This is a story about soap.
And lotion and candles. And how one store has cultivated a deep loyalty with its customer base, some of whom are so dedicated to the brand they devote sections of their homes to its products.
Bath & Body Works, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is the secret superstar of its parent company, L Brands. While its sister, Victoria's Secret, has floundered (most recently fumbling its announced spinoff with Sycamore Partners this past spring) Bath & Body Works has steadily built both its brand and its following.
A subset of those shoppers have a love of the company that is so deeply rooted that collecting Bath & Body Works products is a hobby. While some people amass figurines or salt shakers or magnets from their travels, there are Bath & Body customers that visit stores multiple times a week, conduct haul videos of the different scents, or talk in forums on Reddit and Facebook about the company's latest product offerings, going into detail about packaging and a particular candle's "throw" while discussing which stores carry which scents.
In an era when large swaths of retail face the fallout of a pandemic, struggle with sales and rapidly contract store footprints, how has Bath & Body Works not only survived, but thrived?
Although many people are casual Bath & Body Works shoppers, to find the true enthusiasts one has to do a bit of digging. Go on YouTube. On Facebook. On Instagram. And start to search a few key terms, like #BathandBodyWorks or #BABW or even the more generic #candlecommunity, and a door will start to open.
Scrolling through a page, a community will start to reveal itself. These are the dedicated people who love Bath & Body products and document their shopping experiences. They talk about differences in scents, tell stories about why they bought multiples of the same item, and chat about sales. Many people in the community follow each other and comment on each other's pages, giving tips and opinions about subjects such as the season's latest packaging.
Ash McDonald is one of those people. Her YouTube channel, LiVing Ash, covers beauty, fragrance and fashion, with content dedicated to Bath & Body Works. In a recent video, McDonald spent about 20 minutes walking viewers through how she organizes her collection of personal care products, many of which are from the retailer.
McDonald's large collection is similar to many of her cohort. For people who typically use only one lotion or bar of soap at a time, the idea of having multiple body care products, and using those products simultaneously, can be a confusing concept.
But, just as people have a closet full of clothes that they wear and rotate, those who collect fragrance products approach it in a similar manner. It is, in essence, a fragrance wardrobe. And products are used according to mood, or layered, or used at different points in the day.
"A lot of people ask … 'How do you get through all of this stuff? How do you use it?'" McDonald said in an interview. "And I really do use them." She also typically uses multiple products in a day, and layers lotion with a fragrance. "I always use a different lotion in the morning versus at night, so I'll have my daytime scent, and then nighttime scent."
Her experience is similar to that of Leah Van Wyk, a beauty vlogger who is a full-time YouTuber for her channel, Leah Janae. "They have super adorable packaging. They have something for pretty much everyone, so many different scents," she says of Bath & Body Works. "They're always coming out with new ones, like limited edition collections for different seasons and holidays."
The packaging in particular stands out for collectors because products visually go together. "The product, generally, especially in things like candles — the three-wick candle — is very uniform. So the product is the same size. It's the same shape, by and large," said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, in an interview. "So in a way, it signals to consumers that it can be made into a set. It is collectible because there is uniformity. If you go into something like … Victoria's Secret, it's not really uniform at all, there's just a whole variety of jumble of different products."
A spokesperson for L Brands declined an interview regarding this topic.
Built on bubbles
That collectability shows up in sales. Bath & Body Works recently celebrated becoming a $5 billion brand, delivering an outstanding 40 consecutive quarters of positive comparable sales since 2009, according to L Brands' 2020 annual report.
And, with nearly 2,000 locations worldwide, 1,700 of which are in North America, Bath & Body is a recognizable mall mainstay.
Beauty Specialist Retailer Ranking 2019
|Retailer Name||Ranking||Brand Share|
|Bath & Body Works (L Brands)||2||17.4%|
Source: Euromonitor International
But, what may not immediately apparent is that, underneath all the cheerful, bubbly branding, the company is a formidable competitor in the beauty and fragrance space. According to data from Euromonitor International, Bath & Body Works currently ranks in second place as a beauty specialist retailer, coming in behind Ulta but beating out Sephora.
