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Victoria's Secret tones it down

Maybe it was the lusty mannequins in its stores, the massage oil on its shelves or the overabundance of cleavage on the glittery runway of its annual TV fashion show. But this week, Victoria's Secret chief executive Sharen J. Turney acknowledged that the chain had gotten "too sexy."

Is such a thing even possible?

"We have moved off of our brand heritage," she said in a conference call with analysts. "We use the word 'sexy' a lot and really have forgotten the ultra-feminine."

Victoria's Secret has long toed the line between seductive and sleazy, and its recent disappointing financial performance suggested that it had veered off course. Its parent company, Limited Brands, reported Wednesday that Victoria's Secret's fourth-quarter revenue rose to $1.89 billion. But sales at stores open at least a year, a key measure of a retailer's health, declined 8 percent. The company also said it will slow plans for new stores and remodels. The chain has about 1,000 stores, mostly in the United States.

"I think it's a very good decision on their part," said C. Britt Beemer, head of America's Research Group, a firm that studies consumer behavior. "Sometimes sex doesn't sell as well to a woman as it does to the men."

Turney said the brand's original story line was of a to-the-manor-born Londoner named Victoria whose lacey underthings, we assume, were her little secret. But in recent years, Victoria became known as simply "Vicky," and she had no qualms about flaunting her sex appeal.

The chain began remodeling stores to resemble glittery boudoirs, with mannequins in feathery thongs and stilettos prominently displayed near the entrances. When the store in Tysons Corner Center, Va., was made over in 2005, enraged parents lobbied it to tone down the display. It eventually complied.

Victoria's Secret is trying to recalibrate. Fourth-quarter sales of fragrance and the collegiate-inspired Pink label grew, but sales of bras, panties and beauty products declined. Turney said the company will aim its marketing and merchandise at 26-year-olds.

, holding extensive focus groups and walking through malls with them. The company did similar research when it launched Pink, which has become a staple in dorm rooms.

Still, the company sells the Very Sexy line of lingerie, swimwear and even makeup. Then there's the Sexy Little Things collection, which includes more risque merchandise, such as peek-a-boo bras and undies, and shimmering body powder in a feathery bottle. And don't forget the third annual "What Is Sexy?" TV broadcast this month honoring the sexiest mom (Victoria Beckham), sexiest style (Scarlett Johansson) and sexiest smile (Ryan Seacrest?).

"We use the word sexy a lot," Turney said.

Turney pointed to the company's Super Bowl ad this year as an example of its new direction. The spot featured model Adriana Lima in a black lace tank top and undies seductively tossing a football as she lounged in a chair.

"Let the real games begin," the ad said. It was the most popular spot on the broadcast and was seen by 103.7 million people, according to the Nielsen Co. Its fashion show last year on CBS featuring models wearing angel wings and little else drew 7.5 million people, down from its 2001 debut on ABC with 12.4 million viewers.

A person familiar with the new strategy, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to discuss it in the media, said Turney thought Victoria's Secret had become too "provocative." It is now seeking balance, aiming for what she called "the softer side of sexy." The approach may be applied to merchandise as well as marketing, but she said the company is happy with its Very Sexy and Sexy Little Things collections.

"It would be evolutionary," she said, "not revolutionary."

Todd Slater, an analyst with Lazard Capital Markets, said Victoria's Secret's problems were related not to brand positioning but to operational flubs and weak consumer spending. The chain confused customers with too many new products last year and had excessive inventory, he said.

"I think the brand stands for more than just sexy," Slater said. But he added, "In a more conservative (economic) environment ... perhaps positioning away from sexy, toning down the sex is probably not a bad idea."

Victoria's Secret changed the way women buy and wear lingerie, and it has dominated that market for years. But competition has increased, with high-end designers, specialty retailers and discounters expanding their offerings, said Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president of consulting firm TNS Retail Forward. Customers have become more comfortable shopping for intimate apparel outside cosseted stores such as Victoria's Secret, she said.

"Eventually, all successful strategies fail if they're not monitored and not tweaked appropriately," she said.

Staff researcher Richard S. Drezen contributed to this report.

A model walks the runway during the Victoria’s Secret fashion show at the Kodak Theatre in this Nov. 15, 2007, file photo in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. - AP