Seeing 'Red,' then buying it: Shoppers willing to do good

The Baltimore Sun

At the Gap store in the Gallery at Harborplace this week, Melissa Hall shopped red.

The 21-year-old Federal Hill waitress bought a stylish, red T-shirt that Oprah Winfrey wore on her talk show and that Hall spotted while flipping through Allure magazine.

By plunking down $28 for the shirt - which says "INSPI(RED)" on the front - Hall accomplished a number of things.

She effectively gave money to help fight AIDS in Africa.

She became a part of a growing group of consumers and celebrities concerned with issues affecting Africa.

And she - like others who have shopped for these tees at the Gap recently - are helping to boost the bottom line of a company that in recent years has seen its image and its sales tumble.

"This shirt, it is definitely flying off the shelves," says Jennifer Mach, store manager at the Harborplace Gap. "As we get them in, they are going right back out."

Hall's spur-of-the-moment shopping spree is exactly what those behind the "(PRODUCT) Red" initiative, and its partners such as the Gap, had hoped would happen when they launched the campaign this month.

Rock legend Bono, of U2 fame, and Kennedy clansman Bobby Shriver - chairman of DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade Africa) - started the brand to create awareness in the private sector about the devastation AIDS has caused in Africa.

Sixty percent of the 40 million people in the world infected with HIV/AIDS live in Africa, the groups says. And an estimated 13 million children in Africa have been orphaned because of deaths related to the disease.

Companies such as Apple, Converse, Gap and Motorola have joined the red rush, selling special-edition products and donating a portion of their profits to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has raised more than $5.2 billion for more than 363 programs in 131 countries since 2002.

"Red is the color of emergency, and AIDS in Africa is an emergency," says Tamsin Smith, president of (RED).

There's red Motorola Razr phones and sleek, red iPod nanos. Chuck Taylors that buyers can design themselves in African mudcloth or with red piping. Red watches, wallets and sunglasses from Emporio Armani. And, of course, the near-famous Gap T-shirt.

Winfrey's enthusiastic backing of the (RED) campaign on her Oct. 13 show, which featured Bono, Penelope Cruz and Christy Turlington, among others, undoubtedly has helped.

But Hall hadn't seen Winfrey's show and still wanted the INSPI(RED) T-shirt she'd read so much about in magazines.

"I think it's awesome that different companies are putting themselves out there to sponsor something like this," says Hall, shopping in sneakers and jeans, with a Louis Vuitton handbag and Chanel-logo earrings. "And I think [the T-shirt is] a good style. Red is such a bold color and it's a very rugged look, which I like. Even if it is overpriced in some ways, it's really not that much money. So it's something I can do to help."

That's the goal, says Smith, of (RED): to make consumers into charitable givers by providing them with products they'd want to buy anyway.

"The idea is you can be a good-looking Samaritan," Smith says. "You don't have to wear a hair shirt to help save the world. You can wear beautiful, iconic products - cutting-edge phones, funky sneakers - and still save the world."

For the Gap, the buzz-building campaign couldn't have come at a better time. Sales at Gap stores have consistently been down for several years.

"It's almost like they were running out of ideas," says Mark Millman, president of Millman Search Group, a national retail and consulting firm in Owings Mills. "I think anything the Gap can do to get some additional recognition, bring some customers into their doors, at this point will be certainly helpful."

Attempting to revive sluggish sales wasn't the goal behind Gap's participation in the (RED) partnership, says Gap spokeswoman Erica Archambault. But it's a pleasant offshoot.

"It's definitely positioning us in a much stronger place than we were," she says. "We're definitely feeling like Gap is back."

Hall hadn't abandoned the Gap. She still shops there occasionally for basic tees and jeans. But the (RED) campaign specifically lured her into the store after work one day last week -which is exactly what Gap officials want to see happen.

"When companies pick things up like this, and it's like, fashion," says Hall, "people want to be a part of it because it's really cool."

Gap is donating 50 percent of the profits from the sales of Gap (PRODUCT) Red items to the Global Fund.

"This is the first time in a long time that a whole collection has had such amazing response," says Archambault.

Gap ads with Jennifer Garner, Don Cheadle, Steven Spielberg and Chris Rock have been in just about every major magazine.

"This is the first time Steven Spielberg has ever been in an ad," Smith says.

Some of the ads show the popular $28 "word tees," such as DESI(RED) and INSPI(RED), made in Lesotho, out of 100 percent African cotton. Others show jackets, tanks or $150 jeans with red threads.

"There is a little bit of a higher price point on these items," says Archambault, adding that Gap T-shirts usually average $15 to $20, and the highest price for jeans is about $98. "What that has enabled us to do is to make a little bit more elevated fashion product and to give a little bit more back to the Global Fund as well."

Retail analyst Millman says teens and young adults with disposable income - the Gap's core customers - will pay a little extra for the opportunity to be a part of a Winfrey-and-Bono blessed trend and help others at the same time.

"This certainly can't hurt the Gap. It's a good cause; it can only help," he says.

The Gap hopes so.

"It's really incredible to be involved in an initiative like this where we're truly impacting lives," says Archambault. "And when we look at the numbers of items that we're selling and the amount of money we're going to be able to contribute as a result of it, it's just phenomenal."

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