The well-known American lingerie, clothing, and beauty retailer that has been known across the globe for its high visibility marketing and branding, Victoria’s Secret has been struggling since the year 2016. Remaining at the helm of high fashion for over 20 years, the brand succumbed to the dual pressure of shifting consumer preferences and faulty business practices by the brand’s leadership. However, by May 2020, the brand remained the largest lingerie retailer in the United States with over 1070 stores spread across the country.
Victoria’s Secret was the brainchild of Roy Raymond and his wife Gaye Raymond. It originated from Roy’s experience when he went to purchase lingerie for his wife from a department store.
He said in an interview – “When I tried to buy lingerie for my wife, I was faced with racks of terry-cloth robes and ugly floral-print nylon nightgowns, and I always had the feeling the department store saleswoman thought I was an unwelcome intruder.”
His experience propelled him to study the lingerie market for the next eight years and, finally, on June 12, 1977, Victoria’s Secret was born. Borrowing a total of USD 80,000 – half from family and the balance from the bank, Roy established a store in which men would feel comfortable buying lingerie. The brand opened its first store in the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto, California. The name was an oblique reference to Queen Victoria and the associated refinement of the ‘Victorian Era’.
At the time when Victoria’s Secret came into existence, the US undergarments market was dominated by pragmatic clothing that was often sold in packs of three at department stores by leading brands of the time like Jockey, Hanes, and Fruit of the Loom. Niche products like high-end lingerie items were found only in specialty shops.
The first year of business saw the brand earning gross revenue of USD 500,000. It financed expansion as the business grew to add four new locations and a mail-order operation. He also launched the famous Victoria’s Secret renowned catalog. By April of 1982, the brand was recording USD 7 million in annual sales with 55% of the revenue generated from the sales of the catalogs, and was a minor player in the underwear market. The trade described the business as ‘more burlesque than the main street’. However, the company was also on the verge of bankruptcy.
1982 - The L-Brands Takeover
The founder of L-Brands, formerly Limited Brands, Leslie Wexner, was a rising star in the world of business and built himself an impressive empire. By June 1982, L-Brands was listed on the New York Stock Exchange and a month later the company acquired Victoria’s Secret’s six stores and its catalog for a total of USD 1 million.
Under Wexner’s leadership, the brand flourished as he focused on creating a store that was women-focused. Intent on bringing the aesthetics of the European Lingerie market, Wexner began creating an affordable version of the very upscale European brand ‘La Perla’. His version looked luxuriously expensive but in reality, was affordable.
Wexner’s strategy catapulted the brand to become the largest lingerie retailer in the US by the early 1990s. The brand expanded its presence to 350 stores and recorded annual sales of over USD 1 billion.
The 1990s Decade
This was a decade of the brand cementing its reputation and image. The company also expanded its product repertoire by launching its line of fragrances in the year 1991 followed by cosmetics in 1998. It was in the year 1995 that Victoria’s Secret began its famous annual fashion show spearheaded by Ed Razek, the company’s Marketing Director. It was in 1997 that the concept of Victoria’s Secret ‘Angel’ was formulated, which then, became the iconic style featuring the Angel Wings on the company’s annual fashion show. This fashion show became the mainstay of the company’s image for the next 23 years as it rose to achieve a cult-like status.
By the year 1998, the brand’s intimate apparel market share had risen to 14%. In the years 1999 and 2000, the then-CEO Cynthia Fedus-Fields delivered the highest profits for the brand before stepping down from her position.
The New Century
At the turn of the century, the new CEO Sharen Jester Turney of Victoria’s Secret Direct for Catalogue began to re-vamp the catalog image to boost its lagging sales. The idea was to upscale its imagery that would appeal to an upscale consumer. A similar change was initiated across the brand stores by Grace Nichols, CEO of Victoria’s Secret Direct, which saw the apparel styles moving away from the prominent and evocative styling of 1800s England.
Under their leadership, the brand's presence grew within the United States to 1000 stores that accounted for almost one-third of total sales in the intimate apparel industry. Turney took over as the CEO of the company in the year 2006 and the brand thrived with her at the helm for nine years as sales increased by 70% to reach USD 7.7 billion.
In the year 2016, Turney stepped down as the CEO and Leslie Wexner succeeded her as the interim CEO. Wexner made some quick changes to the brand operations. He discontinued the use of the print catalog and certain categories of apparel like swimwear to focus solely on lingerie which was, at one time, the core business. He also split the brand into three parts – Victoria’s Secret Lingerie, Victoria’s Secret Beauty, and Pink and established each as a business function with its CEO. This move proved to be disastrous as sales dropped by 7.4% which continued through 2017.
The downward trend continued in 2018 that became worse with Ed Razek’s controversial and derogatory comments about transgenders and plus-size models. This led to a 40% stock decline in that single year causing the brand to close 53 stores in the US in 2019. Chief Marketing Officer, Ed Razek also resigned and by that year's end, the brand announced the permanent closure of its annual fashion show.
But the company’s troubles were far from over. By February 2020, reports surfaced indicating a culture of bullying and harassment within the company. An expose published by The New York Times showcased ‘the culture of misogyny’ and cast aspersions of sexual misconduct on Ed Razek, the long-time influential executive of the brand.
Within the next year, by February 2020, the company had announced a 55% equity sale to Sycamore Partners for USD 525 million which fell through by April 2020 as Sycamore Partners cited the pandemic as the reason. In January 2021, the shareholders of the parent company L-Brands, filed a complaint in the Court of Chancery of Delaware, blaming Leslie Wexner for creating an atmosphere of misogyny, bullying, and harassment that devalued the brand.
The Rise From The Ashes
L-Brands, spun off Victoria’s Secret as an independent business by August 2021. The company’s new management and ownership implemented policy changes that have proven to be beneficial to the brand. The brand reported an increase in sales in 2021. By November 2022, Victoria’s Secret had acquired Adore Me, a lingerie brand based in New York, for USD 400 million.
The brand began with a vision to make lingerie shopping easier for men. From there it evolved and underwent many changes. For several years, it sat at the very pinnacle of success. However, it failed to identify changing trends and consumer preferences and hence did not make the necessary shift at the right time. The management’s ideologies and conduct also hindered the brand from adapting to changing times. The new management has a tough road ahead to restore the brand to its former glory. Time will bear witness to how the company makes itself relevant to continuously changing market trends.
What led to Victoria's Secret's declining sales in recent years?
Factors such as changing consumer preferences, increased competition, controversial marketing, lack of inclusivity, and COVID-19 have led to Victoria's Secret's declining sales.
What steps has Victoria's Secret taken to address its past controversies?
Victoria's Secret changed leadership, rebranded to be more inclusive, discontinued Angels, and partnered with women-led businesses to address past controversies.
What does the future hold for Victoria's Secret?
Victoria's Secret is focusing on inclusivity, body positivity, e-commerce, and new marketing strategies to attract younger consumers in its efforts to re-establish itself as a leader in the lingerie industry.