Why Victoria’s Secret is still thriving in America’s malls
To wring all that I could out of said store experience, I arranged to walk through the brand’s Fifth Avenue flagship store with Anthony Deen, the creative director of branded environments for CBX, an agency that’s worked with everyone from Duane Reade to Saks Off Fifth to M&M’s. On the walk over to the store, he admits he has always been skeptical of how Victoria’s Secret panders to the male gaze while selling to a customer base of millions of women.
“Obviously, there’s an aspect of the Angels that is just totally geared toward this male audience,” he tells me. “And I always saw that as somewhat cynical. But in going into the stores, you realize that there’s actually something more to it, which is this proximity to beauty, and wanting women to associate beauty with this product, so that they feel beautiful when they purchase it and wear it.”
As soon as we step into the store, he starts to point out the store’s signature touches, like the framed pictures of Angels hanging from the walls, which feed into this idea of beauty proximity. “This is like a rich person’s private dressing room,” he says, pointing out the faux dresser drawers doubling as wall decor. Tables and chaise lounges feature bras laid out on their cushions instead of on hangers on a rack; a range of sizes and styles are tucked into actual drawers under the tables so shoppers can help themselves to what they want. “In the back of your head, you know that’s what’s going on, but you don’t necessarily put it together to say, ‘Oh yeah, this is my closet.'”
“You realize that there’s actually something more to it, which is this proximity to beauty, and wanting women to associate beauty with this product.”
The store’s sexier rooms, outfitted with black wallpaper and low lighting, are usually the first ones you walk into, while the milder ones featuring more everyday bras are set towards the back of the store. “It says, ‘This is for women,'” Deen explains as we venture into a girly pink room. “And it says, ‘Guys, you’re not allowed back here.'”
Salespeople greet us at the front of the store and hover in every room but don’t approach us, which Deen counts as a plus. “They’re not overly solicitous,” he says. “People like to shop. If you get in their way, you inhibit them from actually exploring.”
Customer service is indeed a big part of how Victoria’s Secret differentiates itself from competitors, and Wexner laid out plans to invest more heavily in sales staff at the company’s annual investor update meeting, saying that he wanted to pay “fewer, better people” up to $20 an hour in the stores.
“I’m imagining in a couple of years virtually every sales associate is looking forward to a career in retailing,” he explained. “And 10 or 20 percent of them will be store managers somewhere in the world in a year. They can literally go from $40,000 to more than $100,000 a year in compensation and we can really teach and train and retain them.” However, the brand only just got rid of on-call scheduling, where employees were forced to stay available for possible work shifts without pay or guarantee that they’d be actually needed earlier this year.
I visited stores in New York City; Pittsburgh; Amherst, Massachusetts; and Buffalo, New York over the past month to test out one of the brand’s lauded features, the in-store bra fitting, and had no trouble finding sales staff eager to help at each store. The actual fitting wasn’t always a seamless process, though — sometimes it took 10 minutes, sometimes it took 30 — and I left each store with a pink card proclaiming different results every time. In New York’s Herald Square, I was confidently measured at a 32B, while in Amherst, I was surely a 34B. In Pittsburgh, I was a 34A, but in Buffalo, the bra specialist declared me a 36A.
This wasn’t entirely surprising, as bra sizing is a Herculean task that apparently no one can get right — everyone from industry specialists to Kate Middleton’s bra fitter has proclaimed that millions and millions of women are walking around in broad daylight, wearing the wrong bra size. When I went back to present my findings to the bra specialist at my hometown store, after getting four different results at four different stores, she was hardly shocked.
“I think each specialist does it differently,” she explains. “They have a different opinion. We all have the same method of measuring, but the way the bra looks — every specialist is a little bit different.”
In the Fifth Avenue store, Deen and I start making our way through the beauty products. “There aren’t a lot of mirrors, which is kind of counter to any beauty environment,” he says. “It’s a lot of skincare, so again it’s about this idea of pampering, indulging in you and making you feel really comfortable and feminine.”
Up on the walls, more framed photos of overwhelmingly white, blonde Angels stare down at us, with the occasional close-up shot of Angel butt and Angel boob mixed in. “There’s an extent to which you can do this stuff, and then there’s a point where you’re pushing too far,” Deen says. “Ultimately, it can’t be aspirational. People aren’t just going to look like that. If I went into any store and saw nothing but male body builders, at a certain point I’d be like, ‘This is not my store.’ There’s definitely a point at which this beauty becomes oppressive.”
I mention that it doesn’t seem to be slowing the brand down at all, and Deen points back to the fact that there is no real competition out there in this mass market space. As we head for the door, we again pass by the front displays of sequined holiday lingerie and busts with wings sprouting out of their backs. “They really doubled down on this Angel metaphor,” Deen says. “They’re reaching out to women and they’re saying that they’re angels. How that translates into the physical environment is a little bit tougher. The wings… that’s a little over the top. Although, we’ll see, in two years, maybe people will be walking around with their wings on outside.”