Victoria's Secret turns attention to college girls


It's a tough time to be in the teen retail business.

Just look at the segment's most recent quarterly performance: Earnings tumbled a whopping 130 percent on the year, as same-store sales declined 5.5 percent, according to Retail Metrics.

But as teen retailers from Abercrombie & Fitch to American Eagle shutter stores, Victoria's Secret is putting its more youthful Pink segment on the fast track, with plans to open about 30 stores this year.

"I think it's an exciting, fun and different-shaded brand, which leverages a lot of Victoria's Secret's core competencies," said Citi analyst Oliver Chen.

Victoria's Secret PINK Model Sara Sampaio host PINK Nation Spring Break Beach Party on March 13, 2014 in Destin, Florida.
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After stubbing its toe in the most recent back-to-school and Christmas seasons, the Pink label has once again gained traction among consumers. In L Brands' same-store sales report on Thursday, the college-oriented intimates and apparel line was listed as one of the drivers behind Victoria's Secret's 2 percent comparable-store sales growth in May.

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Chen said ahead of the results that Pink's struggles in the back half of 2013 were tied to merchandise that wasn't quite fashion right. Since then, Victoria's Secret has done a much better job crafting Pink's assortment, "balancing collegiate versus fun and flirty." He said Pink could easily double its current store count, which totals about 90 locations around the U.S.

"I think Pink's done a good job defining themselves differently," he said.

It doesn't hurt that the brand's expansion efforts come at the same time as consolidation among some of the other big names in teen retail.

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Abercrombie & Fitch is in the process of shuttering its 24 standalone Gilly Hicks stores, which sell bras, underwear and clothing for the teen customer. By the end of the company's fiscal year, the label will only be available in Hollister stores and online.

American Eagle is also reducing its exposure to the teen intimates category. In the first quarter, the retailer closed 14 of its Aerie stores, and it plans to close another 50 over the next two years.

Betting on retail

Although Chen said the brands aren't perfect substitutes for Pink, it "doesn't hurt" that they'll have a smaller footprint with which to compete.

Pink's aggressive expansion also comes as Victoria's Secret is exiting other ventures. The retailer recently announced it will discontinue its cosmetics line and exit certain online apparel categories, in order to focus more on its core offerings, such as bras and panties.

Although the shift will put the company's sales and earnings results under pressure in the near-term, Stifel Nicolaus analyst Richard Jaffe said the initiatives will be positive in the long term.

"The lost sales from these categories will be replaced by higher margin, compelling merchandise that is more consistent with the VS brand," he said.

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Jefferies analyst Randal Konik, on the other hand, expressed reservations on the apparel-heavy Pink label.

"We continue to view the brand with caution," he wrote in a note to investors last month. "With few signs of abatement in the aggressive promo cadence and unfavorable teen retail dynamic, we believe Pink remains at risk."

Looking ahead to the brand's critical back-to-school period, Victoria's Secret president and CEO Sharen Jester Turney said the company feels strongly about the items it's tested. Chen said that while he thinks back-to-school will be another tough season requiring compelling promotions, all signs are good for the Pink brand so far.

"I think that they're really fashion-right… which is good for the momentum," he said.

—By CNBC's Krystina Gustafson