What went wrong at Gap and how will it fare online-only?

The retailer will cease to have a physical presence on the high street by the end of September.

Gap: entered UK high street in 1987 but will leave in September (Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Stringer/Getty Images)
Gap: entered UK high street in 1987 but will leave in September (Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Stringer/Getty Images)

Once the darling of the high street, Gap has confirmed today (1 July) that it will become an online only retailer – meaning its 81 stores in the UK and Ireland will close.

In the UK since 1987, Gap’s preppy style and distinctive branding made it a hit with consumers throughout the 1990s. But in recent years, the rise of ecommerce plus the growth of competitors such as Primark and Zara have placed it on the wrong side of what Gap terms “market dynamics”.

The store closures, which will take place from the end of August and through September, puts thousands of jobs at risk.

So what went wrong and how might it fare as an online-only brand?

Simon Gregory

Joint chief strategy officer, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"Gap will find its business groove."

I've always loved Gap's basic T-shirts, which I first discovered many years ago while killing time at The Oracle shopping centre in Reading. 

And though I'm confident Gap will find its business groove as an online-only player, removing overheads in this way feels like it's removing its fashion brand status. As the Gap signs are taken down from high streets, so are the opportunities to pop in to see what's new, to be surprised, to feel the materials and to hook in a serendipitous new shopper like myself. 

The silver lining for ad agencies will be an increased reliance on marketing to replace this lost impact of physical presence (see Boohoo, Asos, et al). Without this, I fear Gap will become little more than a practical utility brand. Though I know at least one person that needs another pack of basic T-shirts…

Sarah Bauman 

Managing director, VaynerMedia UK

"It leaves another big hole physically and emotionally in the high street." 

What went wrong with Gap? Relevance. It lost relevance a long time ago and it’s heart-rending when you consider what it once was. Gap was culturally on point for decades, because it knew what its customers wanted and, as a fashion brand, how it helped shape their identity.

But it stopped listening and understanding what its customers cared about and why they loved Gap. And then it just seemed like it stopped trying. It gave up, rather than figuring out how it could be relevant to new generations. It leaves another big hole physically and emotionally in the high street – but it’s going to have to do something radical to keep its ecommerce business from going the same way.

Neil Henderson

Chief executive, St Luke’s

"It never made the transition to the new, fast-turnover, low-cost fashion."

Gap allowed itself to be outmanoeuvred on price and fast fashion by the likes of Zara, Mango, Uniqlo, H&M and Primark.

When it first opened its doors in the UK in the late 1980s, Gap was a real game-changer. Its advertising was trailblazing, showing people in chinos and leather. But it never made the transition to the new, fast-turnover, low-cost fashion, pioneered by the likes of Zara owner Inditex, and was always a bit more pricey and less stylish than the chains that took off in the 1990s. 

In the early 2000s, it either had to go upmarket, like Levi’s, or battle it out on price and throwaway styles with the rest of the high street. It got stuck in the middle and paid the price. 

Richard Exon

Founder, Joint

"It’s critical that Gap recognises that the transition to a different distribution model won’t be sufficient in itself."

Gap is the latest retailer to learn the harsh lesson that no amount of high-street presence will make up for a lack of strategy and vision. 

Well before Covid arrived, consumers were punishing high-street giants that failed to move with the times. 

Fast-growing players, such as Amazon Fashion, Asos and Farfetch, answer the needs of an increasingly discerning shopper who wants range, value and quality all delivered in a seamless experience.

Each of these businesses are also incredibly clear about their brands and their propositions.

So in the UK it’s critical that Gap recognises that the transition to a different distribution model won’t be sufficient in itself. It also needs to completely reboot everything we think and feel about Gap if it is to compete properly.  

Matt Rhodes

Head of brand engagement, Engine Creative

"Gap needs to innovate in its brand-building activity to avoid the potential race to the bottom on price."

Exiting the high street presents a choice and an opportunity for a brand. With no physical presence, how does it continue maintaining and building brand awareness and understanding to command a price premium on its products?

The online-only fashion retailers have made the most use of influencers and partnerships alongside significant spend on more traditional media to build their brand. Gap needs to do the same, to innovate in its brand-building activity to avoid the potential race to the bottom on price, that would come from relying on search and performance.

Marissa Jennings

Managing director, Who Wot Why

"Shortcomings were amplified by Covid’s suppression of physical shopping experiences."

Last June, when Gap announced its collaboration with Kanye West’s Yeezy brand to develop apparel, it felt like a symbolic final throw of the dice for a global high-street staple that had, for some time, felt woefully out of touch.

The hype surrounding the first Round Jacket release coincides with the sad closure of Gap’s 81 stores in the UK.

Analyst’s flag: poor variety, high-pricing and sluggish reaction to dynamic online players but, inevitably, these shortcomings were amplified by Covid’s suppression of physical shopping experiences.

As Gap moves online-only in the UK, the brand, famous for its hoodies and shambolic logo change U-turn, will be praying that the dice lands on a six.

Andrew Barraclough 

Vice president of design, GSK

"Its stores had become as lacklustre as its clothes."

When Ryan Gosling urged Steve Carell to "be better than the Gap" in Crazy, Stupid, Love it epitomised its position as the safe but dull store beloved of the middle-aged man. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

While Gap survived that brand humiliation – there is nothing wrong with being a reliable option for a significant demographic – it could not survive the wider changes on the UK high street. Its stores had become as lacklustre as its clothes and as we’ve seen with Debenhams, no brand, no matter how well established, can now survive without more love and attention paid to the physical environment.

Some have contrasted its fortunes with Primark but look to Uniqlo for a more comparable retailer. Uniqlo is still having a tough time but its stores have been updated – use its automatic checkouts for a taste of modern retailing – and its designs tip it the right side of safe to appeal to more generations.

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