Marketing

Why L Brands CEO Les Wexner Needs to Spend a Day in London

L Brands Victoria's Secret Fashion Show - RunwayVictoria’s Secret, the $7 billion brand known for its sexy lingerie, scantily dressed models and world-famous intimate apparel runway show, is opening more than a hundred new stores this year in Asia, Europe and other international markets.

Shoppers heading there to buy the latest Dream Angel bra and panty will be disappointed, however, because these stores carry little or no lingerie.

Yes, you read that right. Of the approximately 130 new Victoria’s Secret stores slated to open overseas in 2015, 120 will be Victoria’s Secret Beauty and Accessories (VSBA) stores, carrying fragrance and accessories. The stores are financed and operated by franchise partners who pay L Brands (LB) a royalty based on sales volume. Early this year, several of these stores opened in China, a key future market for the company. Most of them are in airports, and bear the Victoria’s Secret nameplate, just like their fully-assorted older sisters.

For years, VS parent L Brands (formerly called Limited Brands) has been dragging its feet on international expansion, lagging other popular U.S. retailers who’ve ventured into Europe, South America and Asia. By adopting what it calls a “test and learn” approach, it has hoped to avoid the pitfalls encountered by Gap, Abercrombie and other U.S. specialty brands who failed to do sufficient homework on foreign markets before launching there.

Although the dozen or so Victoria’s Secret stores in the Middle East run by Kuwaiti franchisee M. H. Alshaya and the 10 reportedly successful company-owned UK stores do sell a full assortment of lingerie, the vast majority of overseas stores—about 300 VSBA stores located in Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia and China—do not.

How does a brand decide to go into high-potential markets with stores that don’t carry its core product line? What could one possibly hope to learn from a test that doesn’t ask the relevant questions? Opening Victoria’s Secret stores without underwear is tantamount to Nike opening stores without sneakers.

Victoria’s Secret Sauce

Bras have always been at the heart of the Victoria’s Secret product line. They are featured prominently in the brand’s marketing, and are the anchors of each season’s new collection.

“If a fabric doesn’t work for bras, VS is just not going to be that interested in it,” said a fabric supplier to the company, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Bras are the alpha and omega of everything that happens at the company. And they do bras better and more profitably than any other brand in the world.”

A close second to bras are panties, which are such an important part of the merchandise mix that they are often flown in from factories in Asia to ensure optimal inventory mix, and thereby reduce markdowns.

This pecking order dominates new collections as well. In the red-hot Victoria’s Secret Sport line, the top items are, you guessed it, sports bras. And the superior fit, styling and quality of its growing swimwear collection has been greatly helped by the company’s innerwear design and manufacturing expertise.

The strategy of focusing on bras and other lingerie items has proven extremely successful for the company over the years. According to market research firm NPD, the company controls around 40 percent of the intimate apparel business in the U.S., with no competitor even a close second.

The focus on lingerie has also been the secret sauce for the brand’s brilliant marketing, helping it appeal both to women and the men who buy for them. The full-line stores, many of which have been expanded to accommodate the company’s growing PINK, sport and swim collections, make customers feel like they’re shopping in a supermodel’s boudoir. Store associates provide services sorely lacking in department stores, like product knowledge and help with fit. And don’t forget, the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show on CBS that is broadcast to viewers in more than 192 countries (and that wins its ratings time slot among the all-important 18–49 demographic in the U.S.) is a lingerie show.

About a year ago, the company decided it would exit the Victoria’s Secret direct ready-to-wear and makeup businesses, walking away from over $300 million in annual sales because the product lines were, according to Victoria’s Secret CEO Sharen Turney, “non-core.”

If tight, sexy dresses and lipstick do not fit into the brand’s core product offering, then how is it that sunglasses and make-up kits do?

Lingerie is hard, we get that. It’s complicated to make, hard to fit, and tricky to sell. But we’re talking about Victoria’s Secret here. They invented specialty branded intimate apparel. If anyone can succeed in creating a truly global innerwear brand, it’s them.

Yet, for some reason, the company is being overly cautious with respect to the overseas strategy. Martin Waters, who heads the company’s international business, told analysts earlier this year that he is “really happy with the capital-light partnership model,” and has no plans to change it. It presents no financial risk to the company, and earns royalties that analysts estimate are about 10–15 percent of sales. At the most recent investor day conference last fall, he wowed analysts with sales figures from one of the newest company-owned non-airport VSBA stores in Europe.

