The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No more ‘free panty’ deals, no more Uggs: Big changes are afoot at Victoria’s Secret

A Victoria’s Secret store in San Francisco. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Victoria’s Secret still rules the lingerie business, but there are signs that all is not well in the bra and panties empire.

The mall stalwart has made several changes in recent months: In April, it trimmed 200 corporate jobs and announced a reorganization of the business. It has shut down its catalog apparel business and stopped selling swimwear. Amid the changes, Wall Street has backed away from the retailer’s parent company, L Brands, sending its stock down some 32 percent so far this year.

This week, L Brands executives addressed investors, painting a portrait of exactly what kind of problems it is battling against and how it plans to do better. And, essentially, their troubles come to down to this: Promotions like its ubiquitous “free panty” offer aren’t working anymore, and the chain hasn’t quite nailed its merchandise lineup lately.

Let’s start with the coupons, which seem to show up in women’s mailboxes with the same reliability as the electric bill. For years now, Victoria’s Secret has offered a coupon that, for a limited time, allowed you to pick up a free panty at its stores. The logic is that you’d come in to get the freebie, but once you were there, you’d be enticed to buy a bra or perfume or pajamas.

[Why are sales suffering at so many women’s stores? They made bad clothes.]

Executives had said previously that this free panty parade was coming to an end. During the presentation for investors at the company’s Columbus, Ohio headquarters, they laid out exactly why.

Stuart Burgdoerfer, chief financial officer of L Brands, said the promotion was no longer the magic traffic-and-sales magnet it once was. These days, 40 percent of the customers that redeem the free panty don’t end up buying anything else. And, Burgdoerfer added, the constant drumbeat of deals was cheapening the brand.

“Do they drive volume? Yeah,” Burgdoerfer said. But, he added, “You can sell Mercedes on discounts too, and so you got to be careful about how you’re driving that volume and what it does to the brand over time.”

The rise and fall of the free panty promotion offers yet another a cautionary tale for an industry that has been hooked on promotions since the depths of the recession. Consumers get numb to them, and then the deals stop providing the sales jolt they once did. Tween retailer Justice, for example, touted offers such as “40 percent off, plus an additional 20 percent off” for 400 straight days in 2014 and 2015. It eventually became a two-pronged problem: Promotions ate into the brand’s profitability, and customers weren’t even excited by them.

So Victoria’s Secret is now joining many chains in trying to rethink our years-long merry-go-round of promotions. Some chains are trying to offer discounts less frequently; others are trying to revisit the types of deals they offer, perhaps getting rid of storewide events in favor of category-specific sales. Victoria’s Secret is pivoting to offers on newer items like sports bras and its beauty line, which it is working to revamp. Chief executive Les Wexner said at the event, “we’re not particularly proud of our beauty assortment in the last 12 to 18 months.”

Beauty is not the only part of the merchandise lineup that Victoria’s Secret is rethinking. The retailer has ditched its swimwear business and its clothing business, areas where it wasn’t offering anything particularly distinctive from its competitors.

“Anybody can sell Uggs, right? No disrespect to Uggs, nice product, right?,” Burgdoerfer said. “But why are we selling Uggs? Does that really tie to the Victoria’s Secret brand?”

And then there’s the fact that women right now are not necessarily looking to add more underwire and molded cups to dresser drawers. Bralettes — a soft, often-pullover-style bra — and sports bras have lately been especially popular choices, perhaps an outgrowth of the popular “athleisure” look. That presents a challenge because the style is not what Victoria’s Secret is known for. It’s also an area where Wexner says clothing retailers are better positioned to give Victoria’s Secret a run for its money in making an item that fits and looks good.

[Social media ‘influencers’: A marketing experiment metastasized into a mini-economy]

“With a garment like a bralette, which is made essentially like apparel, it’s easy for somebody who’s in the apparel business to sell them,” Wexner said.

To be sure, Victoria’s Secret still has plenty going for it. For one, according to market research firm Euromonitor, the chain grabbed nearly 32 percent of the bra and panties market last year. The next closest competitor? Fruit of the Loom, with a much smaller 5.5 percent share. And while for the last two months it has seen declines in comparable sales, a measure of sales at stores open more than a year, it had a long streak before that where it was a rare specialty apparel retailer delivering solid growth on this metric. In other words, this is not a brand in a long-term slump, it’s a brand trying to get out of a so far short-term rut.

But Wexner described the company as being at an “inflection point,” and said that in hindsight, he wishes Victoria’s Secret had made these changes two or three years ago. Time will tell whether or not its actions are too late.