The gamification of candle shopping
For those outside the culture of Bath & Body Works collectors, the enthusiasm driving the continuous acquisition of products typically leads to a comparison with the Beanie Baby craze in the 90s. For a finite amount of time, the plush animals became a point of retail obsession, with consumers convinced that the toys were going to appreciate in value and ultimately causing a run on different variations of the products. Over time, though, those hopes were dashed, with very few items proving to be worth money. It left starry-eyed consumers with boxes of worthless, mass-produced product and it left pop culture an infamous photo of a couple dividing up their collection on a courtroom floor following their divorce.
Collecting Bath & Body Works products, though, is different. Unlike other types of collections that may be purchased at different types of retail stores, Bath & Body Works is about acquisition within the context of one company. And, as it turns out, those products actually may increase in value and are sometimes sold on third-party marketplaces.
The retailer has its signature collection, or the mainstay products which are the backbone of its fragrance offerings. Then there are the seasonal products, most famously the company's fall and holiday scents, that appear annually. And then there are product drops based on theme during the year.
"Their stores and products have been Instagrammable since before there was an Instagram."
Vice President of Strategy and New Partnerships, Good Apple
The variation and creativity of packaging, too, means that when the company brings back an old scent with a new design it is ripe for both discussion and acquisition among devotees. When McDonald went to a past Bath & Body Works sale she described her delight in finding the same scent in two different forms. "I got one year Waikiki Beach Coconut scent, and I was able to get it in the new packaging and the old packaging for the same price," she explained. "And I was so happy! Now I have two of these, and it was so cool to see the bottle was blue on the packaging for last year. And now this year, it's yellow, and it was really pleasing to have, especially as a collector."
The continued fresh design and introduction of new scents creates an atmosphere of discovery for shoppers, especially through the company's merchandising plan.
"Bath & Body Works is familiar and ever-changing all at once — offering a rotating selection of brands that are updated seasonally and keep customers coming back," said Janet Yen, vice president of strategy and new partnerships at independent media agency Good Apple. "Their stores are friendly and bright, associates are cheerful, and their products are colorful and eye-catching. Their stores and products have been Instagrammable since before there was an Instagram."
But, not every store gets every product. So, for those people who really love the retailer it becomes a search for the latest trends and scents. It also initiates excitement and discovery, as customers hunt locations for items. McDonald goes to Bath & Body Works stores two or three times a week and "that's not even counting online looking on their website," she said. Van Wyk said she goes about every other week, "just to see what they have that's new."
Going to multiple locations to shop is typical of collectors, as is sharing within online communities when they locate various scents that are hard to find. "If you buy something and it just doesn't come back, it's almost like 'oh my God, I can't get it again!'" McDonald explained. "If you go to Walmart, you can get the regular Jergens lotion and they're going to have that thing. But, Bath & Body Works brings in different scents so often and takes them away. That's what makes you want to stock up — because you never know when that scent is going to come back."
It means, in essence, Bath & Body Works has gamified its stores. Although the retailer may not see the shopping experience specifically in those terms.
In its latest annual report, the company said that, "Every brand displays merchandise uniformly to ensure a consistent store experience, regardless of location. Store managers receive detailed plans designating fixture and merchandise placement to ensure coordinated execution of the company-wide merchandising strategy."
While the merchandising approach is uniform, the physical layout of locations can vary simply because of square footage or the age of the store. Some are in mall locations and some in strip malls, others are outlets. "The package of products that you can send to each store therefore varies," said Saunders. "Some of them can take the full range or more or less the full range. Some of them have to take a condensed, sort of pared back or curated range because they don't have the space." It also means the focus of individual stores can vary as well, with older Bath & Body Works stores not having as much focus on home fragrance, while newer stores have a "much bigger emphasis on home fragrance so they'll have a White Barn Candle Section or department within the store," Saunders said regarding the product mix.
The search for items also creates fodder for the community of collectors. Some, like Van Wyk, create "shop with me" videos of themselves walking through stores to show off the space, merchandising and new products. Van Wyk also is able to talk about the distinct scent notes, explain why she purchased specific items, analyze how items may smell different or similar to past products, and comment on the packaging.
The retailer's savvy around sunsetting products also leads many collectors to buy in multiples. So, rather than get one candle in a beloved scent, they may bring home two or three — or even more. "I've seen people buy a whole bag full of just one scent before," Van Wyk said. "I think people have their favorite thing. They love to stock up on it in case it does go away. You never know — they could discontinue something. So, of course, if I find something that I just love I have to have at least one backup of it."
One of the byproducts of having limited collections is that it has created a secondary market for Bath & Body Works products. That means that scents can be purchased on other platforms, including Amazon.
