Urban Outfitters; The Rebel Child
Lets say J. Crew is the soccer mom of a suburban family. Mrs. Crew is always put together; She buttons her oxfords up high and has a perfectly polished hemline gracing the top of her knees. She is married to Jos. A. Banks, the bread winner, who commutes into the city and returns home for dinner every night. The youngest daughter, named GAP, is a spitting image of her mother. She is the goodie two shoes; a straight A student, varsity tennis player, flute enthusiast, Twilight fanatic, and an avid Taylor Swift lover. There is also an older child. All her life she has been the rebel. She started drinking at age fifteen, threw house parties throughout all of high school, dated a punk rock guitar player, and has a nose ring. She enjoys painting and photography, listening to indie records, and thrifting through vintage stores. Tired of being tied down in her small town, she is now headed to NYU to pursue a degree at the Tisch School of Performing arts. Here, she hopes to find her niche in the hipster neighborhoods of Soho and Greenwich Village. Her name is Urban Outfitters.
Channeling our little story, we can see that Urban Outfitters is a company that lives on the edge. They are unique to their industry, and are representative of a strong metropolitan hipster counterculture that emphasizes individualism, rebellion, creativity, self expression, and an indie- edgy lifestyle. A love child of the seventies, Urban Outfitters INC first started as a tiny boutique founded by a young Lehigh graduate named Richard Haynes. Right next to the University of Pennsylvania, this small store offered students and poor hippies vintage and hand made items at bargain prices. In the next few years, Haynes opened up stores in Cambridge and Soho.
What they’re all about
Before we get to the nit and grit of Urban’s latest ethical dilemmas, let’s talk brand image. With the absence of print and advertising, Urban Outfitters relies solely on it’s store, consumer buzz, media attention, and it’s brand to generate business. Therefore the Urban brand and values are the most important drivers of corporate decisions. The company culture, features and design of the store, online website, and employees revolve around an underground urban lifestyle that holds values different from mainstream society. First off, the stores are not directed by corporate guidelines and vision. Each location is unique and representative of the trends popular in the surrounding community and neighborhood. One prime example of this is Urban’s purchase of a store on Broadway and Hudson. Instead of renovating the space, Urban left the pre civil war brick walls, rustic floors, and high ceilings untouched (Lardapide 2007). They worked with what they had to give off a vintage and unique feel. When trying to recreate this image, Urban decided that each space had to be different. They could not force an overall theme, but instead aimed to make each location unique. Despite the fact that they are a chain, Urban tries to convince their customers otherwise. Hayne voices this, “We want to stay small. We do not want to be commercial, which is the biggest enemy of cool. We want our stores to be boutique like, as opposed to chain. What is chain? A chain is somebody coming up with a concept, executing it, and reproducing it exactly, like a formula” (2007). This spontaneity goes hand in hand with the formulation of their anti-materialism and anti-corporate stance. These values line up directly with the hipster target market, who normally would never buy into a capitalist machine.
Going further on this idea, the store’s maintenance and vision also follows a bottom up approach. Designers do not follow guidebooks or corporate instruction. Instead, they often are inspired by their own personal artwork and existing in-store work. You can often find employees painting and creating new things when they are not assisting customers (2007). These employees are also encouraged to take a laissez faire approach by leaving the customer to shop on their own. This allows self creativity and the making of an individual experience. The architectural and design firm, Pompei A.D, en-captured this idea when they proclaimed that they “wanted to give young consumers the transformational experience of freedom to explore who they are, to experiment with different styles, and to feel comfortable as they define themselves” (Comunale 2008). Further, Urban’s in store aura attempts to communicate with the customer through a multi sensory experience, “The store’s graphics, design, visual merchandising, arrangement, lighting, and music all influence and invigorate the consumers’ senses so they are able to have a positive experience” (2008). This captivating atmosphere is what hooks the customer and holds them inside. The brand culture also utilizes the the local music, art, fashion, and photography scenes to personalize each location. More, the layout of each store does not feature aisle by aisle hangers, but instead lays the product on tables and displays that could be found in a house. All in all, Urban can boast of their in store experience because numbers show that they have one of the highest square foot to sales ratio in the industry. Obviously the enticing atmosphere draws in consumers and allows for Urban to spy on them.
