Has Old Navy Righted its Ship?

Old Navy Righting its ShipIt’s a classic “When Growth Stalls” scenario: start with a fast-growing and profitable company; add an aggressive new competitor that begins to successfully woo the same customers; watch as the previously flourishing company loses its nerve, its focus, and its consistency, leading to languishing sales and lackluster results.

When Gap, Inc. launched Old Navy in 1993, the spare retail chain sporting affordable merchandise and wacky ads was an immediate hit. Rather than risk losing focus at brand Gap (which was near its zenith atop the retail world), parent company Gap, Inc. used Old Navy as a counterforce to the big discount stores that were trying to ride on Gap’s fashion coattails by ripping off its designs.

Within four years Old Navy sailed past the billion-dollar revenue mark, accounting for nearly half of Gap, Inc.’s top line and some 40 percent of its profits. Offbeat commercials featuring has-been celebrities made the chain the talk of the retail industry, as well of teens and young families that comprised its core market.

Enter H&M, the trendy Swedish retailer, which opened its first U.S. store in 2000 offering discount apparel with a more fashionable edge. Fearing that H&M’s success marked a sea change in the industry, Old Navy shifted its focus from the basics to more trendy, upscale mechandise. It didn’t work. Sales fell by more than a billion dollars between 2006 and 2008, with last year’s same store sales sinking an incredible 17 percent.

It was then that Gap, Inc. decided to do something about it. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “Returning Old Navy to its roots was the central theme of Gap’s remaking of the brand.” The Journal quoted Old Navy’s interim president, Tom Wyatt, as he reflected on the brand’s original recipe: “We got tired of it. The customer never did.”

Eighteen months ago Old Navy recommitted to its original focus and began redesigning more than a thousand stores, hoping to leverage consumers’ renewed frugality in this toughest of tough economies. Year-to-date 2009 revenue is up 1 percent, due largely to a third quarter same store sales increase of a healthy 10 percent (the first rise in five long years). Pardon the pun, but Old Navy seems to have righted its ship.

There’s no guarantee that, having returned to its former course, Old Navy can count on smooth sailing. The retail industry is too dynamic to let any successful company alone. But Old Navy’s experience is one more point of evidence that when even the most successful concept runs into a rough economy, a tough competitor, or some other external threat, destructive internal dynamics can turn it into its own worst enemy.

Steve McKeeSteve McKee is a BusinessWeek.com columnist, marketing consultant, and author of “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What To Do About It.” Learn more about him at www.WhenGrowthStalls.com and at https://twitter.com/whengrowthstall.

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