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Fast fashion retail eating into American prep’s sales

You won't find any clothes with Abercrombie & Fitch or American Eagle logos in Morgan Klein or Stephanie Friedman's closet anymore.

The twentysomethings prefer the fast fashion route these days—looking for trendy, less expensive clothes at retailers such as Bebe, H&M, and Forever 21.

"I feel Abercrombie is more preppy, and that's not what I wear anymore," said Klein, who worked at Abercrombie in her teens.

Friedman holds a similar view.

Sale sign in window of Abercrombie & Fitch store
Stephanie Landsman | CNBC
Sale sign in window of Abercrombie & Fitch store

"Everything says Abercrombie all over it, and I don't really like it," said Friedman. "If the logos weren't all over a lot of things, I would probably give it a try again. I think some of the fits are nice and the materials."

Wall Street is taking notice of teenagers and young adults shying away from brands that used to be a wardrobe staple. The so-called big "A" retailers, Abercrombie, Aéropostale and American Eagle, are slipping out of favor. These stocks are all down by double-digit percentages in the past six months, while the S&P 500 has risen 11.5 percent.

(Read more: Retailers' biggest problem right now? The sale bin )

"All you have to do is spend five minutes at an Abercrombie & Fitch and then walk across to an H&M. One striking difference is that Abercrombie is still selling clothes from 1995, but tailored," said Brian Sozzi, CEO and chief market strategist at Belus Capital Advisors. "H&M has a broader mix of very fashionable apparel at an unbeatable price."

H&M, which is part of a growing number of fast-fashion retailers, is adept at getting trends from the catwalk to the sales floor quickly, and at much cheaper prices. It's a practice traditional chain stores find challenging to adopt, as they place their orders much earlier than fast-fashion stores. For example, many traditional retailers place their holiday orders in April and May, while fast-fashion retailers' model allows them to order closer to the season.

(Read more: Anatomy of a markdown: What you are really paying)

"The shorter product lead time, basically from design to seeing it on the sales floor, entices the teen each time they are in the mall and online," Sozzi wrote in a research note on why traditional teen retailers are losing a war. "Kids nowadays don't want to be boxed into one look like a robot, they want to mix, match and standout."

Just this month, Jefferies cut the ratings of Abercrombie and Aéropostale to "hold" from "buy," saying the retailers are grappling to remain relevant with their core teen shoppers.

This week, Abercrombie and American Eagle reported sales at stores open at least 12 months continued to decline. Aéropostale is expected to report earnings in March.

The traditional teen retailers have lost their sway, according to Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail—a consulting firm advising retailers and manufacturers around the world.

In fast fashion, Liebmann said, there's an "everyone is invited mentality"—a theme that hasn't been embraced by the old so-called "it" crowd of teen retail, which has long embraced logo wear.

"The teen market is looking for variety, value and they are very conscious of what they and their parents have to spend," said Liebmann. "They are feeling less inclined to being dictated to by some of the brands that have a very specific aesthetic."

(Read more: It's not as gloomy as you think for retail )

And, unlike Hollister, Abercrombie and even Target, fast-fashion retailers have figured out how to vary apparel and accessories quickly.

"Zara and H&M changed the whole world," said Bryan Gildenberg, chief knowledge officer at Kantar Retail, an advisory firm. He cites the pace at which they move and the cheap prices of their merchandise for their success.

Abercrombie is one of the biggest victims. It announced a restructuring plan that included closing all 28 of its Gilly Hicks intimate apparel stores late last year, after reporting a sharp drop in third-quarter sales. Estimates for the holiday season called for a double-digit decline, but the comparable-store sales for the nine weeks ended Jan. 4 fell 6 percent.

While the results came in better than expected, and prompted Abercrombie to raise its forecast, the results remain significantly below peak levels. The midpoint of management's earnings-per-share forecast for the fiscal year is 70 percent below its peak earnings per share of $5.45 in fiscal 2007.

"We recognize that our businesses have been and will continue to be disrupted by both fast fashion, H&M, Forever 21, and pure play eCom competitors like ShopBop and Asos," Leslee Herro, Abercrombie's executive vice president of merchandise planning and allocation, said during the retailer's investor day in November.

But, Herro added, Abercrombie is adopting strategies about speed and accuracy with these realities in mind.

Stifel analyst Richard Jaffe remains unconvinced. "We believe management remains focused on its 'clearly defined aesthetic' of an aspirational, New England prep-inspired teenager which we believe is no longer relevant today," he said in research note Friday.

Aéropostale and American Eagle declined to comment on this story.

The changing landscape is something Taubman Centers' Chief Operating Officer Bill Taubman addressed recently on CNBC's "Fast Money."

"Three 'A's' as we refer to them, they are all hurt—partly it's because they are logo-based, and we are sort of in an anti-logo moment," said Taubman.

But fashion comes in cycles, and Taubman believes these struggling retailers can make a comeback as long as they rethink their business models.

"I think logo will again come back. ... It never comes back exactly the same, but I think it can come back," Taubman said. "Obviously, they've been challenged but there is still the brand of the three 'A's' that has the most brand equity if you go around and ask the teens."

—By CNBC's Stephanie Landsman. Follow her on Twitter @StephLandsman.

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