J. Crew is alienating its most important customers -- here's why

J. Crew has recently fallen on hard times, as sales decline and loyal customers flee the brand.

Recently, Eliza Cohen, a J. Crew customer in her late 20s, wrote a letter to the brand, asking it to make changes to its clothing.

After reading the letter, we decided to check a nearby J. Crew store to see if the problems Cohen highlighted were easily visible.

They were.

A walk through a Manhattan J. Crew store shows why the brand is failing to connect with its core customers.

To start out, the prices seem higher than they should be.

How much do you think these sequined pants (The Seaside Pant) are? $US100? $US200? Think again.

More like $US298.

In April, writer Tricia Louvar wrote an open letter to J. Crew creative director and president Jenna Lyons on The Hairpin, prefacing it with “you are pretty dope.” However, all dopeness aside, the clothes J. Crew was selling were unaffordable and not practical, Louvar said.

“If only I, an ordinary mother on a modest income, could afford to wear a $US400 cashmere skirt, silk barely-there blouse and belt to a one-time business-casual event,” she wrote.

Many of J. Crew’s products are above what the core customer base can afford, leading to big markdowns.

This sweater was originally $US399 and marked down to $US199.

There was a time when the brand’s style mirrored Lyons’ quirky personal look, while still appealing to the average (but sartorially-minded) customer. With her trademark thick-rimmed glasses and eclectic spin on traditional wardrobe staples, she became the poster woman for what a J. Crew customer could be.

“At its peak, “J. Crew felt so colourful, so playful, yet still very authentically rooted and kind of preppy,” retail and branding expert Jessica Navas of Erwin Penland told Business Insider in June.

But as Lyons’ own celebrity has ascended, the clothing has become more eclectic.

Some of these items are a bit much for every day basic wear — at least, that’s what consumers think.

The high price only further alienates customers from J. Crew.

“I was a fan of J.Crew for over 20 years,” Louvar later told The New York Post. “But as I look at the catalogues now, I just don’t get it. Back when I was in college, it represented a classic look that was seamless.”

Similarly, in Cohen’s letter, she highlighted how the store’s signature traits were absent from its most recent seasons. In the aughts, the “clothes were notable for “the quality, craftsmanship, and clean lines.”

Take a look at this pink skirt.

While style is subjective, and not every shopper might agree that this pink skirt is gaudy, it’s safe to say that J. Crew was known for its great, simple basics. This skirt is not a great, simple basic.

In 2013, fashion blog The Gloss mocked how outlandish the clothing was.

Moreover, an abundance of clothing on sale might be enticing, but lots of markdowns hurts profits and could damage people’s perception of the brand.

Think about J. Crew’s new, cheaper counterpart, J. Crew Mercantile. This low-priced version of J. Crew’s namesake store is similar to its Factory store. While this could be an attempt to save the brand, it could also devalue the brand as a whole.

“One only has to look as far as brands like Coach or Michael Kors to see the dangerous opiate that off-price distribution can become,” Doug Stephens, founder of the website Retail Prophet, told Business Insider. “The volume outlet malls promise is compelling but the collateral damage to the brand — particularly among loyal full-price customers — is often next to irreparable.”

Cheapening high-quality brands makes luxury brands become the opposite of luxury.

“Coach — a once exclusive brand — became ubiquitous, common, and tarnished, resulting in plummeting sales at both outlet and full-line stores,” Stephens explained.

While putting items on sale is not the same as opening an outlet, it raises the question: Why bother spending more money on full-price items, when there are plenty of items on sale as it stands?

Elizabeth Holmes of The Wall Street Journal noted that “A steady drumbeat of sales, with discounts of as much as 40%, has trained some shoppers to balk at paying full price.”

People have also openly complained about decreasing quality. This shirt displayed in the store appears dowdy and wrinkled. Who would want to purchase a shirt that’s wrinkled before it’s even worn?

Longtime customer Abra Belke, who writes for the Capitol Hill Style blog, says she no longer shops at J. Crew, instead choosing to shop for classic items on eBay.

“My ardent love for J.Crew did not go out in a blaze of glory like the Bon Jovi song commands,” she writes. “Instead, it slowly suffocated due to rapidly decreasing quality, prices adjusted to be discount-solvent, odd brand collaborations, and the overindulgence of Jenna Lyons’ cult of personality.”

Separately, J. Crew’s sales have been on the decline. The 2014 fiscal year, the company suffered a net loss of $US657.8 million. In June, the company showed its struggle when it laid off 10% of its corporate staff.

“We’ve made some missteps over the last year and we are working hard to course correct,” CEO Mickey Drexler said an earnings conference call this year.

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