She sees you when you’re sleeping, and knows when you’re awake
To spy? What do I mean by this? Imagine the young rebel I described above armed with binoculours. Are you creeped out yet? Well that’s how customers may feel when they hear that Urban Outfitters has been watching them, taking an ethnographic approach to market research. Besides advertising, Urban has also ditched focus groups and customer surveys. Instead, they have applied anthropological methods, “Dick Hayne, the founder of Urban Outfitters, has been so successful at staying on top of whimsical tastes that appeal to the target consumer because he spends $4 million a year on 75 hip young fashion spies who report to SoHo and East Village in New York, Laguna in California, Convent Garden in London, and Le Marais in Paris to see what’s hot and what’s not” (La Franco 1995). While these spies trail the urban neighborhoods that the company caters too, customers are also being watched on the home front. Managers and merchandisers develop customer profiles through the filming and picture taking of consumers in stores in addition to their local communities. This allows the company to make decisions on what to produce and what is popular. Going off of this, a conceptual study, You Are What You Wear, finds that the more time a consumer spends in a store, the more likely they are to make a purchase (Comunale 2008). Through observation, Urban Outfitters is able to see these customer purchases first hand. This allows them to distinguish the dull from the captivating. In a backwards advertising like fashion, instead of throwing product into the consumers face, Urban stands back and allows the customer to come to them.
This brings in the question of privacy. If you knew you were being watched, would you pick up or linger around certain items? Maybe you wouldn’t have spent as long in the panty section, or flipped through the pages of Guys Can Be Cat Ladies Too. There is certainly a difference between buyer intention and curiosity, and this is something that film cannot read. The article, Ignore Your Customer, points out that detached observation and distance can speak louder than feedback (Martin 1995). Is ‘ignoring your customer’ ethical? Moreover, how would you feel if you knew a company had compiled thousands of photos of you and others? Urban’s laissez faire style may not seem so relaxed now. This chilling feeling is reciprocated in Hayne’s statement, “We’re not after people’s statements, we’re after their actions” (1995).
The attention whore dilemma
Okay so ethnographic observation yada yada yada.. What really makes Urban the the bad-ass rebel child? This is where the ethics get tricky. Haynes has tried to use his research to stay ahead of the fashion game, but has recently faced much criticism for selling products with strong racist, anti semitic, and downright offensive undertones. Most recently, there was the Kent State drama. Urban released a seemingly blood spattered ‘vintage’ sweatshirt dawning the the university’s logo. This referred back to the Vietnam War protest in which four students were gunned down by the National Guard. Urban recalled the product, and apologized for their actions. Supposedly, “It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970, and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such” (The Week 2011). This, however, has not been Urban’s only controversial move. In fact, the company has a history of offending different groups of people. In October 2011, a member of the Santee Sioux Nation sued after a Navajo-labeled line was released. This line included “Navajo Hipster Panties” and several other offensive spin offs. The line was soon pulled. Another slap in the face included a shirt that read, “Eat Less”. For obvious reasons, eating disorder groups were outraged. Consumers were also outraged with several other ‘edgier’ items including pill bottle shaped alcohol paraphernalia, pro-booze shirts for underage teenagers, a shirt with words ‘Punk as F**k”, and another shirt with an image of a sexualized underage model (2011). Urban also released anti semitic and provocative shirts that upset many members of the Jewish community. One included a Star of David that looked scarily similar to the one Jews were forced to wear in Nazi germany. Another included of a small Palestinian child armed with a gun over the word “victimized”.
These controversial moves have proved to be too much for some customers. Pinpointing just what is hip is difficult, and the offenses above show that sometimes Urban takes too aggressive of a stance. The company has received criticism far and wide from many different media sources claiming that these moves have set people back, alienated consumers, and instilled a culture of hate (Gottlieb 2014).
