L Brands owns two of the retailers that defined ‘90s and aughts. Bath & Body Works, beloved for inscrutable scents like “Moonlight Path” and “A Thousand Wishes,” made collecting lotions and candles a cult phenomenon. Shopping at Victoria’s Secret was a rite of passage. Both companies helped make L Brands a $12 billion plus retail conglomerate and got its share price to a peak of nearly $100 in late 2015. However, over the last five years, one of those brands has been dragging L Brands down.
Victoria’s Secret has seen declining sales every year since 2016. Between 2016 and 2018, its market share in the US dropped from 33% to 24% as, in the #MeToo and #AerieReal era, as women discovered bralettes, lost their taste for hyper-sexualized advertising and began to see the brand as toxic after reports emerged about an abusive culture and former L Brands CEO Les Wexner’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein.
L Brands attempted to let Victoria’s Secret go private through a deal with private equity firm, Sycamore Partners earlier this year. As soon as Sycamore Partners began to signal they wanted out of the deal at the start of the pandemic, L Brands saw shares plummet 27%. After the private equity firm pulled the plug in May, L Brands entered the bankruptcy watch list.
Recently, however, L Brands’ share price has not only recovered 260% from its pandemic low of $9, but it’s currently trading at $33 — a number it hasn’t seen since 2018 — beating its pre-pandemic high from February of $24.
What’s responsible for this sudden, unexpected recovery amidst an ongoing recession? While Victoria’s Secret saw a 39% sales decline in the second quarter, “secret superstar” Bath & Body Works quietly shot up 13% in sales, keeping L Brands ahead of Wall Street predictions. The lotion emporium’s sales were enough to “more than offset” Victoria’s Secret’s decline, analyzes The Motley Fool.
With people living in sports bras and sweats, Victoria’s Secret is plumbing news depths of irrelevance while Bath & Body Works has never been more appealing, thanks to its hand sanitizers and soaps. Hygiene products typically make up 15% of the retailer’s sales, but L Brands CEO Andrew Meslow said these categories have seen “tremendous growth” during COVID-19. He also predicts that people’s newfound attention to cleanliness will outlast the pandemic.
- Bath & Body Works has also benefited from quarantined masses spending their time pampering themselves. Lotions, body washes and home fragrances have become an “affordable luxury,” as Business Insider describes, even while people are cash-strapped due to the recession.
- The home improvement craze has also done wonders for Bath & Body Works’ home fragrance section, which includes candles, sprays and essential oil diffusers. Meslow says the department was booming even before the pandemic but has grown “tremendously important.”
- Loyalty is a key factor in Bath & Body Works’ resilience. A recent Retail Dive feature explored the community of B&BW enthusiasts, comparing their dedication to collecting lotion and candles to the ‘90s Beanie Babie craze, citing YouTube haul videos and Instagram hashtags like “#BABW” and “#candlecommunity.”
- L Brands recent upswing also rests on aggressive cost-saving measures, mostly aimed at trimming down Victoria’s Secret. The company is shutting down 250 Victoria’s Secret stores, laid off 15% (around 850 employees) of their corporate staff and cut back on inventory, which they say has saved them over $400 million in annualized costs.
Bottom line: People like Bath & Body Works and they don’t like Victoria’s Secret. The lingerie brand’s Facebook following has shrunk by 400,000 since last year, while Bath & Body Works has gained 440,000 followers.
Holiday sales will be a WWE-level showdown for L Brands, an opportunity for Victoria’s Secret to keep its head above water and a chance to see if Bath & Body Works can continue its retail rampage. L Brands has hired more than 4,000 new employees to beef up their distribution centers to keep up with demand.
However, Deloitte’s estimate predicts holiday shoppers will visit a record low of 5.2 stores on average this year. Industry analysts tell Wall Street Journal they expect spending to be flat at best, compared with 2019.
Nonetheless, Bath & Body Works’ and Victoria’s Secrets’ trajectories both offer opportunities, and rivals are seizing them. Body positive and “millennial darling” lingerie brand Third Love recently slashed its average price point in an attempt to attract mid-tier customers, bringing prices more in-line with Victoria’s Secret.
Meanwhile, Bath & Body Works has proved that a mall-era brand can compete in a modern retail landscape. Lotion purveyors from Aesop to Sephora should keep their guards up, especially once Bath & Body Works gets unhooked from Victoria’s Secret’s push-up, underwire mess.
About the Data:
Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.