It was only three months ago that Victoria’s Secret signaled it might be time to evolve. It did away with its annual runway show, a spectacle of glitz rendered outdated and out-of-touch by its failure to reflect evolving attitudes about beauty and inclusion.
On Thursday, the lingerie brand’s parent, L Brands, announced that the private-equity firm Sycamore Brands will buy 55% of Victoria’s Secret for about $525 million as the retailer struggles to connect with shoppers who prefer comfort and convenience to lace and underwire.
Ohio-based L Brands will be left with a 45% stake and its Bath & Body Works chain, while Victoria’s Secret becomes a private company. Les Wexner, who founded the company in 1963, will step down as chairman and CEO after the transaction is completed and become chairman emeritus.
Analysts say a confluence of bad news – and poor planning – have landed the lingerie giant where it is now. Here are some of the factors that led to its fall.
- The decline of shopping malls: L Brands has long staked its fortune to the American shopping mall. Its stores – which have included Abercrombie & Fitch, Express and Lane Bryant – read like a who’s who of suburban mall staples.
But that strategy backfired as consumers gravitated to online options. Victoria’s Secret stores – which are overwhelmingly located in shopping centers – suffered as a result; revenue declined 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, the millionaire sex offender who once managed billions of dollars for L Brands’ founder Leslie Wexner. Though 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 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 has called Epstein “very smart with a combination of excellent judgment and unusually high standards,” though the two apparently severed ties in the past decade.
In July, L Brands said it had hired an outside firm to review its relationship with Epstein, though 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 while that formula may have worked at one time, they say, it’s outmoded now.
“Victoria’s Secret has become increasingly detached from the consumer zeitgeist,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of research firm GlobalData Retail. “This has resulted in a steady decline in both customers and sales and the loss of a significant amount of market share.”
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,” Saunders said.
- 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 like 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 like 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.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.