The decline of shopping malls
L Brands has long staked its fortune on the American shopping mall. The company doubled down on malls in the 1980s and 1990s, just as developers were building hundreds of new indoor shopping centers nationwide. The plan worked, and helped transform brands such as Victoria’s Secret, Express, Abercrombie & Fitch and Lane Bryant into ubiquitous national brands.
But that strategy has backfired as consumers gravitate toward online options. Victoria’s Secret stores — which are overwhelmingly located in shopping centers — suffered as a result; revenue declined in 12 of the past 13 quarters, and the company posted a 12 percent drop in same-store sales during the holidays. Shares of L Brands have plunged more than 50 percent in the past three years.
“L Brands is practically a disaster area,” Jim Cramer, the host of “Mad Money” on CNBC, said last month. “They have a major presence in shopping malls all over the country, especially Victoria’s Secret, so the steady decline of the mall has crushed them.”
It is worth noting, however, that Bath & Body Works — which also is owned by L Brands — has managed to buck the trend with 40 straight quarters of sales growth, which analysts attributed to brightly lit stores, changing inventory and affordable prices.
The Wexner-Epstein connection
The retailer has been tarnished by its ties to Jeffrey Epstein, a millionaire sex offender who once managed billions of dollars for Leslie Wexner, L Brands’ founder. Although the company has sought to distance itself from Epstein, who committed suicide in a jail cell in August, analysts say that association has taken a toll.
“The Jeffrey Epstein thing should be a huge red flag,” Sucharita Kodali, a senior analyst at Forrester, told The Washington Post in October. “It is an extremely disturbing situation that should raise the question of a CEO’s judgment.”
In addition to managing the billionaire’s money, Epstein was a trustee for the Wexner Foundation and two other family trusts, including one named for Wexner’s four children, according to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Epstein’s Manhattan mansion, which authorities have seized, was originally owned by Wexner.
“People have said it’s like we have one brain between two of us: each has a side,” Epstein said of Wexner in a 2003 Vanity Fair profile. Wexner had called Epstein “very smart with a combination of excellent judgment and unusually high standards,” although the two apparently had severed ties in the past decade.
In July, L Brands said it had hired an outside firm to review its relationship with Epstein, although it has not made the results of that investigation public.
Out-of-touch, overly sexual marketing
With bra collections like “Very Sexy,” “Dream Angels” and “Sexy Illusions,” analysts say Victoria’s Secret has built a brand around male desire and sex appeal. And although that formula may have worked at one time, they say, it’s outmoded now.
“There’s been a real shift in how people, especially young women, think about beauty and desire,” said Kalinda Ukanwa, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. “We’re in the age of #MeToo. Ideals are changing, and people want diversity and representation, ethnically and racially, but also in terms of shape and body type. For retailers to not adapt or evolve can be a fatal flaw.”
For nearly two decades, Victoria’s Secret relied on its annual fashion show — a televised spectacle of gemstone-encrusted bras and bedazzled angel wings — to drum up buzz for the brand. But the company canceled the televised affair in November, saying it was time to “evolve the marketing of Victoria’s Secret.”
Analysts say it won’t be easy. To win back its shoppers, Victoria’s Secret will have to show them it’s become a “more authentic, less sexualized” brand “with products that value “comfort, functionality, materials and making consumers feel good about themselves,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of research firm GlobalData Retail.
The rise of ‘athleisure’ and sports bras
Women are buying fewer push-up bras — and more sports bras, creating new problems for a company known for its glamorous and strappy styles. Analysts say women increasingly are wearing undergarments from athletic brands such as Lululemon, Nike and Under Armour, even if they’re not heading to the gym. And although Victoria’s Secret has its own line of sports bras — complete with sheer paneling, plunging necklines and leopard-print patterns — analysts say it hasn’t resonated with shoppers.
“With athleisure taking over, the need for regular bras continues to wane,” Randal Konik, an analyst for Jefferies, wrote in a note to clients Thursday. “VS Sport has never gained any traction.”
Sports bras accounted for one-third of millennials’ bra spending in 2018, according to market research firm NPD Group.
Online rivals that offer comfort and convenience
Bra-shopping is a dreaded chore for many women. But a growing crop of start-ups promises to make the process easier, perhaps even enjoyable, by using online quizzes and measuring tips to help women find the right fit at home. Woman-owned companies such as ThirdLove, True & Co. and Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty line market their products as comfortable and practical and offer a wide range of sizes and skintone-inspired colors.
“Shoppers don’t want fantasy models in push-up bras anymore,” said Tiffany Hogan, an analyst for consulting firm Kantar. “They want authentic beauty and more natural styles, like bralettes."
And, she added, they’re increasingly looking for a personal connection: “Younger shoppers in particular want to feel like they’re buying from a company that believes in the same things they do.”