Nearly every mall store is struggling. Then there's Bath & Body Works, with 40 quarters of growth
There is only one reason Abigail Burt goes to the mall anymore: to smell the candles at Bath & Body Works.
The 21-year-old college student stops in each month, whether she has spending money or not, then makes a beeline for the exit, bypassing every other store.
"Every time a new scent comes out, my roommate and I are like, 'We've got to try it,'" she said. "I walk in and just feel so happy."
For three decades, Bath & Body Works has been an enduring and unexpected bright spot in the now-crumbling landscape of America's malls. The retailer, known for highly scented lotions and candles with names such as Twinkling Nights and Underwater Oasis, has notched 40 straight quarters of sales growth and continues to attract new customers at a time when mall visits are dwindling. Analysts say it has defied many of the challenges roiling the retail industry - though they could not exactly say why.
"It truly is a head-scratcher," said Sucharita Kodali, a Forrester analyst whose preteen daughters are fans of the brand. "There are so many things going against this company: It's a mall merchant - that alone should have spelled doom. And it's selling commodities that are broadly available elsewhere, often for cheaper. But somehow Bath & Body Works has figured out how to appeal to the masses."
Burt, an advertising major at the University of Georgia, has been a devotee since middle school. Unlike so many other retailers of her youth - Aeropostale and Claire's among them - that have staggered through bankruptcy and store closures, Bath & Body Works is posting double-digit growth and expanding into new locations. Analysts say its 1,600 U.S. stores, most located in shopping malls, have become destinations unto themselves.
Locally, there are Bath & Body Works locations in Santa Rosa Plaza and Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa.
"To me, it's Exhibit A that the mall is not dead," said John Morris, a senior analyst at D.A. Davidson. "Bath & Body Works has found a way to get everyone into its stores, teens up to baby boomers."
Morris traces the retailer's success to its constantly changing assortment of candles, shower gels and hand creams, which can be tried out in stores. Many products are affordable indulgences that appeal to preteens on an allowance, as well as 50-somethings in search of a pick-me-up. It doesn't hurt that the company has invested heavily to transform its stores into bright, fanciful enclaves of escape.
"When you go into a second- or third-tier mall, a lot of stores look very gloomy or down on their luck," said Neil Saunders, managing director of research firm GlobalData Retail. "Bath & Body Works, though, stands out: It's a shiny beacon that draws customers in."
A spokeswoman for L Brands declined to comment but provided a transcript of remarks made recently by Nicholas Coe, the retailer's chief executive.
Bath & Body Works become "a ludicrously powerful brand" by constantly assessing - and reassessing - every part of its business, he told investors in September. Stores often double as testing labs, allowing executives to experiment with new floor plans, prices and products to determine what its customers want. Plus, he said, it helps that few rivals have been able to strike the same balance between "prestige" and affordability.
"We have competition, but we don't have a direct competitor that looks just like us and does what we do," Coe said. "Our brand has a very, very clear point of view. You're not wallowing in ambiguity when you walk into one of our stores."