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NEW YORK — The sophisticated lady has slipped into something sleek.
Victoria’s Secret opens its largest store today — a 25,000-square-foot, two-level pad in Herald Square, seen generating $20 million in first-year sales and showcasing the lingerie chain’s future look. It’s a creamy, contemporary and far roomier prototype with several innovative and, of course, sexy merchandising and display features that in this Republican era, should help loosen things up around the country. Elements of the new design will be incorporated in varying degrees into scores of VS stores over the next several seasons.
“The brand has always been about special environments that are residential, feminine and romantic, but every two or three years, we’re running with some new version of the design,” said Grace Nichols, chief executive officer of Victoria’s Secret Stores, in an exclusive interview. “I’ve lived through at least six of them. It’s really our view that looks tire quickly. They have a five-to-six-year life at best. The departure here [Herald Square] is we’ve become more modern and contemporary.”
“Herald Square is absolutely the most sophisticated store design we’ve rolled out,” added Tom Stempfley, director of visual presentation, Victoria’s Secret Stores. “The color palette is completely different. It’s all based on cream and black, but pink will always be part of Victoria’s Secret.”
There’s also black trim throughout the store, reminiscent of Chanel, and black-and-white photos of top VS models taken behind the scenes at fashion shows, all helping to eradicate the chandeliered Victorian mood of previous prototypes.
Among the architectural and design firsts at the VS mother ship:
A “decompression zone” off the main entrance on the corner of 34th Street and Sixth Avenue. It’s a 500-square-foot lobby at the foot of two 18-foot-tall display platforms that reach the ceiling for maximum visual impact. Typically, windows are the primary display vehicles, but at the Herald Square store, windows will mostly be for letting light in and enabling customers to see inside the store.
A new panty collection that’s strictly frivolous and provocative, and has nothing do with the rest of the panty assortment. Among the steamier items where less means more: black mesh panties and garter set with leather buckles, priced at $198, and pearl G-strings for $16. Initially, the collection was to be called “Bon Bon” but the company has decided it will conjure a different name.
A “grand hall” for high-end, vintage lingerie, circa 1900 to 1950, including a one-of-a-kind $1,800 long tulle skirt with appliqué, and silk and lace robes for $1,250. Vintage-style garters go for $24.50, and long silk gowns with lace insets are priced $78. (The matching robe is priced $100.)
In addition, there are 18-by-16-foot leather upholstered walls, black lacquered platforms for display and storage, and plasma screen video systems running VS fashion shows. The systems are set back, so as not to distract from the merchandise. There’s also a row of video monitors embedded into the escalators, for a more stimulating ride.
With Victoria’s Secret getting exposed to heavy crowds at Herald Square, service has been intensified to help move the traffic, particularly during peak selling periods. There are three island cash- wraps, as well as 11 ancillary cash-wrap “pods” that are mobile and radio-frequency powered. There’s also a a “bra wardrobing center” storing the entire collection of bras and panties right by the fitting rooms, so sales associates can hand off items to customers while they’re trying on items. About 300 sales and stock associates are manning the store.
Service is also being upgraded throughout the chain, with next year’s plan calling for the installation of new registers that will provide a performance management system to better focus on conversion rates.
With the addition of the giant VS store, the Herald Square vicinity is now flagship central. It’s home to big-volume flagships operated by Macy’s, Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic, and several stores have two locations within two or three blocks, including H&M, Express, Parade of Shoes, Conway and numerous drugstore chains. VS also operates a store in Manhattan Mall at 33rd Street and Sixth Avenue.
According to the 34th Street Partnership Business Improvement District, 8,000 or more pedestrians pass the corner of Sixth Avenue and 34th Street each hour and about 100 million people each year pass the four corners of 34th Street and Broadway.
For a brand that’s already world famous and highly visible, “This is a unique location and terrific opportunity,” Nichols said.
“In lingerie, what’s different or what’s sexy to people continually changes,” Nichols observed. “Our customers are very interested in cleavage that really doesn’t have so much padding, which is what our Very Sexy offers. It’s a deep oval plunge where you get cleavage enhancement and support through its technical construction, without heavy padding.”
Also, “Really high-legged panties are what’s sexy. Tangas are in demand.”
Victoria’s Secret Stores, a division of Limited Brands, is currently a $2.4 billion business with just over 900 stores. The ultimate goal is $4 billion in sales. Most of the volume gains are seen through increased square footage at existing locations, either through expansions or moving into larger spaces as new leases get negotiated. Only about 100 additional stores are expected to be added to the fleet in the next few years.
Launching new products and “sub-brands” is also critical, such as with Pink, the newest sub-brand geared for 15- to 22-year-olds and younger proportions. Pink was introduced to 15 stores last season, and for spring, it will be added to 50 more. In 2004, another 150 to 200 doors could carry Pink.
Body by Victoria is the largest-volume sub-brand, at $400 million in sales. It emphasizes seamless stretch and high comfort, and targets 28- to 38-year-old women who have curves — or want them. Other sub-brands are Angels, Very Sexy, Signature Cotton and Second Skin Satin.
The company expects to see vigorous growth in bras, where it has a 19 percent market share, up from 15.5 percent in 2000. Bras and panties account for 45 percent of the business; fragrance and cosmetics, 18 percent; sleepwear, 17 percent, and the remaining 20 percent is hosiery, accessories and other items.
Limited Brands considers VS one of its three “power brands” along with Express and Bath & Body Works, but it’s clearly the most marketable. “We don’t see the chain at this point exceeding 1,000 stores, but where we are invested right now is relocating [for more square footage] in existing high-traffic, high-volume locations,” to accommodate the growing product range, Nichols said. For example, a store in Beverly Center in Los Angeles was increased to 10,000 square feet from 4,500 last August, and next year, the plan is to open 10 stores and expand 33, including the unit in Northpark shopping center in Dallas. Compared with the rest of the chain, the Herald Square flagship, located on the northeast corner of 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, is a magilla. The top three Victoria’s Secret stores are on West 67th and East 57th Streets here and in the Dadeland Mall in Miami. Those each post between $10 million to $15 million in sales annually, well under the target for Herald Square. The average Victoria’s Secret store is about 4,500 square feet and posts $555 in sales per square foot, or about $2.5 million a year.
“As you know, we have 81 stores that are over 6,000 square feet and we plan to continually open larger stores,” Nichols said. “You won’t see everything from Herald Square in the 900-plus stores that we operate, but you will see certain elements in key upscale malls and shopping centers,” such as the 6,000-square-foot unit in Merrick Park in Coral Gables, Fla., and the 10,000-square-foot unit in the Cherry Creek mall in Denver, as well as Beverly Center.
At Herald Square, VS worked with the design firm Yabu/Pushelberg in creating the store. It’s designed with marble and terrazzo floors and separate spaces for each sub-brand, as well as an “oval” room that, for holiday, features relaxed classics, including terry robes, $78; flannel pajamas, $49.50; cotton sleepshirts, $29.50. Relaxed looks represent 60 percent of the volume for sleepwear during the holiday season. For Valentine’s Day, the oval room will slip into lace teddies and baby dolls for a sexier assortment.
Due to the heavy volume expected and its limited storage space, the store will be the first in the chain to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with nightly deliveries from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Of the 25,000 square feet, 22,000 is for selling; 3,000 for storage. While today marks the soft opening, the official opening for media hype is Nov. 19. It’s a company that believes in maximum exposure.