I’m old enough to remember when the Gap was a store that sold only Levi’s. That was in 1969, when the store was founded and their slogan was “fall into the Gap.” That means I’ve been a Gap customer for almost 50 years. But lately I’ve been finding that, while their prices, have been going up, the quality has been going down, to the point where they may lose a life-long customer.
Now, this would be no great tragedy were it not for the fact that this phenomenon mirrors what’s happening in the economy in general, namely the disappearance of the middle class. While the middle class is disappearing from cities like New York and people are increasingly either very wealthy or very poor, in the retail landscape this is mirrored by the fact that people are increasingly shopping at either Kmart or Bergdorf Goodman.
I have always relied on the Gap for “dress casual” clothes at “dress casual” prices. After all, I work in publishing, not finance. But lately it seems like they’ve abandoned that market altogether.
Like today, for example, I went to buy some polo shirts. No biggie, right? I went to three different branches of the Gap: Astor Place, lower Fifth Avenue and Chelsea. Astor Place had almost no selection whatsoever, lower Fifth Avenue was under construction with, again, almost no selection whatsoever and Chelsea only had a small selection in odd sizes and ugly colors. I bought the only three “smalls” I could find. I asked the cashier why there was such a poor selection and she told me that all the normal sizes and colors had sold out. “When am I supposed to buy polo shirts?” I asked her. “Winter?”
Just out of curiosity, I decided to walk down to the Banana Republic in Chelsea. There I found an almost completely empty store (their customers were undoubtedly in the Hamptons or Fire Island for the weekend) with stacks of merchandise. The only catch is that their polo shirts were twice as expensive as the Gap’s and almost too nice to wear to the office.
Inevitably, in these situations, my ire falls upon the hapless sales clerks, who have one of the worst jobs in our bad economy. I asked one of the sales clerks in the Chelsea store if there was a corporate strategy to phase out the Gap entirely. I pointed out to him that I have been a life-long customer of the Gap and that while their prices have gone up, the quality has gone way down, to the point where I almost can’t find anything I would even consider buying. The only reason I still shop there, I told him, was because I don’t want to deal with the crowds at Macy’s. (And I must really hate crowds when you consider that it now costs $60 for a dress shirt at the Gap compared to $30 for a better quality shirt at Macy’s. And even after I buy that $60 shirt at the Gap, I still have to take it to a tailor because it’s missing a second button on the cuff, making the sleeves too long and too wide unless I wear one of those large chunky watches on each wrist.)
What I did not mention to him was that this is how companies in general do business these days. They take a product that costs pennies to make and then charge a fortune for it, with most of that money going to the corporate executives at the top as opposed to the people who make and sell that product. I didn’t mention how most of that money is spent on advertising to create a well-known international brand as opposed to creating a better product. And I didn’t mention the sweatshops where these products are made so that people like me could still afford to buy them while the corporate bigwigs raked in the insane mark-up.
After I unleashed my tirade on this poor sales clerk, I apologized to him for doing so and went home with my three polo shirts from the Gap, wondering if that would be the last time I ever shopped there. Because, nowadays, when you “fall into the Gap,” you fall into the crap.