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Calvin Klein’s Approach-Avoidance E-Commerce Challenge

April 5th, 2009

Back to Calvin Klein’s approach-avoidance. They waited more than a decade to get into E-Commerce, even though they wanted that audience. Even when they did launch, they’re hesitant to go mobile and social. And yet, this is the same fearless company that pushed the envelope—many would say blew past that envelope—of good taste in X-rated advertisements, trying to stir up attention among younger consumers. That’s fine, of course, but it hardly fits the profile of a brand that is scared to move into mobile and social in 2009.

The fear isn’t of consumer backlash. It’s of upsetting its channel. Last year’s E-Commerce launch was cautious in the extreme and it seems to have wonderfully navigated those choppy channel waters. But was it too conservative and slow? Could it not have been done six years earlier? Phillips-Van Heusen bought Calvin Klein in February 2003 in a cash and stock deal worth more than $430 million. It’s understandable that many plans would have been shelved in the months before that deal was consummated. But why didn’t the E-Commerce launch happen in 2003? 2005? They waited until the middle of 2008.

The problem with the fear of channel upset (when it comes to retail distributors) is that it shares many attributes with internal channel upset (worrying that online will interfere with in-store sales). Those two extreme fears of sales cannibalization are old-world thinking that tend to freeze a company’s actions until it’s too late or—if they’re lucky–almost too late. Consider what happened with Starbucks and how it’s handicapped their efforts to dig themselves out.

But the ultra-cautious approach-avoidance steps from Calvin Klein seem even more baffling when put into the youth market apparel concept, which requires nothing if not lightning-fast marketing moves. What should be a global apparel giant’s bigger fear: making retailers nervous, pushing them to more aggressively market your gear; or boring your customers, not being where they are and making your brand seem out-of-touch? Think about that the next time you think of New Media as frightening.


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