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Society Has Changed. Victoria’s Secret Hasn’t.

The lingerie behemoth is still selling sex like it was 1999 — and new competitors more attuned to today’s cultural reality are taking market share.
Victoria's Secret fashion show 2017 in Shanghai, China | Source: Getty
  • Lauren Sherman

COLUMBUS, United States — For Victoria's Secret, Valentine's Day has long been the most important moment of the fiscal year, driving significant sales at the L Brand-owned lingerie retailer's pink boudoirs.

Of course, Valentine's Day is important to all peddlers of lacy things. Americans spent $19.6 billion on Valentine's Day-related purchases in 2018, according to the National Retail Federation. At the same time, the meaning of the day is changing, especially for younger consumers.

This year, when San Francisco-based dating app Coffee Meets Bagel surveyed 654 of its users — mostly Millennials — 235 said that Valentine's Day was "just another Hallmark holiday," with 295 respondents planning to sit out the occasion and 474 claiming they felt no pressure to celebrate. If these responses aren't surprising, they are far more ambivalent than they were just five years ago, when Coffee Meets Bagel conducted the same survey. Back then, the majority of respondents said they felt pressured to partake.

Shifting sentiments around Valentine's Day have made way for new, lighthearted concepts such as Galentine's Day — a celebration of female friendship on February 13 — and Singles Awareness Day, which takes place on February 15. In a post-#MeToo world, where female exploitation, as well as empowerment, are both top of mind and platonic friendships are often just as revered as romantic love, it makes sense that Valentine's Day, in the traditional sense, does not carry the significance it once did.

It's no surprise, then, that Victoria's Secret, whose entire reason for being is grounded in using underthings to attract a romantic partner, has seen a decline in sales over the past few years. While Victoria's Secret continues to dominate the women's lingerie market in the US, capturing a majority of sales, its revenues continue to shrink, with new entrants — most notably, the American Eagle-owned Aerie — chipping away at its market share.

In the fiscal year ending February 3, 2018, net sales were $7.4 billion, down 5 percent from $7.8 billion a year earlier, despite 2017 having an extra week of sales on its financial calendar. Sales at stores open at least one year were down 8 percent. While sales in China are on the up, the UK business — once a major growth lever for the brand — is down.

During a March 1 earnings call, Victoria's Secret president Jan Singer remained optimistic, pointing to improved performance in the fourth quarter of the year.

Victoria's Secret has an image problem. That 'sex in your face' style has gone away.

"We made progress on resetting the business," she said, citing the successful relaunch of its "T-shirt" bra category as well as a 30-percent jump in sales of the Dream Angels label, a range of balconette-style bras. "While results overall were down, we improved sales and margins throughout."

Traditional mall retailers are struggling to keep their customers engaged across the board. But Victoria's Secret is different from Gap or J.Crew in that it has never had any serious competition in scale or influence. "Bras take expertise," said retail analyst Gabriella Santaniello. "You can't just manufacture a bra. That's what has ultimately worked in Victoria's Secret's favour."

And yet, Victoria's Secret's relevance has never been more vulnerable, as changes in the way people think about lingerie, not to mention buy it, will likely force the brand to reckon with its overall strategy.

Victoria's Secret's greatest misstep may have been its inability — or unwillingness — to evolve its marketing message to reflect modern social mores. "It's not just one player challenging them," explained Tiffany Hogan, an analyst at Kantar Retail. "The fact is there are more competitors taking away share — even Amazon has its own underwear and bra collection — which creates complications."

The biggest difference between Victoria's Secret and its expanding stable of challengers is that Aerie, True & Co. (now owned by PVH) and others do not sell "sexy" in the traditional sense: instead, they sell comfort, ease and empowerment.

Victoria's Secret's push-up bras and thongs, modelled by its "Angels" — typically buxom models, whose cheery, fresh faces were, for many years, considered the epitome of the "All American" ideal — are designed to reshape the body in a way that was meant to look more attractive to a potential mate. The newcomers offer more natural-looking styles, designed to make the wearer feel good in her given body.

While Victoria's Secret has made strides in terms of its product offering — expanding its wireless "bralette" range to address the move away from padded underwire bras — those efforts haven't always been successful. In fact, the bralette category is trending downward for Victoria's Secret, meaning that the brand has once again had to rethink its offering. "Bras as fashion matter," Singer noted.

But an improved product mix doesn't necessarily guarantee the boost Victoria's Secret needs when its marketing remains anachronistic. The way people shop for lingerie has changed, and Victoria's Secret has failed to change with it.

The way people shop for lingerie has changed, and Victoria's Secret has failed to change with it.

