Victoria's Secret store in Briarwood Mall, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Many of the brand’s stores in the US are located in a beleaguered mall system.
Photo credit: Dwight Burdette/Creative Commons
Analysts declared ‘game over’ for lingerie brand as L Brands Inc reported an unexpected drop in June sales.
Victoria’s Secret’s angel wings aren’t beating as energetically as they once did, but you wouldn’t know that from the company’s flagship store in New York Herald Square--a superstore of underwear, bras, bralettes, giant screens of smiling winged models and whole floors of pink-coloured products, including a $55 perfume called Eau So Sexy.
What could go wrong selling sexy lingerie to millions of women? A lot, it seems.
Last week, Victoria’s Secret’s Ohio-based parent L Brands reported an unexpected drop in June comparable sales for its lingerie brand, despite a lengthy semi-annual sale and deep price cuts.
Apparel and retail analysts pounced. “It’s game over” for Victoria’s Secret and Pink, Jefferies analyst Randal Konik said in a note. Consumers have moved on to more conventional brands like American Eagles’ Aerie brand, while Victoria’s Secret has seen “massive traffic declines, zero pricing power and market share losses mounting,” Konik continued.
Konik concluded that investors have been ignoring the facts and L Brands stock dropped 11%. It is now down 40% for the year. It suddenly seemed the company secret, masked by growth in the company’s teen-focused Pink line, was no longer well hidden. Victoria’s Secret is still the No 1 US lingerie brand, but its share of the market is slipping.
To make matters worse, many of Victoria’s Secret 1,200 stores in the US and Canada are located in America’s beleaguered mall system , widely seen as on the decline.
Prices too high
“I used to come here for the Pink line but now I go to Macy’s,” confided Yvonne Rayder, 32, from New Jersey, pulling out underwear items in the Herald Square store as she prepared for a hen party she was attending. “Their bras are ridiculously expensive, along with the rest of the lingerie.”
Rayder’s comments conform to industry surveys. A September 2017 consumer study conducted by Wells Fargo found that of 48% of customers who had shopped at Victoria’s Secret in the past year, 58% said prices were too high.
Crucially, the study found, Victoria’s Secret also “may be falling out of favour”, with 68% of respondents saying they like the brand less than they used to. More than half of those said the brand feels “forced” or “fake”. Analysts worried that sports bras and bralettes may be alienating its core customers.
“Brand imagery is now leaning toward more natural looks and relatable beauty,” analysts wrote. “However, given how fundamental the ‘sexy’ image is to the Victoria’s Secret brand, we believe a full-brand pivot to catch up with current trends may be challenging to execute.”
So, does that mean the end of the Victoria’s Secret angel and the yearly TV broadcast show? The company hasn’t said, but, as one New York stylist pointed out (though under the cover of anonymity in the face of a still powerful brand): “How many times can you send a model down the catwalk in angel wings? It’s tired and has been for 10 years.”
Efforts to break into the Chinese lingerie market, already double that of the US and estimated to hit $33bn by 2020, according to Euromonitor, stumbled in November when the company became entangled in Chinese bureaucracy and models including Gigi Hadid and singer Katy Perry were denied visas to attend a major fashion show.
But there’s a larger question about whether #MeToo has accelerated a more generalized reaction to a perspective described as “the male gaze”. “Politics and style might seem like distant cousins, but they’re increasingly intertwined in a highly politicized world,” Ted Marzilli, CEO of data products for YouGov, told Forbes in April.
Elissa Sangster, the director of the Forté Foundation, a group looking to improve the number of women in leadership and executive positions, told the Guardian: “If you’re looking to get more women into leadership and to feel respected in the workplace, to then turn on your television and it’s the Victoria’s Secret show, one wonders: ‘Is that really how we want to present ourselves?’”
In an interview with the Financial Times earlier this year, Les Wexner, 80, who purchased L brands for $1m in 1982 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy, rejected the reading that male objectification of women contributed to Victoria’s Secret’s woes.
“I think that’s just complete nonsense,” he says. If Lululemon is selling skintight yoga pants, “it’s because that’s what women want to buy”.
But is it too soon to count Victoria’s Secret out? The company was the biggest retailer of lingerie in the world from 2006 to 2016. Sales surged from $4.5bn to $7bn. But now, with 200 million young Chinese women to sell to, China is the only game in town.
Last week, shares in the Chinese language lingerie giant Cosmo Girl surged on news that it had a new chief strategic officer--none other than Sharen Jester Turney, the former Victoria’s Secret CEO who led the US brand through its years of growth and glory.