L Brands chief and founder Leslie Wexner is mulling a sale of Victoria's Secret — in whole or partially — and may step down from the CEO position, according to multiple reports. Wexner could still stay on as chairman, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the news.
Victoria's Secret runs its namesake lingerie business, a fragrance business and a less expensive, more youthful lingerie sub-brand, Pink.
L Brands declined to comment on the report, saying in an email, "We would not comment on such rumors." Victoria's Secret didn't immediately returned Retail Dive's request for comment.
Pressure has been mounting for nearly a year for L Brands to explore strategic alternatives, including possibly a spinoff of its smaller but better performing Bath and Body Works personal care business, or a sale of Victoria's Secret, in whole or in part.
The lingerie business has lost its footing in a market where it still racks up some $7 billion in annual sales. Declines have been relentless as Victoria's Secret has clung to an outmoded sexualization of both marketing and merchandise.
During the holidays, Victoria's Secret, the largest brand in L Brands' stable, dragged down the company, with a comp decline of 12%, traffic down in the mid-teens and margin rate "down significantly" due to increased promotions. Sibling Pink also suffered, with comps down in the mid-teens and margins also down significantly. For those nine weeks, L Brands said net sales dropped to $3.91 billion from $4.07 billion last year, as comparable sales fell 3% and margins shrank.
In the past, Wexner has demonstrated little hesitation in letting go of lines of business that previously brought him success. The son of retailers, he struck out on his own in 1963 with a Columbus, Ohio, store dubbed "The Limited," which curated a selection of merchandise rather than the array offered at department stores and other clothiers.
Early in the 21st century, Wexner sold off that business, along with others, as apparel sales growth softened. But even before that, he shuttered the flagship Limited location, a gleaming store that had been the company's pride and joy, according to Lee Peterson, executive vice president of thought leadership and marketing at WD Partners, who worked with Wexner at The Limited at the time.
"Out of the blue he closed it — that stunned me," Peterson told Retail Dive in an interview. "That would be the last store I would close, it was like a museum piece. To me that said a lot. This guy is truly about the business and not about the emotional parts of the business. Then he unloaded the whole damn brand — that and Express, which we started from scratch. In that sense, it's not surprising that he'd unload Victoria's Secret. The difference is now he's 82 years old."
Meaning, he said, that Wexner is likely seeing how drastic changes, both in the broader culture and the retail business, have been. In the #MeToo era, analysts and competitors alike have criticized Victoria's Secret branding as backward and clueless. And while Victoria's Secret backed away from its fashion show, it's unclear what replaces it. More, its merchandising has been slow to react to demand for prettier, more comfortable styles, leaving American Eagle's Aerie and several online newcomers to snap up market share.
"It's sort of an end of an era for a lot of things — the end of that sexy thing at Victoria's Secret, but also the end of the era of stores," Peterson said. "Les was at the dawn of that, and now he's at the sunset of that — and I think he's smart enough to realize that. And at 82 years old, he may not want to take that kind of turnaround on, or realizes that he doesn't understand what it takes."
Analysts have recently addressed the brand's store fleet. Cowen & Co. analyst Oliver Chen in a client note Wednesday noted a 4% reduction in store count is expected by the end of January. He pegs the probability of a Victoria's Secret sale at 60% or higher, though he noted that the company's share price has likely baked in a sense that some sort of company split will occur. Peterson guesses that a financial entity like a private equity firm, which took over The Limited and largely disappeared it from view, would be likely to take on Victoria's Secret.
Such a deal is easier said that done, however, according to Credit Suisse analyst Michael Binetti. "Fast money headline arrives, but [the] story [is] tougher from here," he wrote in emailed comments, adding than any potential buyer would need "to commit [significant] capital to fix VS' 1100 mall stores."