A quick search for Bath & Body Works products on the e-commerce giant's platform brings up pages of items, including a three-pack of the fine fragrance mist "Dark Kiss" for $31.97. Customer reviews state that the fragrance was retired by the company, and express their delight in the ability to purchase it once again. "I missed it. Sometimes they still sell it online but it sold out on their site! So I'm really glad to find it here on amazon," one purchaser wrote. "So worth it, not sold in store anymore," wrote another.
It's also possible to find Bath & Body Works products on the e-commerce platform Mercari, where individual users can sell items. A recent search reveals a "rare" Bath & Body Works holiday three-wick candle priced at $118, while another seller lists a Halloween-themed candle pedestal at $125. (Van Wyk showed the same candle holder in a July video that listed the in-store price at $59.50.)
Mercari is a way for collectors to make money, but it can also be a way to participate in the larger Bath & Body Works community. Enthusiasts sell off unused items or some of the multiples they picked up in stores. McDonald said that it's a way for her to interact with her YouTube community. "My subscribers actually have asked me for specific scents to list there. And if I don't have it I'll let them know that if I do see it I will list it on there for them. Because I feel like I don't need any more so I'll make sure to pick it up and try to sell it to them."
Selling essential products during a pandemic
Like many retailers, Bath & Body Works was deemed nonessential at the start of the U.S. pandemic. That meant temporarily closing stores starting March 17, and then later reopening in waves across the country.
But, Bath & Body Works had many products that were of high interest to a public that was beginning to pay closer attention to health and hygiene. While sister company Victoria's Secret decided to temporarily pause all e-commerce orders, Bath & Body Works continued with digital sales, in part to prioritize soap and hand sanitizer, which traditionally comprises up to 15% of its business.
The company's newly elevated relevance didn't stop there. It grew in importance as families stayed inside more and large swaths of the population found themselves working from home. That meant a refocus on home products, including candles.
"The candles are really popular when you're at home so long and trying not to go out too much," Van Wyk explained. "It's nice to make your house smell good and burn the candle and treat yourself a little bit … I think that's why they're so successful, because they kind of have those essential items that people want during this time."
L Brands agrees with this assessment. In the company's most recent earnings call, L Brands' CEO Andrew Meslow told analysts that Bath & Body Works products are currently "an affordable luxury, a way for her to treat herself when she's unable or unwilling to spend money on perhaps other larger-ticket commodities." Meslow went on to explain that home fragrance has become a focus as the public is using homes as a place of work, "a place of teaching in school and a place of refuge and solace."
Bath & Body Works' positioning paid off. In Q1, hand sanitizer and soap sales grew to 25% of the business, and in the second quarter "a little higher than that," according to Meslow.
A clean future
Therein lies the crux of Bath & Body Works' product offerings. The company sells both home and personal care products that most people use anyway, but in a way that allows the consumer to explore and pick their fragrance of choice, all within a relatively affordable price point.
"I chalk this up to a very simple reaction to COVID: self-care," said Ben Gaddis, CEO of T3, a Material Company. "In the midst of people mentally and physically managing a very scary outside world, B&BW products are tailor-made for dropping out, if only for a bit sinking deep into a tub."
While the company took a hit with retail traffic during the spring due to temporary closures, "the pace at which the brand is bouncing back is ... impressive," according to Placer.ai. Foot traffic, which plummeted from March through June was "almost inching back to normal levels" toward the end of July. "With a heavy orientation toward home and wellness — two trending sectors — Bath & Body Works is positioned well for a bounce back," Placer.ai said.
Saunders believes that Bath & Body Works will benefit from consumers' focus on home and personal fragrance for the rest of this year and into 2021. "I'm very optimistic about their prospects. Their growth rates are going to come down because you can't put massive growth on massive growth, but the business is going to still be significantly larger in 2021 than it was in 2019.
In the meantime, collectors will continue to trade notes on what is in stores, their favorite scents and their opinions regarding product drops for the upcoming holiday season. Because, when it comes down to it, Bath & Body Works simply gives them joy, and plugs them into a like-minded community.
"People who just are regular people like me — they just want to collect and have all these scents — they end up just wanting to get a job there because they have a passion for it," McDonald said, highlighting the excitement associates share with customers. "And I think that's really important for Bath & Body Works because it just makes people want to come into the store way more."