Will Victoria's Secret titillate London's lingerie market?


The US bra retailer needs its UK brand strategy to be a perfect fit next year

One thing’s for certain: when US lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret opens its first UK store in Bond Street in early 2012, it will face tough British bargain hunters looking for deals in an uncertain climate.

The store – no doubt the first of a chain – will face feisty competitors whose innovations could make Victoria’s Secret owner, Limited Brands, look sleepy.

The market

The boob bunfight is in full flow and will only intensify as the British economy continues to wobble through the next 18 months, making shoppers more price conscious and retailers more innovative.

The growing number of retailer outlets – including new players to the UK – and growing physical size of consumers only serves to complicate matters.

According to Mintel’s latest study of the sector, two in 10 adults were classified as obese in 2010 and there has been a rapid increase in obesity levels since 2007. This is reflected in the average bra size, which is now a 34D, up from a 34B only 10 years ago. 

With the already-present Rigby & Peller, Boux Avenue (the latest Theo Paphitis lingerie chain), La Senza, Bravissimo, French brand Etam, Abercrombie & Fitch’s latest concept, Gilly Hicks, plus the department stores, Victoria’s Secret will need to do their homework.

What else, besides their American ranges and supermodel stars, will differentiate them consistently in the UK market? 

Luckily, its brand awareness in the UK is already high. According to Pam Scott, editor of underwear trade magazine Underlines, even though Victoria’s Secret has no UK retail outlet yet,“consumers look at their online presence, their Angels supermodels and shop their when on holidays in the US,” she says.

The Mintel report corroborates this: with 12 per cent penetration already, the brand already has a relatively strong image as a premium one, particularly among shoppers under 35.

While this is surely a good foundation for business success in London, service and innovation will be key to Victoria’s Secret’s success.

Staying abreast of retail trends

British bra boutiques are being pushed to offer better fitting services, driven in part by heightened consumer awareness about bra buying, thanks to TV shows including How to Look Good Naked and What Not To Wear.

Permission for British consumers to be more demanding is another cultural trend, fuelled again by TV programmes – most notably Mary Queen of Shops, but also by Jamie’s School Dinners and Hell’s Kitchen.

Other trends and marketing innovations that Victoria’s Secret could pick up on over here include:

●      Corporate social responsibility and cause-related marketing. Collaboration with charities to promote issues including breast cancer, fertility and AIDS are territories lingerie retailers are making their presence felt.

●      Shapewear for men. Not only is traditional retailer M&S getting in on “mirdles” (male girdles), Figleaves and many others are selling their own ranges.

●      Blurring the lines of outerwear and underwear driven by pop stars Lily Allen, Lady Gaga and Rihanna.

●      Pop-up retail stores encouraging women to relate to a brand is a growing development.  Häagen-Dazs recently launched a two-week “boudoir” pop-up shop to promote its mini-cups range to a young female audience. Located in a stylish, secret “girls-only” central London location, the boudoir could be booked for groups of up to eight friends for five-star treats including pamper sessions with the Powderpuff Girls, DJ lessons with Sophie Lloyd and a food masterclass with TV chef Sophie Michell.

What this means for Victoria’s Secret ahead of its British invasion is to know that its potential customers are expecting a differentiated concept – one that offers good service delivered in a culturally relevant way (minus the “have a nice day”). It needs to be a brand that innovates and offers accessible price points.

Let’s hope Limited Brands is researching the brand localisations needed, and the best ways to connect with a cash-strapped public. Otherwise, an advance onto British shores might prove an expensive distraction, as so many other trans-Atlantic retailers have had to learn the hard way.

Allyson Stewart-Allen is the director of International Marketing Partners