Why Does Bath & Body Works Thrive in a Dwindling Mall Space?

Brittany Chaffee

14 January 2020
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Golden Triangle Mall

Photo courtesy: Golden Triangle Mall

I am obsessed with Bath & Body Works. Even if I don’t need body wash or a candle, I’ll stop inside to inhale the seasonal scents. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a hurry, either. It doesn’t matter if I’m not shopping for candles at the time. My obsession with the spot is about the experience – how I feel putting a “Strawberry Waffles at Brunch” candle in my face and breathing deeply in.

One thing I particularly enjoy, are the names of the candles. I send them to my friends and share them on my Instagram story. It’s all part of the thing. The candle names take me on a gallant journey through the season. This past fall, a few of my favorites included: Pumpkin Cupcake, Blueberry Maple Pancakes, Pumpkin Pecan Waffles, Blessed (yes, that’s a scent - anything is possible in B&BW), Caramel Pumpkin Syrup, Leaves, Crisp Morning Air, and Salted Cinnamon Pumpkin. Basically, Bath & Body Works turns into a workshop of scents that create a nostalgia explosion in my soul. One minute I’m a kid and my mom is making me breakfast – the next I’m walking to elementary school on a wet, fall day.

Does this explain why the candle-and-lotion retail chain has hit 40 straight quarters of sales growth? I mean, maybe?

For an entire three decades, Bath & Body Works has thrived in the dwindling mall space. In the meantime, stores like J Crew are closing across the country (20 stores in 2019). Aeropostale and Claires have stumbled through bankruptcy. And analysts are perplexed, too. According to the Washington Post, analysts say Bath & Body Works has single-handedly defied many of the challenges in the retail industry. But they can’t exactly say why.

“There are so many things going against the company,” said Sucharita Kodali, a Forrester analyst. “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.”

By a landslide, in fact. Bath & Body Works is posting double-digit growth and expanding into new locations, reaching 1,600 stores. Sales rose 10 percent in the first nine months of 2019 and 12 percent the year before that. Online sales are up, along with store traffic. Annual revenue has climbed consecutively for 11 years.

Which brings me back to my opening point. Bath & Body Works is a place for everybody, teens to baby boomers. It’s warm, full of bright, fanciful chasms of escapism. The store itself is an experience of sensory goodness: smells and lots of testing opportunities. To be honest, I typically walk out of there smelling like I grew up on a unicorn farm. Stores in malls typically appear gloomy and tired but Bath & Body Works is the bright escape on the corner, standing out like a shiny beacon of smelly hope.

The retailer’s chief executive, Nicholas Coe, constantly reassesses the business. According to a Washington Post article, he noted stores doubled as testing labs, allowing executives to experiment with new floor plans, prices and products to determine what specific customers wanted. “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.”

And he’s right. Bath & Body Works has been a transformative destination in my life. I no longer visit the stores I did when I was in high school (i.e. Abercrombie, Victoria’s Secret, Hollister, etc.) But I DO visit Bath & Body Works, no embarrassment included. It grew with me. If I say the words “Sweet Pea Lotion” or “Cucumber Melon” to anyone between the ages 28 and 35, we all skyrocket back to high school and squeal. There is nostalgia but there is accessibility, too.

Maybe it has something to do with Bath & Body Works wholesome image. Victoria’s Secret (and most L Brands) are overly sexualized and unappealing for most. The audience size isn’t as big. They don’t feel as safe. Meanwhile, Bath & Body Works sits happily in its home of friendly, red-cheeked women that work there (that somehow look like everyone’s auntie) and those cute little baskets you can carry around.

Because of its image, comfort, and authenticity, Bath & Body Works makes a great place for a quick gift pickup or affordable beauty product. I know the products are quality and candles burn all the way through (a definite plus for candle fans like me). I would rather buy my candles from Bath & Body, even over Target or CVS.

All of these things, crucial reasons why Bath & Body still chugs through success year over year.

My conclusion?

The candle party is not over. And according to my candle and lotion buying habits over the past 15 years, it’s not going to die off soon. Gen X’ers aren’t slowing down either. They are amused by the experience and love the quality scents. Meanwhile, my 30-year-old girlfriend goes every Christmas and buys two entire baskets of candles to stay stocked for the season.

This is normal. And a beautiful retail success story.

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Brittany Chaffee

Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. As the Marketing Manger at STAR, she loves to strategize and create content for brands that is simple yet memorable.

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