The annual Victoria's Secret Fashion Show is perhaps the best example of how the brand has lost touch with today's cultural reality. For one, the show — the brainchild of Ed Razek, the chief marketing officer of creative services for L Brands, who has long served as a sort of "papa bear" to his cadre of Angels — does not air live. In 2017, it was filmed a week before its television debut, meaning that the social media traction the brand gained from the audience's tweets and Instagram posts did not compel onlookers to grab for the remote. And while no network has more viewers than its partner CBS — and 67 percent of those viewers were watching CBS live in 2017 — the channel's overall viewership has dipped significantly in the past decade, with its already-senior median age creeping up to 59.9 in 2017 from 56 in 2010.

The ratings for the broadcast speak for themselves. In 2017, the show brought in more than five million viewers, compared to over 10 million in 2010.

But even if Victoria's Secret staged a live show and switched to a more Millennial-friendly platform such as YouTube, the vision of the spectacle continues to rely upon overworked ideas of conventional idealised beauty straight out of a 1999 Maxim magazine centre spread, featuring uniformly thin models wearing opulent, outrageous showpieces that have often been criticised for cultural insensitivity.

In 2012, the company even apologised for a Native American headdress worn by a model during the show. And yet, in its most recent effort, which took place in Shanghai, China last November, models wore tribal necklaces, feather headdresses and hats with "Navajo-style" beading, and were once again called out for pilfering from indigenous cultures.

Victoria's Secret has also been caught in the crosshairs of the #Metoo movement. Two photographers associated with the brand, Greg Kadel and David Bellemere, were named in the recent Boston Globe exposé alleging sexual misconduct. Victoria's Secret stopped working with Bellemere in 2016, suspended its working relationship with Kadel and is conducting a full third-party investigation of the allegations.

"We are a company that celebrates and serves women, so this behaviour described in the Boston Globe could not be more contrary to who we are," an L Brands spokesperson told BoF. "We do not tolerate harassment of any kind. We have not hesitated to investigate allegations of inappropriate behaviour and to terminate employment with those accused — including freelance photographers — where appropriate."

But while Victoria's Secret is working to make it clear that it does not tolerate the inappropriate behaviour that has been alleged, all of this — from the runway show to the Angels to #Metoo — will be embedded in the legacy of L Brands chief executive Les Wexner, the 80-year-old retail visionary responsible for some of the greatest successes in mall history. Wexner, who has practically dressed America for the good part of the last 40 years, is responsible not only for the ascension of Victoria's Secret — which he bought for a mere $1 million in 1982 — but also for the success of Abercrombie & Fitch, the Limited and Express.

The company risks alienating its core American client by swinging too far from its longstanding brand positioning.

Despite the fact that the vision of the mall he built is no longer a viable business, Wexner remains confident that he knows what to do next. In 2016 he hired Singer, then-chief executive of Spanx (and a veteran of Nike), to lead Victoria's Secret into the future. Around the same time, he did away with the brand's well-loved catalogue — and the apparel and swimwear it sold within its pages — focusing instead on store experience and the core business of selling bras, underwear and beauty products.

Cutting the catalogue — and in particular, the popular swimwear category — was a bold move. But the presentation remains eerily consistent, with tanned-and-airbrushed models bouncing around in their wares. It's a stark contrast to say, Aerie, which prides itself on its untouched photographed featuring "real" bodies, such as that of model Iskra Lawrence. Or even Solid & Striped, the swimwear line that recently tapped a slew of models — including several of Victoria's Secret's own — to design a capsule collection.

At the same time, Victoria's Secret stores remain saturated in shades of pink, the stench of "body mists" lingering in the air. Santaniello compared it to another Columbus retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch, which has spent years unravelling its "darkly sexy" store concept that was once a traffic driver and is now an albatross.

It's not just that Victoria's Secret missed out on the opportunity to market body positivity. "I don't think it's a trend at this point, it's just a way of life, it's just where our culture is moving," Santaniello said. "Victoria's Secret has an image problem. They certainly have great product, but the stores... women want an intimate experience. That 'sex in your face' style has gone away."

Of course, explaining that to shareholders as revenues shrink is a challenge. Victoria's Secret continues to see healthy growth abroad and the company risks alienating its core American client by swinging too far from its longstanding brand positioning. "The difficulty Victoria's Secret runs into is it has such a unique selling point with its brand, and a good chunk of shoppers still like that," said Hogan. "How do they maintain market share with legacy shoppers and, at the same time, offer something radically different?"

That all depends on how long the legacy shopper remains convinced of the message Victoria's Secret is shilling.

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