Who would’ve thunk it? How could Les Wexner, the IQ leader of leaders in the pantheon of retail greats, not have thunk ahead of the curve about the fact that his iconic Victoria’s Secret brand was behind the curve, so to speak? The reason I’m perplexed about the fact that Wexner apparently did not see a new consumer culture emerging with its new view on intimates is because Les Wexner has been ahead of the curve his entire career. In the mid-60s he was not only ahead of the fashion curve, capitalizing on the new wave of women’s sportswear, he also pioneered the branded retail specialty chain model. Launching The Limited (limited to women’s sportswear), he was also ahead of the fast-fashion curve by innovating a rapid-cycle supply chain, distributing new fashion looks to stores in a matter of weeks vs. seasons. He was also ahead of the curve when in the late 90s he declared apparel retailing “mature,” selling The Limited to focus on Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works.
Worse than being behind the curve, the brand is now between the proverbial rock and a hard spot, a metaphor for the incoming new young consumer culture with their different priorities and desires replacing the outgoing older boomer culture, which is downscaling into retirement, spending less on stuff and more on travel, leisure, entertainment, health and well-being. Furthermore, the aging boomers, once the VS sweet spot, are managing “sexy” in ways that are not necessarily consistent with the brand’s core product and marketing positioning. And then there are the millennials who want authenticity and honesty in the products they choose. The photo-shopped, fantasy VS angels are becoming irrelevant in today’s young consumer culture seeking meritocracy. The desire for an over-the-top plunge/push-up approach to everyday bras is been replaced by bralettes and less structured intimates for a more natural look. Which is not to say beauty has been replaced by utilitarianism. It is more natural beauty. The #MeToo movement has also influenced a more authentic attitude around intimate apparel.
So, if the “hard spot” is the aging culture leaving the brand, the “rock” is the younger culture, larger in numbers, but with smaller pocketbooks and a different style mandate. Ironically, both groups are more interested in the style of life than the stuff of life. And what stuff they do want is driving what’s “in” and what’s not. Younger customers are driving the curve, and in the case of intimate apparel, it’s not just to be falsely curvy. These new world consumers view the hyper-sexualized VS styling and marketing, including the models, as out of touch. Another characteristic of these young consumers is that they embrace diversity, including all body types, which is clearly not in the angel’s brand DNA.
According to a YouGov poll, among 18 to 49-year-old women, the brand’s buzz score (whether consumers are hearing positive or negative things about a brand) dropped more than three points over the past six months to 23. In 2016, it was 31 (for context, Amazon was the number-one brand with a buzz score of 36). By another measure, Victoria’s Secret’s customer satisfaction score dropped by 4.5 points over the past six months to 30 (on a 100-point scale) from a high score of 42 in 2016. And the number of women who said they recently shopped at Victoria’s Secret dropped from 28 percent in 2016 to 17 percent. Even the iconic Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show last November had a 30 percent drop in viewership.
While VS still controls a 27 percent share of market, comp store sales declined every month in 2017, and down six percent in the fourth quarter alone. Sales were down between 10 percent and 14 percent toward the beginning of the year and by single-digit numbers toward the end of the year.
Lose a Share Here, Lose a Share There: Les, You Have a Brand Problem
As this new, largest shopping cohort powers full-on creation of their own new world, Les Wexner will realize that today’s new world “speed boats” (as I like to call the new brand upstarts) now circling his “battleship” picking off a share here and there, have suddenly fired enough shots across the bow that his ship will sink. And it will not solely be a “behind the fashion curve” product problem. It will be a brand problem; the whole enchilada of the brand positioning and the many years and billions of dollars that Victoria’s Secret has spent pounding into our brains precisely what the VS brand stands for. Therefore, it doesn’t even matter if they pivot their fashion styling to serve the desires of the new consumer culture. The merchandise, paired with the brand and what it stands for, will not compute.
VS still promotes a disproportionately higher number of its signature bras over the more popular bralettes. A fashionista I am not, but here are some of the speed boat brands that are nipping away at the battleship’s share: ThirdLove; True & Co; American Eagle’s Aerie; Gap’s Love; Lively; Journelle; L’Agent; and Amazon is planning on bringing its successful UK brand, Iris & Lilly to the U.S.
Maturity Does Not Have to Lead to Death
Far be it for me to express my opinion to the brilliant Mr. Wexner, considering all the curves he was ahead of in his career, including his incredibly successful tenure at Victoria’s Secret. He is a serial entrepreneur and historically knew when to get out. As I said, he declared apparel retailing a mature industry, thus shedding the Express and The Limited businesses to focus on VS and Bath and Body Works. He saw it coming.
But now Victoria’s Secret is likely entering maturity. it doesn’t mean the brand has to die. Levi Jeans and the Gap have significantly declined in size over the years, but they continue to slog along.
So, Mr. Wexner, even though you seem to be behind the curve on this one, enjoy a smaller, mature, and hopefully profitable brand that remains appealing to fewer legacy consumers who still love what it stands for.
I’m just saying…