On the other hand, this press is exactly what Urban Outfitters wants. We’ve all heard the stories about attention-starved teens lashing out in rebellion against their parents. They want to develop some kind of identity that separates them from the mainstream and allows them to express their angsty phases. Urban Outfitters has this intention as well. Going deeper, it is also important to draw connections with their lack of advertising. Releasing these controversial products could be a business move. Kit Yarrow, a professor at Golden Gate University, gives insight to this fact, “I think they get encouragement to keep doing it because they do get a lot of attention for it… It’s offensive and a little bit tasteless, but shock value just can’t be underrated these days. In some ways it’s a little bit appealing to consumers to connect with a store that’s on the edgier side, and that’s one of the ways the store tells consumers they’re pushing the boundaries and aren’t your parents lame old store” (Time 2014). Here, Urban is employing ‘shock-vertising’ methods that puts an edge on grabbing Millennial attention. Drastic measures like these stand out amongst the many media messages that consumers from other sources. In the end, the questions must be asked; is any publicity good publicity? When will Urban cross the line? Successful quarterly sales prove that these racy moves have not caused financial harm…yet.
Do the ends justify the means?
Is Urban Outfitters an ethical company? Some would say no, justifying their stance with deontological and virtuous points of view. However, if we take Consequentialism into account, we end up with a different answer. To start off this analysis, it is important to realize how encompassing consequentialism really is. It is all about the weight and net balance of good consequences over less favorable results. It does not necessarily take into account the measures to get there, but instead focuses on what has been achieved at the end of the day. In describing Utilitarianism, one of the most profound versions of our theory, The Journal of Medical Ethics points out, “Thus is overall welfare is the supreme moral objective the individual seems to be in permanent jeopardy before the overriding interests of society. The ordinary intuitive deontological moral principles which govern our interpersonal relationships, for each other’s autonomy, for promise keeping, honesty, fairness, and for special relationships, all these seem disposable in the interests of overall welfare” (1984).
This quote highlights one of the major criticisms of Consequentialism. Often times, in seeking the best end result, minorities and groups are alienated at the expense of the ‘overall welfare’.
All of this ties into the concept of ‘partiality’. Conquentialism does not always have to be impartial to every group in society such that everyone benefits (Haines). In Urban’s case, if we consider the negative product press, we see that they are following what is described as ‘friendly consequentialism’, which is when an action is justified through providing the best consequences for that person and their friends. While the company promoted underage drinking and alienated Jewish groups, Native Americans, eating disorder advocates, they were still able to gain their overall net goal of media recognition in the absence of advertising. Going further, Urban was also able to play into the trendy and counter cultural interests of their target market. Therefore, the company and consumers may have actually benefitted from the controversial moves.
Here there is an obvious disconnect. Expectable Consequentialism does not estimate the results, but instead claims that a morally right action is the one whose reasonable expected consequences are the best. Therefore, a company can make a bad moral decision that leads to a good consequence, and can still be held at a high ethical standard. Urban Outfitters can say and do whatever they want if their all end goals of profit maximization and brand recognition are attained. From this view, the ‘means’ are always justified by the ‘ends’
Going further, Consequentialism does not ever define a good outcome from a bad outcome. Instead, the perspective is subjective, left up to the decision of the doer. The ‘happiness’ of the company is the all end goal. Therefore, while minority groups may have been outraged by Urban’s racy moves, this negative media attention was probably the outcome the company was searching for. Although the actions taken were not necessarily moral and led to bad press, Urban was able to gain brand recognition and awareness among the millennial generation. Moreover, another clear ‘good’ outcome is an understanding of consumer interests. Through filming and potentially alienating consumer privacy rights, Urban Outfitters is able to gain a greater take on what their target market is truly after. This concept is illustrated in the scholarly journal, Ignore Your Customer, “But if a company truly understands its customer’s needs, it can in good conscience disregard what they claim to want. This will save you lots of time, not to mention aggravation and some potentially embarrassing moves. Ignore your customers. They’ll thank you for it in the end” (Martin 1995).
Let’s go back to our little story, Urban Outfitters the rebel child may have never followed her parent’s rules, but she grew up to be one of NYU’s most valuable alumni. She now has a single on iTunes Top Ten, and owns the counter cultural persona that draws in large audiences and media coverage. Her angsty and trendy background allowed her to grow into her own. Her creepy binocular fetish inspired her to write songs about private feelings and emotions that are unseen to the public eye. Even more, our little hipster makes bank. Her family is now filthy rich, and her parent’s have forgiven her troubled childhood. Without it, she may not be the famous money machine that she is today.
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