Department stores are in a “death spiral” and far from being a disaster, the impact of their demise will be marginal, even positive — at least, according to Leslie Wexner.
The 80-year-old founder, chairman and chief executive officer of L Brands Inc., as usual, pulled no punches as he weighed in on retail broadly and the transformation of Victoria’s Secret at the company’s annual investor meeting in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday.
Wexner declared himself to be in fine spirits as the cornerstone Victoria’s Secret business was finally showing momentum again after a very tough run, when the exit of apparel and swimwear hit the top line hard and the brand’s management changed over. (L Brands’ sales rose 5 percent last month, helping boost its stock 8 percent to $47.10 Thursday.)
The good mood showed as retail legend mused on what makes a good company tick, the inexplicable happiness of consumers, how he pushed Victoria’s Secret to take its “markdown” and reinvent when things weren’t working, how American companies are unsophisticated online and how the L Brands digital business is just a C-plus.
Then there is the question of department stores — and Wexner is admittedly biased since he has spent his entire career as a specialty store retailer.
While not exactly gleeful, he seemed happy to kick at department stores while they’re down — an occupation that the specialty store crew has long enjoyed. And Wexner is uniquely situated to take shots at his multiline brethren in that he sees department stores as both competitors and tenants given L Brands’ stake in Columbus’ Easton Town Center.
“In Easton, if Macy’s wanted to leave, we’d be happy,” Wexner said. “If Nordstrom wanted to leave, we wouldn’t care.”
It’d be a different story, though, if Apple wanted to pull its store. He also pointed to newer retailers, such as Shinola and Warby Parker, which are bringing new approaches to the market.
“Retailing looks pretty good to me,” he said. “Department stores are kind of in a death spiral….Some developers are smarter than others, but some are actually paying department stores that are lingering, [saying], ‘Leave now, so we can use the space.’ There’s a fair number of centers where department stores have closed and things got better.”
Specialty stores, at least forward-thinking ones, are thriving, he said, pointing to categories of beauty, lingerie, sport and food. “It’s never been better at retail and department stores are really bad and old-fashioned, fashion specialty stores are really, really bad,” he said.
(Wexner also took a swipe at longtime rival Gap and some of its international woes, noting the company “spent two years opening 70 stores in German and the next two years closing them.”)
The shopping center — a perennial punching bag for many retail watchers — actually fares rather well in Wexner’s estimation, although it’s also a business he’s in to a relatively small extent.
“If shopping centers are going to hell, then explain the volume that Lululemon is getting or the volumes we’re getting in Pink or Victoria’s Secret or Bath and Body or Starbucks,” he said.
Foot traffic at shopping centers has changed as shoppers become more deliberate and laser-targeted on what they want. “The kind of milling around for two or three hours that we might have seen from a decade ago, I think that’s gone,” he said.
And although many retailers are in a stupor as they try to keep up with these changes, consumers aren’t feeling the same.
In fact, Wexner said shoppers are feeling pretty good and have moved beyond the uncertainty that accompanied the arrival of President Trump on the global stage.
“The Trump effect, frankly, I find it appalling, but people are kind of insensitive to it,” he said.
He pointed to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who praised the resiliency of New Yorkers, who took to the Halloween Parade despite this week’s \ terror attack, which killed eight people.
“North Korea threatens nuclear war, that’s just the news; eight people get slain, five years ago the marathon would have been postponed,” Wexner said. “There’s something happening. Maybe it has to do with [economic] growth of 3 percent or maybe it’s the stock market or maybe we’re just desensitized or maybe human nature, we’re wired like we have to be happy no matter what.”
Whatever it is, that well of good vibes is a plus for L Brands and consumers in general, the ceo said.
That doesn’t mean that Wexner or L Brands is standing still.
Wexner is bullish on Victoria’s Secret, which he said had lost its fashion edge and somehow inched its way into just plain underwear as opposed to lingerie.
He brought in new leadership, focused the brand on its core businesses and cut the print catalogue, a move that Wexner used to illustrate his thinking on the process.
The ceo said he imagined bringing a brand to market today for the first time. “You say, no way would you start with print today. Then you say, well, why the hell are you doing it?”
“Now you’re putting resources into digital and you’re putting it into print, why don’t you put it all in digital? Bite the bullet,” Wexner said. “It changes the business pretty damn fast, it’s pretty much march or die.”
Digital is a major focus of the business, but Wexner gives his company just middling grades in that area.
“The way we look at it, it’s about a C-plus, because we can imagine what an A-plus looks like,” he said.
Whatever company does get top marks on that scale, it’s likely not in America. Wexner said U.S. businesses are “not very sophisticated” in the digital area and lag rivals in Asia and Europe.
But Wexner is content to wait, see what works and then jump in, and it seems L Brands might be getting closer to trying some new approaches.
“There’s a lot of glory being first, and a lot of dead bodies. We’re doing some really interesting things that I won’t talk about,” he teased.
For all the promise of digital, though, Wexner remains a retail purist, focused on the basics of producing good product and knowing the customer.
“Steven Spielberg said he can make movies no better than 100 other people, but he knows the audience well enough to know what movies to make,” Wexner said. “It’s important to know the customer, not the data about them, not the things you can get from inference, but really making human encounters and seeing how people respond. Retail and fashion are very much a contact sport, so it’s about curiosity about the customer.”