Preppy tops and banging tunes

'The unique Abercrombie Fitch in-store experience is something that our customer wants'

'The unique Abercrombie Fitch in-store experience is something that our customer wants'

Wed, Feb 6, 2013, 00:00

Abercrombie Fitch is proud of its shopping experience, but are its noise levels too high, asks FRANK MCDONALD

The interior of Abercrombie Fitch’s new outlet on Dublin’s College Green is dark and suffused by loud music. People move around the store looking at the company’s branded goods on high stacks of shelving lit by spotlights.

The noise level in the store is exceptional by Irish standards. And while customers may spend 15 to 20 minutes there, employees must put up with it for the duration of their working hours, to deliver what the company calls its “unique AF in-store experience”.

John Mayberry, an acoustical engineer from California, told the New York Times last July that the impact of loud music “keeps out older people while teenagers venture in with their parents’ credit cards”. In this way, “you can control your audience”, he said.

Brian McKinley of DMX, the “sensory branding company” responsible for AF’s music playlists, told the newspaper that the goal was to create an “aspirational” environment. “Throbbing music and dim lights make youngsters feel as if they are in a club and entices them to stay longer.”

In the Dublin store, windows that face College Green and once offered views of the former Parliament House have been covered by blinds. Architectural details of the protected structure, including Corinthian columns and a coffered dome, are painted grey, which has the effect of making them vanish.

But it’s the noise that’s most noticeable. Tests carried out for The Irish Times by an acoustic engineer on two occasions – most recently last Friday – showed noise levels of 80 to 81 decibels (dB), compared with 72dB in River Island on Grafton Street and 69dB in Brown Thomas.

This may not seem significant, but the scale is logarithmic: every increase of three decibels doubles the sound energy. Thus, a rise of 10 dB represents a 10-fold increase in noise levels, while a rise of 20 decibels is equivalent to a hundred-fold increase.

Thus, the following noise exposures are identical – 80dB for eight hours, 83dB for four hours, 86dB for two hours, 89dB for one hour, and 92dB for 30 minutes. An exposure to 95dB for just 15 minutes is equivalent to a daily noise-exposure level of 80dB.

“In [a] jeweller’s, the level would be just 35 to 40dB – nice and quiet,” our expert says. “In a bar with amplified music or a nightclub, you could have levels of 95 to 100dB, which would be a problem for staff. The crowd roar in Croke Park could be as high as 105dB.”

Stephen Sealey, managing director of Brown Thomas, says music in its store “is designed to create a relaxing and pleasant shopping environment and at no time is intrusive”. When asked about the readings in its store, River Island said: “We don’t disclose publicly the information you’ve enquired about.”

A young manager at AF’s Dublin store said he was aware of statutory regulations covering noise levels in places of work, and the level set for the store was 80dB. But he was “not making a comment for the record” and referred us to AF’s US headquarters.

We emailed AF asking if the company was aware of the 2007 Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Regulations in Ireland, and what steps it had taken to ensure that its employees are not subjected to excessive noise in the store on College Green.

AF’s customer services referred us to its public relations department, which would “review your proposal and, if we decide to participate, they’ll be in touch”. The PR department said: “Thank you for reaching out, we do not have a comment on this story.”

AF’s flagship store on New York’s Fifth Avenue was among 37 premises in the city – bars, restaurants, nightclubs, gyms and shops – investigated by the New York Times for sound levels for a two-page report in the newspaper last July.

Using calibrated sound-measuring equipment, the New York Times report found that AF’s “pulsating music hit 88 decibels, just shy of the limit at which workers are required to wear protection [in the US]”. It also said several employees admitted to having frequent headaches.

A spokesman told the New York Times at the time that the “unique AF in-store experience is something that our customer wants”, adding that the company complies with “all applicable laws” on noise, and it conducts checks to ensure that it would not have a negative impact on staff or customers.

The AF experience Giving shopping a sense of occasion

It’s impossible to emerge from Abercrombie Fitch smelling like you did coming in. Whether you spend four or 40 minutes squinting through dim lighting, dodging zealous sales assistants and feeling the bass from its RB soundtrack, you leave smelling of Fierce, the brand’s signature men’s fragrance.

While the scent may linger, that’s not to say the rest of it doesn’t make an impression. What Abercrombie is trying to do – successfully, if recent Saturday-morning queues are any measure – is inject a sense of occasion into the humdrum process of clothes shopping.

Going into the College Green shop is a process in itself. You stand in line – regardless of how empty it is, Abercrombie operates a strict queuing policy – until granted admission.

Inside, you are encouraged to have a photograph taken with the “shirtless greeter”, a young, attractive, topless man. Then you shop: for preppy jeans, chinos and dresses, on top of which you can layer your preppy fragrance and accessorise with a preppy watch.

Staff members appear to target customers of the opposite sex, in the manner of the cute charity collectors who accost you on your lunch break.

They smile, hold eye contact and say: “Hey – what’s going on?” They all say the same thing, and it’s a smart line; you can’t reply with the curt “I’m fine”.

You have option of ignoring them or getting into an awkward conversation with someone who is paid to be interested.

The Abercrombie experience is kind of like going to a One Direction concert. It may not be your “kind of thing”, but you’ll probably enjoy the beautiful people and the buzz anyway, however grudgingly. And think of it this way; if you dropped in every morning, you’d never have to buy your own perfume.

Rosemary MacCabe, fashion columnist

How noisy is your workplace?

In Ireland, all employers are obliged to safeguard their staff against the effects of excessive noise in the workplace under the 2007 Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Regulations.

“Employers have a legal duty to protect the safety and health of employees from all noise-related risks at work,” according to the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), which says risk assessments are required in cases where noise exceeds certain levels.

The aim should be to eliminate the hazard altogether, control the risk by reducing the volume, physically separate people from the hazard, reduce the number of people exposed and the duration of exposure, and, lastly, provide personal hearing protection.

“Noise-induced hearing loss is usually gradual and painless but, unfortunately, permanent,” says a HSA leaflet. “Once destroyed, the hearing nerve and its sensory nerve cell do not regenerate.”

There is “good evidence” of risk to hearing from prolonged exposure to noise at 85 decibels – which is higher than the levels detected at Abercrombie Fitch in Dublin. “Workers who are regularly exposed to noise levels above 85dB(A) will be at increased risk of damage [from] noise-induced hearing loss and there is a residual risk down to 80 decibels” – the level detected at Abercrombie Fitch in Dublin.

Noise-induced hearing loss “is the most common reported occupational disease in the EU”, is says. It lists examples of typical noise levels. A quiet library is 30dB, conversation is 60dB, a classroom is 70dB, a tractor cab is 80dB, a power drill is 90dB and a nightclub is 100dB.

A spokesman for the HSA said its inspections of exposure to noise in the workplace “would be more focused on the higher-risk industries such as construction [and] manufacturing”. While some venues had also been inspected, no formal enforcement action was taken.

“We carry out inspections . . . and we act on complaints made,” he said. “Where we find issues in relation to exposure to noise, our approach would be to work with employers to gain voluntary compliance.”

Complaints about noise may be made to the HSA at 1890-289389.

Frank McDonald

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