In other words, the VSBA stores are sources of quick, easy money, and the fact that they don’t focus on lingerie, the foundation (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the Victoria’s Secret business, doesn’t seem to worry L Brands management. But it should.

Victoria’s Return

The newly expanded Victoria’s Secret store on New Bond Street, located in a stunning stone building two blocks south of Oxford Street in London’s main shopping district, is truly a feast for the senses. A massive winding staircase lined in crystal panels leads shoppers up and down four spacious and beautifully appointed floors, each with a slightly different décor to match the merchandise assortment contained in it. The decorative moldings on the lingerie floor are painted a deep pink enamel that complements the ornate wood shelving, chandelier light fixtures and elegant cut-glass drawer pulls. Photos of underwear-clad supermodels that would make the brand’s namesake Queen Victoria blush line the paneled walls.

A two-story digital screen on the main floor plays the Victoria’s Secret fashion show that took place in London’s Earl’s Court last December and featured the “angels” (spokesmodels who are to lingerie what the Sports Illustrated ladies are to swimwear), as well as superstars Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande.

Products for sale in the store range from the full PINK collection in the lower level to lingerie, swim and activewear on the upper floors.

Among the unique features of the store are wings and other accessories and outfits worn by some of the more famous angels (like Heidi Klum, Karlie Kloss and Miranda Kerr) in Victoria’s Secret fashion shows.

Anyone who spends time in the London flagship comes away realizing that the store, like the Herald Square flagship in New York, isn’t there just for local clientele, but also serves to introduce the brand to a whole new group of potential global consumers. During the several hours I spent in the London store two months ago, I heard more German, Dutch, French, and Spanish than English. Sales associates fluent in these languages scurried around helping customers, most of whom appeared to be in their teens and twenties. I spoke to a group of German girls who told me they couldn’t wait for their school trip to London so they could load up on underwear and swimsuits.

Two young women from France spending a year at the London School of Economics (who, judging from all they were buying, were evidently not too concerned about the plunging euro) said they hoped VS would open a store in Paris so they could continue wearing the brand with which they had tombée amoureuse while studying abroad.

Limit-less Potential?

In 2014, the L Brands International division, which includes licensed businesses and Bath and Body Works, reported sales of $336 million, more than triple the prior year’s level, and earned operating margins 600 basis points above the company average. Company Founder and CEO Les Wexner has been quoted as saying he feels L Brands’ international opportunity could ultimately be even bigger than the domestic business.

Wexner, a self-made retail superstar who opened his first Limited Store at the age of 26 with $5,000 borrowed from his aunt, has amassed a $7.6 billion fortune that puts him at number 60 on the Forbes U.S. list. The success of his company (from which the Limited stores were sold off several years ago), in which he has a more than 15 percent stake, is the envy of much of the industry. In the past five years, the company has managed to grow sales at its almost 3,000 stores and websites from $7.8 billion to $11.2 billion while keeping inventory levels flat. Gross margin has expanded from 37.8 percent to 42 percent, and net income has grown by 141 percent from $811 million to $1.9 billion. In the past two years, the company has doubled its cash holdings to over $1.6 billion. Clearly neither Wexner nor anyone on his management team wants to ruin this streak by making big mistakes overseas.

But eroding one’s brand equity is a big mistake.

It is true that the European and Asian lingerie markets each present a unique set of challenges. The market in Europe has historically been a highly fragmented one. Each country has one or two dominant local brands with loyal consumer followings. In Asia, demand for Western-style lingerie is relatively new and untapped, but holds tremendous growth potential.

But younger consumers the world over are a different breed from their older cohorts. They are coming of age in the digital era, and are highly motivated by what they see on social media. Victoria’s Secret has 26 million followers on Facebook compared to 434K for Playtex and 331K for Bali Intimates. It also has over 6 million followers on Twitter, where the handle is trending extremely well among teens. There are Facebook groups of Victoria’s Secret fans in France, Germany, Spain and other countries wanting stores in their home market. However, Waters recently told analysts, continental Europe remains a “lower priority” for the company.

So, Mr. Wexner, I respectfully suggest you take a day trip to London. Spend several hours watching and listening to your global customers. What you hear and see might surprise you.

Then take some of that excess cash and build a full-line, company-owned flagship in Paris, Berlin, or Barcelona, doing lingerie as only Victoria’s Secret can.

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