Say It Ain't So, Levi Strauss, Say It Ain't So

I feel a little like the kid who yelled a variation of the above heading in disbelief at baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson after the facts came out about the “Black Sox” who were bribed to throw the 1919 World Series. I’ve been a Levi Strauss fan since I was a little kid growing up in Chicago in the 1960s. I didn’t have an easy way to find and obtain the super-comfy dungarees, so every time my grandmother visited from her and Levi Strauss’s home city of San Francisco, she’d bring me a pair or two of Levi’s 501s (the straight-leg with the button fly).

I’ve been slipping into Levi’s after school, and then work, ever since (which is a good number of years), and am probably a fairly typical member of the Baby Boomer generation that helped elevate Levi Strauss in the post-war boom. But even though the company’s distribution has improved a lot since the 1960s, it was never easy for me to find Levi’s when I wanted them. Every so often I’d stumble upon a store that stocked Levi’s (which never seemed all that conveniently located), only invariably to discover that the size in the style I wanted was out of stock. I’d try the products made by the various competitors that began challenging Levi’s – Gap, Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean. They were okay, but they never felt quite as comfortable as Levi’s.

Opportunity Arrives

When retailers began selling clothing over the Internet three years ago, my first destination was Levi.com. There was no clothing for sale, so I left my email address, and finally, in late 1998 or early 1999, I received the email I was waiting for. I could buy Levi’s online. I immediately clicked the link to the site and ordered three pairs of Levi’s dungarees.

I’m about as far from being a clothes horse as is possible, but when those dungarees arrived in the mail a few days later, soft and carefully folded in red tissue paper, sealed by a “Levi.com” sticker, I was thrilled. A new age was upon me: I now could order Levi’s in the size and style I wanted, whenever I wanted. The price seemed almost irrelevant.

So you can imagine my pain a few weeks back when I read in The Wall Street Journal that Levi Strauss was abandoning the Internet as a distribution outlet. Sales were above predictions, the spokesman was quoted as saying, but selling Levi’s online was much more difficult than the company expected and wasn’t worth the cost.

An Error?

Maybe it was some kind of mistake, I thought. I knew The Wall Street Journal doesn’t make many errors, but maybe Levi Strauss was just considering the change. So when I received an email from shop@levi.com at the end of December with the heading “A Big Sale, A New Way,” I thought my prayers were answered.

Wow! Huge discounts on all kinds of clothing, through Jan. 20, the email announced. So Levi Strauss was still selling online. Maybe the other news was a big mistake – hope, hope. But then I came to the second section of the email: “After January 20, Levi.com will transition all online sales to select retail sites in order to provide the best service to our consumers. Levi.com will still be the ultimate hot spot for hip new styles…”

How’s that for a euphemistic way to say you’re going out of business on the Internet? (The Internet’s first “Going Out of Business Sale”?) They’ll “transition” to stores “to provide the best service”?! Took my breath away.

So I called Levi Strauss. I had to hear the reasoning for myself. What in heaven’s name was going on here? I had given them among the most personal information a man (or woman) can provide: my pant and shirt sizes, my color preferences, my fashion style favorites. They could have asked me for my children’s names, my annual income, a breakdown of my assets. I would have given it all to them, and more. And I can’t think of any other company I can say that about, with perhaps the exception of the organic food store I shop at (see, I’m upscale, too).

Anyway, the senior manager of global communications for Levi Strauss, Jeff Beckman, immediately tried to allay my fears. “You’ll still be able to purchase your Levi’s online, through J.C. Penney’s and Macy’s sites.” In fact, he suggested, the change might ultimately advantage me. “As we bring more online retailers aboard, your choices will only grow.”

But why abandon the Internet as a distribution vehicle, especially if results were ahead of plan? “Our strategy for 2000 is to work more closely with our retailer customers,” Beckman said. “Working closely with our retailers is something we hadn’t done so well in the past.”

Somehow, I couldn’t get my message across to Beckman. I don’t want to buy from J.C. Penney and Macy’s. I want to buy from Levi Strauss. Why? Because I want to have a serious relationship with Levi Strauss. I want them to get to know me and my tastes. I want them to make recommendations to me, include me on market research surveys, alert me to new products, invite me into a jeans-of-the-month club, let me know about special closeouts, introduce me to their travel and mutual fund partners… in other words, find ways for me to buy, buy, buy.

Jilted

The fact is that Levi Strauss seriously let me down, and doubtless many thousands of other customers. How could a major corporation that had me as a lifelong customer throw away the opportunity to get to know me and so many of my Baby Boomer brethren (not to mention Gen Xers, Yers, and those still to come) in so intimate a way?

I’ve been forsaken. Jilted. Left bereft at the altar just as I thought the relationship was attaining a new level of intimacy. Perhaps more significantly, the company’s shareholders have been forsaken. They have lost the value of all that intimate data, never to be collected, tabulated, and used to expand sales in so many new and interesting ways.

Say it ain’t so, Levi Strauss. Say it ain’t so.

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