COLUMBUS, Ohio — Even though The Limited is still stumbling in women’s apparel, it is as eager as ever to grow, Leslie H. Wexner, chairman and chief executive officer, said Monday.
Speaking at a press conference following the annual meeting, Wexner said The Limited will test a men’s wear catalog this fall for its Structure stores and will detail strategy to expand Bath & Body Works in about a month.
In addition, according to sources, The Limited is testing a broader assortment of fall merchandise for its Express division. Limited officials declined comment on that.
The company is also expected to test more specialized versions of its Victoria’s Secret catalog following the success of a swimwear catalog mailed out by the division earlier this year. Officials would not disclose what merchandise categories might be featured in a special catalog.
Victoria’s Secret has spent $3 million this month testing TV ads featuring its Second Skin satin lingerie line, and will go ahead with a campaign. During the rest of this decade, sub-branding or cross marketing will be a big part of The Limited’s strategy.
“There are no financial limitations on our growth,” said Wexner.
Wexner said that within the past year the corporation has been working on a plan to roll out Bath & Body Works overseas and that in about a month he expects to announce details of the international strategy.
Sources later said that about five or six Bath & Body Works stores will begin testing in about a month in England and that the corporation envisions what will ultimately be a 2,000-unit chain.
“I think for almost 30 years we’ve recognized the importance of sourcing merchandise on a global basis,” Wexner said. “We’ve set the pace and really have been globetrotters on the buying side. On the selling side, we’ve always been reluctant to move into international retailing. We see opportunities in the global marketplace. We also see the problems. Fashion retailing business has rarely moved successfully.”
The only sustained success, he said, has been at the very highest fashion levels — an area that is not within The Limited’s sphere of activity. Wexner explained that while fashion is tough to market internationally, packaged goods such as beer, automobiles and personal care products are the kind of wares that could be sold across borders.
Wexner also said during the press conference that about 400 stores will open domestically this year. More than half will be by the Structure men’s wear and Bath & Body Works divisions, the two biggest growth vehicles in the company.
Meanwhile the corporation has accelerated its experimentation of new formats outside its core women’s apparel business, which has been plagued by soft sales through much of the Nineties.
After the press conference, Wexner said women’s sales were strong this year until Easter, but acknowledged a slowdown since then. He said it could be due to rising interest rates or to weather factors, but admitted, “We’re scratching our heads.”
He added, however, that he anticipates a pickup in women’s business this fall, claiming, “Things we have been testing look great.” He did not elaborate.
At Express, which has been lagging since August, “there will be a wider assortment of clothes for a more diverse group,” said Jennifer Black Groves, a retail analyst from Black & Co., a brokerage firm in Portland, Ore., who has seen the test merchandise. “I think it’s good,” she said. “The stores got too trendy. The biggest fears on Wall Street have been over Express. It’s the biggest part of the corporation, but I think there will be a huge turnaround in that division — but not before the second quarter ends.”
The products Express has been testing to reach a wider range of ages have been jodhpur pants, longer skirts, fitted skirts and double-breasted jackets, while continuing to emphasize sweaters, denim and jeans.
The Limited Stores division has been troubled for about four years and the company will reduce the number of stores to 716 this year from 746 last year. However, Kenneth Gilman, vice chairman and chief financial officer, said, “I don’t think we have businesses that have become bloated or require downsizing or massive restructuring.”
The Lerner New York division will drop to 848 stores this year from 877 last year, while Express will expand to 751 stores this year from 673 last year. Abercrombie & Fitch is said to be improving and will increase to 72 stores from 49 stores. There are no plans to open any more Henri Bendel stores this year.
At the annual meeting, staged at the Columbus Convention Center, there were about 10,000 associates, a record crowd. Unlike past annual meetings, Wexner did not make any growth projections, but he urged employees to be good listeners, to listen to their customers and to be aware of how to solve problems and improve the operations.
Following the tradition of past meetings, there was blaring music, a standing ovation when Wexner made his grand entrance to a packed house, cheerleaders doing flips as Wexner welcomed each division, and little official business.