Sexy isn’t selling anymore for Victoria’s Secret

Photo: RetailWire
Mar 05, 2019

Victoria’s Secret, wrapping up another tough year, last week reported a seven percent drop in same-store sales in the fourth quarter and announced plans to close 53 stores.

The chain rose to lingerie dominance with its overtly sexy imagery and brightly colored push-up bras, but both seem to be running against the #MeToo and other women’s empowerment movements over the last decade.

On the product side, competitors including ThirdLove, Adore Me and American Eagle’s Aerie are gaining share by offering more comfortable bra and underwear styles in softer colors. Bralettes and sports bras have found favor over Victoria’s Secret’s push-up bras. Victoria’s Secret’s limited in-store size range has also been called out with many upstarts promoting inclusive offerings.

The bigger issue appears be Victoria’s Secret’s traditional hyper-sexualized, ultra-glamorous imagery. Many newer brands embrace body-positive messages by featuring everyday women, not models, as well as a wide range of body types in advertising. Ratings for last year’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show dropped 30 percent. Victoria’s Secret’s avoidance of using plus-sized models has also stoked controversy.

Further, the chain’s lofty pricing is seen as an issue for many consumers. Target’s announcement last week that it is launching three lingerie and sleepwear brands may lead to more pressure on Victoria’s Secret to moderate its prices.

Finally, Victoria’s Secret is being impacted by its heavy exposure in struggling malls.

On its fourth quarter conference call, Stuart Burgdoerfer, CFO of L Brands, the parent of Victoria’s Secret, said the chain’s new heads of Lingerie (John Mehas) and Pink (Amy Hauk) will be “most focused” on improving product assortments. “If the merchandise is special, unique, reflects fashion, has newness, has technical benefit, there are terrific opportunities in the category,” said Mr. Burgdoerfer.

But he underscored that Victoria’s Secret is taking a “fresh hard look at everything” including its marketing pitch and annual fashion show.

Janine Stichter, analyst at Jefferies, told Bloomberg that changing Victoria’s Secret identity could prove difficult. She said, “People identify Victoria’s Secret with what’s it been for the last 20 years — very sexy and airbrushed models. If they were going to pivot now, I don’t think it would come off as authentic.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are Victoria’s Secret’s challenges related more to product or marketing issues? How should management reposition Victoria’s Secret?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"From both a product and marketing perspective, it might make sense to step back and reposition things for the audience who spends the most money in the market."
"Focus on the women, not the men and revive this brand."
"In the #MeToo era, painting women as skinny sex symbols just doesn’t work, nor does the styling."

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18 Comments on "Sexy isn’t selling anymore for Victoria’s Secret"

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Bethany Allee

The challenges are related to both product and marketing. Victoria’s Secret sees the same challenge Frederick’s of Hollywood faces: if you make a lingerie store that targets men, you will struggle to remain relevant because you’re not providing the nuts and bolts needed to keep your lights on (AKA sexy, yet functional undergarments). Women spend far more money on lingerie than men. So, from both a product and marketing perspective, it might make sense to step back and reposition things for the audience who spends the most money in the market.

Ben Ball

After carefully considering the likelihood that I would inadvertently say something either offensive or stupid on this discussion, I decided to post anyway. But after seeing Bethany’s post I decided to simply honor it with a “plus one” and this comment instead. She hit’s the real issue head on. I was going to call it a “cultural” issue — one that overwhelms both product and marketing. The brand faces a challenge similar to Old Spice in the ’90s for men — it’s neither relevant nor cool to be Victoria’s Secret in today’s culture. Now the question is whether VS can pull off the cultural comeback Old Spice managed. They may have to fade away for a while to do it.

Min-Jee Hwang

All things being equal, factors like Victoria’s Secret’s image and controversy around plus-sized models will impact sales and brand perception. However, all things aren’t yet equal between Victoria’s Secret and its competitors — the assortment just isn’t there. Prices are too high compared to competitors and consumers can get a better selection, more products, and more sizes from other brands. That’s the real hurdle for VS at the moment.

