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Open and Shut Cases


Gap Inc.’s decision to shutter its fledgling, 19-store Forth & Towne division caught many by surprise. The company had recently launched a national advertising campaign and undertaken some direct mailings on behalf of the new concept and appeared, at least to many on the outside, as being committed to it.

But while timing may have been a bit off, the consensus of industry experts is that the closure of Forth & Towne is just the first of many steps the company needs to take to reenergize its struggling $16 billion retail empire. The concept was launched amid great fanfare in summer 2005 as Gap’s attempt to target an older (women age 35 and up) demographic.

But the product was less than stellar, the fit was off and the quality in some instances was not up to par. Analysts gave Forth & Towne a mixed reception. About the only thing everyone agreed upon was the store design, specifically, the innovative center-store fitting-room area. That was a home run. The company is to be commended for giving this area the attention—and space—it deserves. Let’s hope other retailers follow suit.

Gap never broke out financial results for Forth & Towne. In announcing the closing, the chain said that while it was encouraged by its initial performance, “The concept was not demonstrating enough potential to deliver an acceptable long-term return on investment.”

To my mind, the shuttering of Forth & Towne says as much about the state of the overall retail environment at large as it does about the health of one company in particular. More than anything, it illustrates just how hard it is to get new specialty apparel formats established in the competitive U.S. marketplace. The same point was driven home by Gymboree Corp.’s closing of its Janeville (also targeted at baby boomer women) format and Liz Claiborne’s recent announcement that it is closing its Mexx stores here (and rumor has it that American Eagle Outfitters’ Martin + Osa will be next to go).

There is no shortage of new ideas in retail. Unfortunately, neither the industry nor Wall Street is inclined to give them much time to grow, at least not in the current environment. Those that don’t show traction within a relatively short amount of time are destined for the chopping block.

The closing of Forth & Towne (and Janeville for that matter) has also got me thinking that maybe all the talking heads and industry consultants who have been lamenting that baby-boomer women have no good alternatives when it comes to shopping for apparel are wrong. I did an informal survey and found that most of my friends don’t feel neglected when they go to the mall. They feel they have plenty of places to shop.

But while my friends said they didn’t need any more stores, they do think that retailers could do a better job serving them, particularly with regard to fit. Size issues are a major complaint.

“I wish retailers would standardize things so that a size 10 would be a size ten, at least in their own stores,” one pal said. “Is that asking too much?

I don’t think it is. Do you?

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