Banana Republic has defined its offerings as "versatile, 'gotta have it,' covetable work wear for professional men and women."
- Banana Republic won the designation as the official supplier for of clothes for Oracle Team USA, which aligned it with upscale sailboat racing fans who are passionate and patriotic, generally with a higher disposable income
- Banana Republic also launched a capsule collection from Isaa, one of Duchess Kate Middleton's chosen designers to connect with aspirational Kate Middleton fashion followers.
- Old Navy sold a vintage "Mickey Through The Decades" t-shirt line featuring Disney's iconic Mickey Mouse, which is the perfect partnership between two optimistic American brands.
A retailer is relevant when its marketing messages and methods connect with its customers in the ways they like to connect.
- The Gap is using the ship-from-store system extensively for online Internet and mobile purchases, which allows it to offer a bigger selection to its cyber customers and decreases shipping time and costs - a high priority for website and mobile shoppers.
- The Gap is using its Styld.by website to connect fashion bloggers, self-appointed fashionistas, and fashion stylist wannabes with The Gap brand by giving them a platform to showcase their own talents using a Gap fashion focus.
- The Gap will stage a Tumblr advertising takeover in less than a week on August 29th, to connect with a young, share-happy mobile audience and put its new Back to Blue campaign on the fast track to pop culture cool.
- As part of its Back to Blue campaign, the Gap has also engaged emerging street artists to create individually designed and crafted "Art of Blue" murals in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Rome.
- Old Navy stores forged an alliance with the popular national AIR MILES reward program in Canada so that shoppers can earn points redeemable towards airline tickets when they make purchases at any of Canada's 66 Old Navy stores.
- Old Navy is promoting its back-to-school Fall denim lines via some of the hottest vloggers who are featured in an online video series called "Style Rules," which was shot at the Old Navy store in SoHo, New York.
- The Athleta brand has connected with its target markets by sponsoring sports events like the Iron Girl triathlon in New York and Seattle, the Esprit de She Race in California, and the Esprit de She Cycle Tour in Minnesota.
A retailer is relevant when the personality of its shopping experience matches the personality of its consumers.
I don't think I've shopped in a Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, or Athleta Store since I wrote the Gap-cheap analysis in October, 2011. So I'm not a good one to ask about the current in-store experience in those stores. (If you've shopped in a Gap store recently, click here to share your review of The Gap store experience.)
In general, though, it's impossible to successfully execute a turnaround without the buy-in and active cooperation of the front line in-store employee team. Judging from the high employee approval rating that Glenn Murphy has earned, it's fair to assume that he's successfully engaged his employee team and has restored optimism in the Gap ranks as much as he's restored it to The Gap brand itself.
It's not completely accurate to say that The Gap turnaround has miraculously happened in less than two years. Glenn Murphy was lured away from Shoppers Drug Mart back in 2007 specifically because of his turnaround reputation. So really, it's been a 6-year effort that's just hitting its stride in the past two years.
But it is fair to say that the return to relevance has been less than two years in the making for The Gap. Redefining The Gap's brand identity, recommitting to the needs and desires of The Gap customer, and engaging with customers where and how it suits them best has allowed The Gap to make a rapid ascent in a short period of time.
This has to be nothing but good news for Sears, jcpenney, and RadioShack, the troubled retail chains that also lost the retail relevance plot and have exhausted all their efficiency strategies in the past few years too. If they follow in the turnaround footsteps of The Gap, we'll be hearing about the retail relevance makeover plans of Sears, jcpenney, and RadioShack along with their next big store closings announcement which can't be too far in the future, judging from their recent performance.
When all other managerial and marketing tricks fail, a genuine effort to return to retail relevance is all that's left to try. Now that The Gap has turned the corner on its retail relevance turnaround, Gap executives have got to be wondering why it wasn't their first thought instead of their last.More About Gap Stores:
- Gap Inc. Among the Most Ethical Companies In the World
- The Gap Customer Loyalty eClub
- Customer Reviews of Gap Stores