There is no question, especially in these harsh economic times, stores such as Forever 21 are pretty popular. The formula is simple: Knock off the hottest and latest fashion trends, move the merchandise into the stores within weeks, jam the stores full of every category a woman could want, create an “environment” that is fairly innocuous, schedule minimum staff to at least clear the fitting rooms, play the music loud and watch the cash roll in.

Sound familiar?

There are many examples of this kind of retail formula all across North America, which is basically a take on the European model of Zara and H & M, but from the looks of it, severely “dumbed down”.

I, for one, can’t stand it. I do, however, envy their margins. While these types of concepts draw the crowds (usually young, ethnically diverse and fashion conscious) what is it really saying about the state of retail merchandising as we have come to know it?

Instead of high concept, we get red and yellow signage shouting at us about the 50-70% off promotions. Instead of friendly and knowledgeable sales help, we get no sales help, clothes strewn all over the floor and toxic attitudes. Instead of unique store design and some branding elements, we get plain vanilla stores juiced up by a chandelier or two, loud music and chrome 4-ways.

Peter Glen would not be impressed. Neither am I. But the customer is king, and they seem to be voting with their pocketbooks as Forever 21 and others like it keep opening stores at an alarmingly fast rate. Some of these players keep gobbling up more and more chains, who, in their previous incarnation, were unique and branded on their own. Now, each banner carries similar (if not the same) merchandise and carries out the same strategy. The stores all start to look the same – the only real difference is the name above the door.

This is depressing and infuriating. Being a merchant, I have always aspired to creativity, concept and branding to ensure the customer doesn’t stray even in tough times. Obviously, the keepers of brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, Old Navy and even Eddie Bauer have done a poor job of keeping their customers happy and streaming back.

I think the difference may be that brands and their stores need to reflect exactly what their customers are going through and empathize with all the stages of their customers’ lives and they have not done a good enough job in this regard. If that means that Abercrombie, for instance, has to pare back a bit on their bells and whistles they engineer into their cargo shorts and come up with plainer ones so that their prices can be adjusted to fit their customers’ state of minds, then they should do that. A brand has to understand its customer and their moods more intricately than ever probably forever now. The brand must become a reflection of their customer. Once it does, the brand will never lose their customer like so many have.

Retail branding is an exercise in life cycles like everything else. Having a “concept” does not absolve you from sticking your head in the sand when real life hits. The customer is too smart and too fussy these days. She will realize when you are being too stubborn and when you are being accommodating and understanding of her needs as they change with the cycles of her life.

Forever 21 and their ilk are not the answer. At least I hope not.