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April 24, 2008
Short(s) Cuts: What Gap's Failures Teach the World About Business
 

I was watching an old TV show from last year –gosh, my TiVo has so much stored it could have been from two years ago– and found myself gawking at a super-colorful Sarah J Parker dancing and carousing to “I Just Love Being a Girl” in a really horrible ad for “The Gap” and its new line of pink khakis! It occurred to me this company has had more trouble in the last decade and that all businesses need to pay attention to the veteran retailer….so they don’t end up a joke like The Gap has become. Let’s go to the tape:

  1. Consistency is everything. I've got to say Gap was the best place to go for undergarments while I was in my 20’s. Instead of doing laundry on Monday nights my pals all went to the Gap for Ts and shorts; it was all good because we didn’t have to find quarters for the machines. The quasi-fashionable Gap of the prior 10 years is a purely fabricated hybrid of pseudo cool and ridiculously cheap clothing you would buy, then regret. If only Gap and most businesses would return to basics and stay put (Gap slogans are fanciful while the quality is hardly that) we might be loyal. I mean, there’s a Gap near every Starbucks, for Chrissake!

     
  2. Pandering—bad! The way Gap tries to be like every other clothing store is tawdry and transparent. Sometimes pretending to be sister B. Republic during those periods when she’s severely upscale—awful. It’s their way of asking us if they’re doing the right thing and it’s mildly schizophrenic. To be all things to all people has never worked for any one thing; to reiterate, what was wrong with Gap telling US we needed them and displaying why? Consumers appreciate when you are resolute and, like 30 years ago, we would gladly Fall into the Gap if they were forthcoming—and honest—about who they are!

     
  3. Communicating change (and changing only when necessary) is followed by people believing in you. Here’s my story… In Connecticut, where I spend many weekends, I noticed a Gap on the main drag in a town with cash; now, since the awning didn’t say “Baby Gap” or “Womens Gap,” I walked in and noticed something was nowhere: namely, menswear. After a confusing stroll around baby I mumbled to a clerk, "Is something missing?" and she said, "Oh yeah we don’t have men’s any longer since it wasn’t selling." "Well," I said with no joy in my voice, "how come you don’t announce that on the front?" She shrugged. It will be a long time before I make a fool out of myself on purpose.

     
  4. Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean it’s good. I see Gap trying everything under the sun (I swear they had Dockers!) just because it’s “in” somewhere else. In the advertising industry there’s this fabulous acronym, GMOOT or Get Me One of Those, when folks obviously do something because someone else has done it well! To go in a direction that’s not right for you because you HAVE to do it, even though your heart is not invested, has never worked and will be what kills Gap with a stab in the heart(less)!

     
  5. Form over function is not a successful formula for an evolving concern. The stores are trying to be mini-discos–yeah, yeah, there’s national competition from that really cool H&M. But tough. I believe (and that coffee chain has proven this) that what made a venue successful on day one will be what saves it from doom: Be gutsy and go with the basic not-too-shabby look of a place that proffers Just The Essentials, Mr. Gap.

     
  6. Too Much Information (TMI) is wrongheaded. Stores, and businesses of every ilk, forget that mystery is what sucks people in! Why must everyone say everything? Gap has this yucky habit of advertising every charity, every new sock, every fashion “attitude” they put forth. Dull. Let the customers discover the newest concepts for themselves. Stop shouting your changes to the masses! And while I’m at it, every time the financial situation climbs up or falls down Gap screams about it in the media. Quarterly results are fine—legally required—but when you tell the biz press you’ve failed miserably with multitudes of excuses and promises and changes plastered in news, we all see it and think “I’m not going there, dude.”
    Like, uh, keep it in your pants.

     
  7. Going back to what once worked is where businesses run after all the New fails. However, it better come with a “mea culpa” or the clientele will laugh and point. I love it when a business throws their hands up with a We’re Wrong and does something bold in a way that makes us secretly go, Great. That works. That has never happened at Gap. Every single time this company says they are headed in a new direction they loudly blame it on the economy, on “slowing new store sales”. How about we f**ked up. In the post-Lewinsky (post -Martha, post-Enron, post-WorldCom) era, I find it utterly refreshing when a company explains their woes, asks for forgiveness and, like Ford Motor with their hands out, shrieks “What’s it going to take to get you to drive this car off the lot today?”

For Gap, and companies that can learn a lot from this “crew,” all it takes is one deep breath and remembering what made you tremendous to begin with. I know what! They can start a national Don’t Do Laundry Day by Gap! You know I’ll be there.

I’ll use my quarters for the parking.

Laermer is author of “2011: Trendspotting,” just out from McGraw-Hill, which has 77 essays like the above; read more at laermer.com.


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Richard Laermer is CEO of New York's RLM pr, representing, among others, e-Miles, Epic Advertising, Yodlee, Revolution Money, Group Commerce, Smith & Nephew, and HotChalk. He was host of TLC's cult program Taking Care of Business and speaks on trends and marketing for corporate groups. You can read Laermer on The Huffington Post and on the mischievous but all-too-necessary Bad Pitch Blog. For more like this, follow him on @laermer.

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