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Victoria's Secret is still trying to sell sexy. And it isn't working

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How Victoria's Secret revolutionized lingerie — then fell behind

Victoria's Secret needs a makeover.

The lingerie brand, owned by L Brands, is still trying to sell sexy, but it isn't working. Same-store sales have fallen for the past three years, as women turn away from its bedazzled bras and underwear and opt for comfortable pieces in more neutral colors. A new group of start-ups like Adore Me, Third Love, Lively, Cuup and Knix are surging in popularity on Instagram and winning over customers.

"The pivotal question on the stock is can L Brands rehabilitate the Victoria's Secret brand image," UBS analyst Jay Sole said in a note to clients earlier this week, ahead of L Brand's monthly sales report. He said he noticed Victoria's Secret's January promotions "increased significantly" from a year ago. That typically means a company didn't sell enough during the holiday season and needs to cut prices to lure shoppers in.

But the heavy promotions didn't work. When it reported January sales on Thursday, L Brands said Victoria's Secret same-store sales were down 1 percent, compared with an increase of 4 percent during January of 2018. Only looking at its brick-and-mortar stores, sales at Victoria's Secret fell 8 percent in January, compared with flat sales in the year-ago period.

There's "no real visibility to a turnaround at Victoria's Secret," Telsey Advisory Group analyst Dana Telsey said. "It's not clear that incremental strategies to drive improved growth ... and profitability are in place at this point."

Despite its struggles, though, Victoria's Secret is still a behemoth in its industry today.

It's been estimated L Brands would account for roughly 63 percent of sales in the lingerie industry in the U.S. in 2018, according to a study put out by IBISWorld last October. The group defines the industry to include retailers that predominantly sell intimate apparel, including bras, panties and other lingerie items, for women. No other companies were on track to account for more than 5 percent of revenue, while American Eagle's Aerie brand had 3.5 percent and Chico's Soma brand had 3 percent, IBISWorld said at the time the report was released.

L Brands declined to comment for this story.

Models walk the runway at the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show on November 30, 2016, in Paris.
Getty Images

Perhaps the clearest sign of Victoria's Secret falling out of fashion was the response to its latest annual fashion show, which was televised in December. The event suffered the worst ratings in its broadcast history. Instead of tuning in, women are increasingly shunning the idea they need to have a certain physique — like the models that strut down the fashion show's runway each year in angel wings and leather jumpsuits.

"In five years, Victoria's Secret won't be able to market what they do today," said Heidi Zak, co-founder and CEO of bra start-up Third Love. "I don't know if they will carry larger sizes. I don't know if that's in their ethos. But change is being forced by more women and more companies."

Third Love and other up-and-coming women's underwear brands are becoming more popular as they add more size options for women, provide tools that help to find the perfect size, and promote messages of "body positivity."

"Victoria's Secret was first created as a store environment where men would feel comfortable buying lingerie for women," said Joanna Griffiths, founder and CEO of Knix, which is known for its "leakproof" underwear for women. "It's built around selling sex and sexy through a very specific lens," she added, saying any turnaround approach is going to require "a change in their DNA."

As it struggles to grow sales, the Victoria's Secret brand has, meanwhile, gone through its fair share of management shakeups of late. Most recently, the brand's CEO, Jan Singer, resigned, to be replaced by John Mehas from Tory Burch. The head of Victoria's Secret's teen and college-age brand Pink, Denise Landman, also recently resigned.

"With new management only coming into the business early this year, 2019 could remain a transitional one for Victoria's Secret," Telsey said.

Shoppers can use a "Fit Finder" tool on ThirdLove's website to find the right bra size, ranging from cup sizes AA through G (DDDD).
Source: ThirdLove

L Brands CEO Les Wexner and his team seem to have somewhat of a plan in place for the upcoming year to generate some excitement around the Victoria's Secret brand again, but the details remain murky.

Come this spring, Victoria's Secret will be back in the swim business, according to CFO Stuart Burgdoerfer. That's a category that cost the company $500 million in annual sales when it pulled out of it in 2016. Burgdoerfer told analysts during a conference call in November that the company will also move back into some of the other businesses it's exited in the past, but the company hasn't yet expanded further on those plans.

Victoria's Secret is, meanwhile, saying it will focus on pushing more of its best-selling merchandise, like a $20 T-shirt bra. It has a beauty business that's managed to deliver positive same-store sales growth for six quarters now. And with Pink, it's promised to use less "bling."

Back on Wall Street, the future of Victoria's Secret's parent company, L Brands, is still being debated.

L Brands' stock tumbled nearly 60 percent in 2018, making it one of the worst performers on the S&P 500. Shares were worth $100 roughly three years ago but today trade under $30. The stock is up about 3 percent so far this year, though.

One analyst recently called it a comeback story. Wells Fargo's Ike Boruchow has deemed L Brands one of his top picks in 2019. He's hopeful the company will finally close some of its Victoria's Secret shops, as he argues there are too many, and this will help it focus on profitable assets. Victoria's Secret has already hinted that it could shut some locations. It has more than 1,100, including Pink, in North America today.

Jefferies analyst Randal Konik, however, says the company is struggling with much "deeper" issues than some might realize. Similar to UBS' Sole, he says shoppers "aren't responding" even to deep discounts. Konik thinks L Brands' shares could still fall by more than 50 percent. He further thinks the Pink brand is "at the precipice of a major decline."

With roughly $3 billion in annual sales, the Pink brand could fall to $2 billion "based on our history seeing what happens to brands that are fads," Konik said. Pink, which also sells athleisure gear like fleece hoodies and sports bras, was once considered the growth engine for Victoria's Secret, but momentum has since stalled.

L Brands is set to report fourth-quarter earnings on Feb. 28.