Steve Montgomery

Victoria Secret’s parent company recently came under pressure to split Bath and Body Works and Victoria’s Secret into two companies because of the financial results reported in the article. Victoria’s Secret’s issues started with its failure to change its product lines to reflect what the customer wanted. This includes a lower price point. As Ms. Stichter stated changing its position now will not be easy, but neither will a continuing decline in same-stores sales on a shrinking store base.

Tom Dougherty

The biggest issue is competition. Shoppers have more choices and easier shopping experiences. We could rewrite the article and instead of saying Victoria’s Secret we could say “[insert retailer name here].”

It is pretty evident that retailers can’t survive supporting expensive and undervalued mall locations. The market has shifted and it’s not coming back.

Neil Saunders
The whole stance and style of Victoria’s Secret is out of tune with what a lot of modern consumers want and expect. This is one of the reasons why the chain has lost millions of customers and is seeing sales slide. However, there are, many who still like Victoria’s Secret and use it regularly. And therein lies the problem: Victoria’s Secret is afraid to change for fear of alienating existing customers and turning its back on a position that has served it well for many years. It doesn’t quite know what it should do next. Add to this a small dose of internal arrogance, which can be seen in some of the comments made by the company, and you have a recipe for inertia and paralysis. The question, however, is which way is the market going. From everything I have seen, it is moving away from where Victoria’s Secret is now. As such, the company needs to evolve. It needs to be more authentic, connect with a wider range of demographics, and change its marketing… Read more »
Art Suriano
Times have changed and, like many retailers who are struggling, Victoria’s Secret is one that did not adapt to those changes. First, the younger women of today have an entirely different attitude about undergarments as more of a necessity rather than the need to feel sexy. Walking in the mall and seeing the dated looking videos and pictures of young professional models doesn’t appeal to today’s customers as it once did. However, the two issues not mentioned in the article are price and quality. Victoria’s Secret can be pricey, and there have been many complaints about the quality of their products. What woman wants to purchase a bra that falls apart in a short time? Victoria’s Secret needs to get away from the air-brushed perfect models and become a natural looking brand with products that appeal to today’s woman and most importantly, offer well-made products that are designed to last. Lastly, they need to improve their customer service in their stores. You can visit one Victoria’s Secret store and be blown away by the customer… Read more »
Georganne Bender

I commented recently on Neil Saunders’ LinkedIn post about Victoria’s Secret. At a recent visit to one of its stores I found the store design well done and the displays inviting, but it’s clear that I am not their target customer – and that’s part of the problem. Victoria’s Secret is all about sexy and airbrushed models. It’s a look that very few women can pull of, and if you like pizza, forget it. It’s not reality.

Victoria’s Secret is long overdue for a refresh – keep the feel of the stores but let all women know that they are welcome; that there is beautiful lingerie is for you, no matter what size you wear. Update the marketing and fashion shows so they are not so cringeworthy in a #MeToo world. Until Victoria’s Secret understands that women have moved on from the model it is still pushing it will be perceived as the store most out of touch with reality.

Bob Phibbs

As I mentioned in a new blog about their aggressive ways at trying to get customers on their rewards list How To Get Customers Onto Your Loyalty Program? Don’t Do It Like Victoria’s Secret Does, the Victoria’s Secret dark boudoir stores and overt sexuality that were a hit in the ’80s just don’t seem to be resonating with younger women who look to inner beauty and self-love more than to titillating a guy.

Even guys, it appears, aren’t tuning into the fashion show as the show’s ratings plunged to historic lows last December.

W Magazine said that more people tuned into the 648th episode of the Simpson’s than watched Victoria’s Secret’s fashion show.

Focus on the women, not the men and revive this brand.

Paula Rosenblum

In the #MeToo era, painting women as skinny sex symbols just doesn’t work, nor does the styling. It’s time for VC to think about real women — what they look like for real, and what they feel good in and about.

