Can mobile save the Gap?

If social media is killing fashion by making it faster as a recent article suggests, it's only because fashion retailers are letting it. Case in point: Gap.

I've had a lifelong love affair with the Gap that began in elementary school and has been extended to its newest label, Athleta. And while I've long loved Gap brands, today it's more of a love/hate relationship.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, shopping at The Gap (as we called it then) was a pretty big deal. My friends and I would save our money and walk to our local shopping street—Devon Avenue in Chicago—and splurge on new jeans. The Gap sold Levi's then, as well as tank tops and t-shirts festooned with rainbows and sayings that ironically adorn the retro apparel of today.

In the 1980s, my high school and college friends "Fell Into The Gap," as the jingle said. We spent good money there and never felt out of style or a step behind.

Later as a new working reporter, I counted on Gap and Old Navy to fit my starting salary. As my earnings increased and needs changed, I stepped up to Banana Republic and spent a good part of my disposable income there.

Gap and its sister brands were successful because of the buyers, merchants and marketers who created three distinct brands—Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic—for three distinct shoppers. But when the lines began to blur between them, so did Gap's profits and prospects.

The faster and cheaper fashions at Old Navy encroached on Gap. Banana Republic's slightly older and newly professional shopper was entering a different workforce, if she was working at all during the recession.

Gap hurt itself over the years, to be sure. It failed to adjust manufacturing to accommodate today's need for speed and value. And it has failed to reach younger shoppers—the company's purchase of high-end boutique brand Intermix is quite the opposite and more a bid for the luxury shopper than Zara's.

New brand Athleta is well-positioned to take advantage of today's more casual lifestyle shopper, but that brand is built much like its elders and appeals to Gap's older customer base: me.

On a recent vacation to Mexico with a large group of girlfriends to celebrate a milestone birthday, seven of the 12 showed up poolside that first day in Athleta swimwear. Many also packed Athleta cover-ups, dresses, skirts, tanks, hats and shorts. We easily had $1,000 worth of Athleta merchandise by that pool.

My girlfriends and I even had an amateur Athleta photo shoot, sucked up our egos, posted it on Instagram and tagged it Athleta. I wondered if the retailer's social media team would pick up on it—engage us, share the photo. Many brands do and it's one of the best ways mobile is helping to cement loyalty and create customer generated content.

But it didn't. Our effort and collective spending didn't register.

Athleta and Gap has done little to leverage mobile. The app is little more than a microsite with a bar code scanner. It's not even close to a great user experience.

Instead of being young and nimble with lower prices, endless aisle, strong social media and innovative mobile marketing programs, Athleta as an operation looks a lot like Gap's. Prices are higher, merchandise is all private label. The store network is sparse and much of its seasonal inventory is carried only online.

In order to buy that bathing suit for vacation, I had to order multiple items and sizes, try them on at home, return the ones that didn't fit, and place new orders. Each time, I carried the cost of the order until all decisions were made and returns recorded. A lengthy and costly endeavor, and not one most millennials will engage in. They just don't have the bandwidth or credit limit. They do however, have other options.

If Gap doesn't figure it out and use technology to its advantage, it really will fall. -Laura

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