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Ultra-deep discounts and a change in returns policy hint at struggles at The Limited

A Limited store is shown in Brooklyn, New York. (JB Reed/ Bloomberg News)

With the holiday shopping rush in its final throes, it looks like at least one clothing chain is not having a very merry Christmas.

On Monday, there was a hint of desperation in The Limited’s web offerings. A homepage banner declared that all sales were final, and a separate page on the site said that returns and exchanges were no longer being offered as of Dec. 14. The apparel seller was offering discounts that were ultra-steep even by holiday season standards: 80 percent off sweaters and 70 percent off the rest of its goods.

Yet another page on its site said “order processing is greatly delayed at this time. Please allow 10 business days for processing.” It is highly unusual for a retailer to build in that kind of lag time to its e-commerce process, particularly when shoppers are racing to put gifts under the tree in time for Christmas.

The Limited is not a public company, so the details of its financial health are unclear. A phone call to the media relations department at Sun Capital Partners, the private equity firm that owns the retailer, was not immediately returned.

But there have been signs of upheaval at The Limited: The Columbus Dispatch reported earlier in December that the roughly 250 employees at corporate headquarters in New Albany, Ohio, have been notified that the office might be closed and that if it were to be shuttered, there would be layoffs. Last week, that newspaper reported that John Buell, who had been serving as the Limited’s chief executive, left the company to take a senior leadership position at another apparel chain, Altar’d State.

The Limited’s blitz of sharp discounting comes in what has been a punishing retail environment for many big names in mid-priced apparel: Women are choosing to splurge on pricey beauty products and dinners out instead of on sweaters and purses. Fast-fashion outlets such as H&M and Zara have upended the landscape by presenting trendier pieces with lower price tags. And the skinny-jeans-and-boots look is about a decade old now, leading to some industry speculation that women are simply bored by the current fashion aesthetic.

The Limited, which has more than 235 stores, is a mainstay of the American mall that has for decades outfitted millions of workplace warriors in sheath dresses, blazers, trousers. Where Ann Taylor is known for selling classic office wear, and J. Crew made its name on mid-priced classics with a dash of Nantucket prep, The Limited offers something a bit different: It is work attire with just a dash of sexiness, and its price points are a bit more accessible than those of other competitors.

The Limited first opened its doors in 1963 in Columbus, Ohio. Leslie H. “Les” Wexner, the retailer’s founder, gradually groomed his fledgling apparel store into a retailing colossus: The Limited company added the Express clothing chain in 1980 and Bath & Body Works in 1990. It acquired Victoria’s Secret as well as Lane Bryant in 1982, only to sell off the latter 19 years later. Lerner New York and Abercrombie & Fitch were briefly part of the empire, too.

The company Wexner built eventually rebranded as L Brands and the conglomerate later sold off his original concept, The Limited, in 2007. (Express was spun off at the same time.)