How did VC not get the memo that half the country is bigger than size 14?

Lee Peterson

Whoa, whoa, wait a sec here, fellow BrainTrust geniuses — let us level set one thing that went unmentioned first: Victoria’s Secret still owns about 67 percent of the lingerie market. That means that two-thirds of the customers for that product STILL like them and buy there. So let’s put that hat on first.

Having said that, I do agree that the “glamazon” hyper-sexualized marketing needs to evolve, and evolve pretty quick, before the 67 percent goes to 50 percent goes to 30 percent over the next few years. But let’s not pile on about how awful they are until we understand that from a mass level, they’re still pretty well loved (liked?).

Georganne Bender

I don’t think Victoria’s Secret is awful, just out of touch with the consumer. There is a lot of opportunity there that they are missing!

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Uncomfortable isn’t selling anymore for Victoria’s Secret. I’m a Third Love convert for product and experience.

Doug Garnett
I think the issues are both product and marketing. But, other than reading Billy Collins’ brilliant “Victoria’s Secret” poem, I’m no product expert. So let’s talk about their marketing. Truth is, I would recommend they stay far, far, far away from re-positioning. Those efforts glorify management, get pitched to investors, and rarely drive the change that’s needed. Instead, they need to start by sorting out where their problem is. My own sense is that while they were able to get “shock value” from supermodels for years, that possibility is gone. Perhaps it’s the internet’s easy availability of even more risqué visuals. Or that we’re bored with supermodels (I think we are.) They definitely SHOULDN’T walk away from sexy unless there’s incontrovertible, factual evidence it’s a problem. A tremendous asset has been built for them — stick with it! But reinterpret it. That may be hard. I recommended the same to Bowflex a decade ago, but their marketing team was stuck believing there are only “fit” and “not fit.” What they probably don’t accept is that… Read more »
Doug Garnett

Here’s a link to Billy Collins’ poem “Victoria’s Secret.”

Karen McNeely

I remember when Victoria’s Secret first opened. The genius of Leslie Wexner (or someone who worked for him) introduced us to the concept of experiential retail. In a day where undergarments were sold from a sea of generic chrome t-stands or maybe a fixture that held packages of Bali bras (a true nightmare for sales associates) Victoria’s Secret introduced us to boutique stores with tufted ceilings, velvet poufs and armoires with classical music playing in the background, romanticizing and elevating the lingerie buying experience. At some point they transitioned into the over the top sexualized version of the company.

I think it’s possible for a savvy retailer to re-envision the company once again to a “Strong is the new Sexy” or similar mentality that could lead to success and wouldn’t be too far from their current model to be implausible. It would need a great strategic plan, a major product overhaul, and time to implement, but it could be done.

Paco Underhill

Based on thirty years of research, women’s underwear comes in three forms:

  1. Honeymoon wear, which invites help to take it off – VS has surfed on this one.
  2. What she wears on the inside, to make what she wears on the outside look its best.
  3. What she wears to be comfortable, whether working out, or working, or just living.

The most money is in number 3. Other brands from Aerie to Lulu have focused on 2/3 and they are doing just fine. The new sexy is about being healthy and comfortable.

Harley Feldman

Victoria’s Secret can be faulted for not keeping up with the trends in consumer interest and attitudes regarding lingerie. Women’s perceptions and influences like the #MeToo movement have changed women’s attitudes about many products, especially lingerie. VS either did not see the changes coming or could not figure out what to do or both. I believe more of the issue has to do with their products than the marketing. They need to position their products away from being too sexy to a place where women are interested because the product distinguishes itself and the consumer feels good about buying it. The lingerie should make the woman feel good about wearing the products and offer designs that are unique.

"From both a product and marketing perspective, it might make sense to step back and reposition things for the audience who spends the most money in the market."
"Focus on the women, not the men and revive this brand."
"In the #MeToo era, painting women as skinny sex symbols just doesn’t work, nor does the styling."

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