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Shopwatch: American Eagle, Times Square, New York

The US young fashion chain’s newly opened flagship marries a jaw-dropping exterior with a stunning interior

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. This much-quoted phrase refers, of course, to New York, a city in which it is notoriously difficult to make a mark. Competition is fierce and almost everybody you are likely to encounter is hoping for an angle that will make them money and leave you with less than you started with. And nowhere is this more so than in Times Square, in the heart of Manhattan. Even on a bright winter’s day, this not very square square has enough neon and moving displays to dazzle and it attracts tourists in their millions.

If you’re a retailer, this means you’re going to have to compete with the likes of Toys R Us, which has a full-size ferris wheel inside its store and a lot of visual noise outside, and M&M’s flagship, which features giant-size embodiments of the brightly coloured sweets.

Setting up shop is a tall order then and one that many retailers would take a look at and decide it is probably not worth the effort. Yet in November, young fashion retailer American Eagle Outfitters took the plunge and opened a store that goes a long way towards eclipsing everything else in this glitziest of New York locations. The Pittsburgh-based retailer has, in fact, managed to create an event as much as a store and this flagship does what a flagship is meant to do - its sets the standard by which people will judge the brand and everything it stands for.

Outside the 25,000 sq ft store, in exceptional cold, crowds of people were moving to the square’s pedestrianised centre to get a picture of the shop and to marvel at the 25-storey high LED screens that change constantly and which feature the “15 Seconds of Fame”, of which more later.

Key looks and merchandise mix

American Eagle sets out its stall for 15 to 25-year-old “girls and guys” and does so in the company of casual lifestyle brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister, both of which have substantial representation in New York. Practically, this means hoodies, T-shirts, checked shirts and a very large denim department, with a range of associated accessories. As with similar young fashion retailers, it’s the denim offer that provides the real clue about American Eagle’s price positioning and fashion credentials. And if you’re shopping, prices are surprisingly low with a broad width of ranging.

In the men’s offer, for example, the most basic jean, an indigo wash straight jean, can be bought for $29.50 (£18), although the bulk of the styles are priced at $39.50 (£24). If you’re in the mood for splashing out, the top-priced pair of men’s jeans is a “dark industrial wash” which will still only cost $69.50 (£43). This is hardly the designer end of the denim market, and means that American Eagle is about everyday purchases, rather than occasion treating.

The checked shirt, that other staple of this form of retailing, is also similarly fun-priced, with all of the women’s styles changing hands for a shade under $40 (£24.50). On the top floor, the store is also home to Aerie, the company’s “dormwear” fitness and lingerie brand.

Score 9/10

Visual merchandising

All of the usual visual merchandising tricks are played and they are pretty well-rehearsed. For the shirts, displayed hanging and in internally illuminated mini wardrobes around the perimeter of the ground floor, the sleeves have been rolled up, giving that rough-and-ready look so beloved of wannabe pioneer metropolitans. There’s actually not much that’s novel about the merchandising of this store, although it is very slick. The jeans shop, for example, does what every jeans retailer everywhere does, stacking folded jeans in open-fronted boxes that run up to the ceiling and which have style, fit and price details on the bottom of the display.

Much of the stock is displayed on tables, rather than hung, and the high levels of ambient light mean that finding your way to what you want to look at is simple. This is a sharp contrast to the Abercrombie & Fitch modus operandi where the interior is so dark that you almost stumble upon the merchandise.

Score 6/10

Service

This is the US, so you’d expect to be asked the question “How are you today?” several times before you make it to what you’re looking for. American Eagle doesn’t disappoint in this, but pleasingly, if you do have a non-standard question, such as “Where can I find the industrial-wash jean”, not only will they know what you’re talking about, but they will be able to guide you to the relevant area. Now add to this the ability to head into the basement, having made a purchase, to get your photo taken, which will then be projected onto the massive LED screen on the store’s exterior, and you have a service level that is perfectly in tune with the brand. The photo-op is the “15 Seconds of Fame” referred to earlier.

Score 8/10

Store appeal

American Eagle shouts at its customers across Times Square. The 25-storey screen, with ever-changing content and colour, ensures this is the one store that cannot be missed and sets a new standard for showing-off in the area.

Materials used in store include wood, brushed metal and polished concrete and a statement dark metal staircase with glass nodules embedded in each of the steps, to provide additional grip. The ceilings on each of the four floors, men’s in the basement, women’s on ground and first, and Aerie on the top floor, are high and in a reflection of the store exterior there is a 13ft-high video wall.

The main point about the store however is the exterior, and it’s here that the greatest care and largest amount of money has been lavished. It works, and this would be a show-stopping piece of store architecture in any location.

Score 8/10

Would I buy?

I did, albeit not for myself. The strategy of pulling punters into the shop through the deployment of a show-pony exterior works, because once inside it quickly becomes apparent that the pricing is very reasonable and the width of offer is effective. Conversion rates looked to be high and there were queues at the cash desks - not bad for a Monday in January. You can’t help but ask how this brand would fare were it to follow Hollister et al across the Atlantic?

Score 8/10

Verdict

A store that stops shoppers in their tracks in possibly the most high-profile location in a high-profile city. American Eagle has pulled out all the stops and come up with a flagship that raises its image and which is also a highly effective selling vehicle.

39/50

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