Memoir of a Retail Dropout: Forecasting the Fall of Urban Outfitters

Retail as a whole is changing, there’s no denying that. This realigning of consumer values and habits is surprisingly more evident in the realm of big box retailers than it is on your small down main drag, despite what the media would have you believe. I am witnessing this first hand. I currently work at an indie bookstore on a busy street in a small beach town that is thriving. It is a seemingly alternate universe to Urban Outfitters where I worked for many years up until this recent transition.

The world of corporate retail I recently departed from is flailing, and a good deal of household name retailers taking up large mall spaces (not unlike Urban) are finding themselves in a tailspin, grasping at any small branch they can to stabilize their business, which more times than not alienates them further from the target base they were initially so appealing to. I weathered seven years with fast fashion’s Urban Outfitters and I have lived to tell this tale.

Urban Outfitters, the former “cool kid” of fast retail, is a great example of a brand living in the purgatory of modern mainstream trade. I know from experience how the company operates, having worked for them for such a long time. Up until a month ago, I spent four years managing one of their stores in an affluent mall. At the head of the business, I was privy to all flash points in their world, from marketing fumbles and P.R. nightmares to higher management restructuring.

When I began with the company, it was a cool company on the rise, and with its alternative image, it was breath of fresh air in the retail world, helping them to open handfuls of new stores every year. But as the years moved on people lost their fanaticism, the company’s vision had gotten too big, and they got greedy, so when the economy and the market landscape drastically changed, like many other monolithic chains, they had risen too high and the descent began. In several failed attempts at re-branding their business, including recent re-alignments and large-scale terminations of key people (particularly almost the entire visual branch,) the company seems to be desperately trying to hit some sort of solid ground by trying bigger and wilder things.

From my vantage point, the clunky world of the Urban Outfitters corporate home office seemed to be a key problem. As the company expanded, so did the workforce, and with that expansion came more mouths barking conflicting ideas on what should be the new face of the company, making the overall vision of the business blurry. Home Office culture and Store culture polarized, with the in-store foot soldiers getting paid less to do more and the Home Office group trying to change the wheel and re-define retail as a flourish for their own resumes. As time progressed, it became an US vs THEM mentality, with neither side knowing or caring how the other side wanted to conduct the business.

I think the source of this odd cold war came from the company’s strategy of hiring the hippest and most trendy people, which seemed better on paper than in execution. At the store level, they would find creative types and convince them that working for far less than a living wage is acceptable because you can wear what you want and be an individual. To the age group the company targets, this seems like a fair trade, and in perhaps a transitional period where you think retail is a stepping stone, you get pulled into the rip tide of comfort and nonchalance. It felt the same tactic was being employed at the Home Office. This recruiting tool brought in a niche of “progressive” types who dressed the part and lived the lifestyle but often didn’t seem to have the vision for their position in the ways you would traditionally expect, which seems like a fundamental outcome when you are fishing for “vibes” over talent.

If a civilian were to read the employee message board on the back end of the site, it was like reading a bad street zine of pretentious ideals, bizarre music and art referrals, p.c. complaints and ramblings, and bizarrely enough “KIMYE” hero worship. Instead of getting people who were actually alternative and high functioning in the workplace, you got self-absorbed weirdos. The train kept moving and the worlds became more and more polarized, with both sides constantly asking of the other “what the hell are you getting paid to do?”

From the recruiting plan to the overall fake hipster image the company wanted to mine so badly came ideas like creating a non-gendered unisex shop in the front of their men’s department, raising prices and lowering inventory, the countless re-revivals of neon, and a bizarre array of clothes that were so ironic that there was no market for them (like Guy Fierre flame hats and shirts to match.) Instead of serving one lifestyle well, the company began a predatory campaign to grab a slice of every corner of the millennial world they could.

Worlds like streetwear, P.C. tumblr kings and queens, ironic 90’s revivalists, workout addicts, sexy internet models, and moms and dads who want to be young began to have bits and pieces marketed to them. A wide net was cast and although people from different lifestyle groups emerged, they began catching a lot less fish. This scenario has played out across the retail world, especially in lifestyle brands like Pac Sun, Journeys, Hot Topic, and others. To try to offset the damage and make up for dipping sales, they skyrocketed prices. In essence, they made something undesirable even less desirable by making it unaffordable. The idea here was it would make the company seem high end and draw in a new crowd given the fact all the others had disappeared. The wide net idea didn't work, so they essentially began looking for a few big rich fish. In an effort to gain more customers, they alienated the one they already had (and probably a few others they were aiming for,) and frankly, they alienated a good deal of the people who worked for them right alongside.

These blunders repeated themselves over and over until their products appealed to no one in particular except each strange wave of trend followers and impressionable teens, and as a result, despite having low traffic, the traffic they did have didn’t want what they were selling or couldn't afford it.

As mentioned before, in a recent move to cut costs, Urban Inc. decided to cut their entire visual branch, effectively destroying what was once a vital part of their business. Foot traffic is an issue, I’m not denying that, but the real problem came down to the panic it caused and the irrational decision making that followed. Urban Outfitters has become the new Forever 21 or H&M, but it can never match their prices, so unless the company moves in an entirely new direction, the hipster goliath seems to have met its match.

Urban Outfitters CEO discussed his business and wrote off recent declining business to a crisis in what he called “the retail bubble.” He argued too many brands are selling clothes and “This created a bubble, and like housing, that bubble has now burst. We are seeing the results: Doors shuttering and rents retreating. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future and may even accelerate.” Although this is a fair analysis of the current state of business, it doesn’t get Hayne or his company’s poor decision making off the hook. There are a lot of musicians in the world, but I don’t think it’s fair for a band who falls in popularity to argue that there are too many acts to compete with and that’s the problem, not that they couldn’t re-define their sound or find a way to market it better to people who already liked them. Competition is competition, and coming in second has its consequences, regardless of the excuses as to why the winner had some sort of edge.

When most recent re-alignment hit, a lot of us who had been long time employees said fuck it and hit the road. With no visual team, unhappy remaining staffs, and further budget cuts, an already sinking ship’s engines caught on fire. Retail is a survival of the fittest world, and the cult of UO for better or for worse is losing its flock.

I was stuck in the mold for a long time, constantly helping to feed the bloodline. When I started with the company, it seemed to mean something. It was different, low key, and actually alternative. But as the years tumbled on, the amount of work and lack of pay began to feel especially cumbersome when most ( not all ) of the message from the top tier of the company was that no one was doing enough and growth became a pipe dream. You can only being in the middle getting screamed at by customers and the company you work for before enough is enough. I was offered an out and I took it. Working for an indie store is so different and rewarding, it had made me question the very nature of large chains. Convenience is great, but now I know what that convenience costs. Grass is grass, but in this case, it really is greener on the other side.