The UK is a good case in point. Gap’s sales have been on a steady downward trend and it has failed to make a profit over the last six years. The root of the problem lies in its unimaginative product offer – which it has arguably failed to move on from its 1990s heyday. As a result of this, Gap is permanently discounting, tarnishing the value of the brand and trust in its pricing model. These days, anyone looking for good quality basics will go to Uniqlo, ironically described as ‘Gap for millennials’ by some.
High profile exits in Asia-Pacific
Gap has a mixed record in APAC. Purely judging its financials, Gap is facing a similar downward trend in Asia as it is in Europe. Sales in Asia, which include the discount OId Navy and upmarket Banana Republic, declined by 12 per cent to just over US$1 billion in the year to February 2020.
Part of these declines can be explained by several high profile exits in recent years. In 2014, it launched the Old Navy brand in Mainland China to much fanfare, but quietly closed shop earlier this year. It previously already shuttered the Old Navy business in Japan in 2016, as its low prices were no longer an attraction amid a deflationary fashion market.
In a similar vein, its franchise partner for Singapore, FJ Benjamin, pulled the plug from both the Gap and Banana Republic banners in 2018, while a retreat from Malaysia and Australia followed shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Gap’s Indian partner Arvind Fashion announced earlier in October that it was looking to find a buyer for its Gap stores. This seems unlikely and the Gap brand is therefore expected to disappear from India too.
Kanye collab: Too little, too late?
Gap’s Asian operations have been plagued by many of the same problems as the brand’s other international markets. Despite the company regularly announcing the latest “revitalisation” of the Gap brand, the reality is that not much has changed over the years.
While there was much excitement about the retailer announcing a 10-year collaboration deal with Kanye West’s Yeezy fashion brand from 2021 (some considered it to be a hoax at first), it remains to be seen if it actually gets off the ground and whether it is a case of too little, too late. The latest news is that West has threatened to withhold the Yeezy Gap range from release until he gets a seat on the Gap board.
Japan and Philippines are lone bright spots
It is not all bad news in Asia though and there are some markets where Gap has proven to be remarkably resilient.
Aside from its difficulties with Old Navy, Japan has been a key market, where it has around 170 Gap outlets. The brand is among the top five most trusted fast fashion retailers in the country according to the Japanese Customer Satisfaction Index. Japan is also home to the world’s first Gap store with a café, which opened inside the flagship’s department store this summer.
The Philippines has always had an affinity with North American retail formats. Led by franchisee Specialty Lifestyle Concepts, it has been steadily increasing its presence there since its arrival in 2007. Unusually among its international markets, Gap is active with all three of its fascias in the Philippines and it’s also increasingly taking a digital approach, having signed a partnership with Zalora this summer.
Is it worth maintaining a presence in Asia?
It is striking that many of the Asian markets where Gap has made a retreat in recent years were operated by franchisees. This means that these third parties carried most of the risk for Gap’s uninspired product ranges and were indeed more likely to call it quits if the financials did not stack up.
Gap does not reveal any figures for individual markets, but it does beg the question whether the company’s owned store network in Asia – in Japan, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong – has been making any profits in recent years. Dwindling store numbers and constant discounting in Hong Kong seems to suggest this may not be the case for all of these markets.
Furthermore, if the franchised network continues to decline, will the fashion retailer have enough scale to warrant a presence in Asia? Much of this will hinge on the retailer’s business in Mainland China, where it has around 150 Gap stores. However, consumer trends in this market are also pointing to an increasingly challenging climate for Gap.
International fast fashion brands need to constantly evolve their formats and offer to remain relevant for China’s highly critical consumers – not exactly Gap’s forte – while they are also facing fierce competition from lower-priced domestic brands. Perhaps it will therefore be a matter of time before Gap announces its latest restructuring as it looks to salvage its core North American operations.