How one teen retailer is thriving while its competitors flounder

Aerie’s swimwear selection at its SoHo pop-up store.
Source: Aerie

Teen retail is a game of survival.

Under siege from fast-fashion, off-price and online competitors, the growing list of retailers filing for Chapter 11 has been peppered with names like Aeropostale and Pacific Sunwear.

Yet as its competitors flounder, one teen brand is reveling in five straight quarters of greater than 20 percent comparable sales growth. Aerie, the intimates label owned by incumbent teen player American Eagle, is steadily becoming a larger piece of its parent company's revenue.

The antithesis to Victoria's Secret's bombshell branding, Aerie's body-positive grassroots advertising campaign has resonated with the retailer's target shoppers. The chain's early entry into the booming bralette business has helped, as well.

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Now, Aerie is looking to build on its momentum by opening 50 new stores in 2017, and going after a category that Victoria's Secret left behind: swimwear.

"I feel like Aerie can own the swim business," Jennifer Foyle, the label's global brand president, told CNBC.

Bikinis have been part of Aerie's business since its launch 11 years ago. But with Victoria's Secret's retreat from the category putting an estimated $500 million in annual sales up for grabs, Aerie is pushing harder into the business.

It's doing so by showcasing more beachwear in its Aerie real campaign, which bans the air brushing of models. The launch of that campaign has been critical to Aerie's success since it began three years ago, and has been credited with much of its growth.

The label is also using data from its website, where swim is sold year-round, to buy deeper into key trends when it stocks the shelves in its stores. Popular styles leading into the spring include one-piece suits with a high leg and cutouts.

"We are seeing some new statistics in swim that are like, 'Whoa,'" Foyle said. "Market share's up for grabs for sure."

Aerie's swimwear selection at its SoHo pop-up store.
David A. Grogan | CNBC

Becoming more aggressive in swimwear is a logical step for Aerie, whose budget-friendly prices and on-trend merchandise have helped it build a loyal shopper base, said Jan Kniffen, CEO of the J Rogers Kniffen research and consulting firm and a CNBC contributor. It should also help it attract new customers.

"Their advantage for the first time in their lives ... [is] the mindset of the customer is where they are and not where Victoria's Secret is," Kniffen said.

Even before ramping up its focus on swim, Aerie grew its revenue in the category by 17.5 percent, to $61.2 million, last year, according to Euromonitor.

Along with its push into swimwear and the recent launch of an activewear line, Aerie plans boost its top line by opening 50 new stores this year. Some of those shops will be stand-alone locations, while others will be adjacent to traditional American Eagle stores.

Aerie currently has 190 locations, though they're spread across just 13 states and concentrated mostly on the East Coast. In December, it opened a pop-up store in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, which was designed to feel like a modern marketplace.

The shop features a room in the back that can be converted into a yoga studio and space for a flower vendor. Aerie will use certain elements from this store in its future locations, Foyle said.

Aerie pop-up store in SoHo, New York.
Krystina Gustafson | CNBC

"We are going to be like Lewis and Clark this year. We're going to go west," she said, adding the brand recently opened locations in Honolulu and Denver.

Yet even as Kniffen said he expects Aerie's momentum to continue for the next few years, he cautioned that at just under 10 percent of American Eagle's revenue, it's too small to move the needle for the company at large.

Competition in the teen space remains fierce, he added, saying he expects sales growth at the retailer — which achieved record revenue in the fiscal third quarter — to slip. Still, that doesn't take anything away from Aerie's trajectory, Kniffen said.

"If Aerie was its own stock, I'd have everybody buying that sucker tomorrow," Kniffen said.

American Eagle said last month that its comparable sales for November and December were roughly flat. The company is scheduled to report fiscal fourth-quarter earnings Wednesday and expects a profit of 37 cents to 39 cents a share.

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