From Sailing Gear to Leopard Print: Lands’ End at 50

From its beginnings selling nautical gear from a mail-order catalog, Lands’ End has expanded its home base to Dodgeville, Wisconsin, its reach to customers across the globe via new technologies and its brand to adapt to a new, fashion-conscious consumer

Standing, left to right: Michele Casper, senior director of public relations; Randy Peterson, senior director of engineering, corporate services and sustainability; Kelly Ritchie, senior vice president of employee and customer services; Mike Rosera, executive vice president, chief operating officer and chief financial officer; Karen Hung, senior vice president and chief marketing officer. 
Seated, left to right: Marla Ryan, senior vice president of retail; Sara Dennis, senior vice president of design; Edgar Huber, CEO & president; Bry Roskoz, senior vice president  of international. Seated (on floor) Kathy Lange, senior director of visual merchandising.

Standing, left to right: Michele Casper, senior director of public relations; Randy Peterson, senior director of engineering, corporate services and sustainability; Kelly Ritchie, senior vice president of employee and customer services; Mike Rosera, executive vice president, chief operating officer and chief financial officer; Karen Hung, senior vice president and chief marketing officer. Seated, left to right: Marla Ryan, senior vice president of retail; Sara Dennis, senior vice president of design; Edgar Huber, CEO & president; Bry Roskoz, senior vice president of international. Seated (on floor) Kathy Lange, senior director of visual merchandising.

PHOTO BY ROO WAY / LANDS' END

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At some point in your life you may have worn one of Lands’ End’s tremendously well-crafted down parkas or carried its trademark canvas tote. Maybe your child dons a Lands’ End school uniform. At the very least, you’ve seen an online ad for its turtlenecks or swimsuits, or received a catalog in the mail, especially around the holidays. Lands’ End is literally woven into the fabric of our lives.

This year marks the company’s fiftieth anniversary, a pretty remarkable accomplishment for any retail brand. It’s even more notable for a business conceived with a completely different concept—selling sailing gear and accessories via mail-order catalog. But Lands’ End has morphed into a billion-dollar-plus behemoth that was bought by Sears Holdings Corp. in 2002 and is based on a 175-acre campus in Dodgeville, less than an hour’s drive west from Madison.

It all started with a guy in Chicago named Gary Comer who liked sailing in his free time and decided to pursue his dream of selling the sport’s gear. A former advertising copywriter, Comer founded Lands’ End Yacht Stores with four other partners in 1963. According to company archivist Bernie Roer, “Gary’s idea was to offer racing sailor hardware fittings and accessories through the mail, with one retail store on Elston Avenue in the tannery district of Chicago.” At first the catalog sold strictly sailing equipment and only one jacket: the Squall, an extremely water- and weather-proof coat that’s still sold on the website today.

Throughout the years the company grew to include sportswear such as chinos, polos, button-ups and even suiting for men. In the late 1970s, the company added womens’ apparel to its mix, which Comer initially resisted. “Gary had a natural reluctance to selling women’s stuff. His company was founded on selling to men, and that carried over into the clothing catalogs. But as we grew even he could see the power of the female buyer … He didn’t want anything to do with trendy fashion, where styles were constantly changing,” writes Roer.

This may have been one area where Comer’s intuition didn’t pay off, but luckily the numbers didn’t lie: Women soon became the majority of Lands’ End customers and they remain so today. This five-decade evolution speaks to both the company’s past and ever-present challenges: acquiring new customers without alienating loyal shoppers, giving customers what they’re looking for, and introducing them to products they didn’t even know they wanted. That’s why these days you can find leopard-print cardigans, men’s slim-fit jeans, fashionable leather totes and printed duvet covers with Lands’ End labels on them.

“The most fun I have at Lands’ End is building the assortment and anticipating the customer’s reaction. That’s what we do here every day,” says Marla Ryan, senior vice president of merchandising. “We have several reminders of quotes from our founder, and they basically say this: ‘Take care of the customer, and everything else will be taken care of.’”

A BUTTONED-UP LEADER

Current president and CEO Edgar Huber, at the helm of of Lands’ End since 2011, has the look of an athlete—so the Lands’ End tailored-fit slim-cut dress shirt and slim-fit chinos from the Canvas line that he’s wearing look perfectly natural on him. Originally from Austria, Huber’s quiet, friendly presence and lilting accent are calming and reassuring, and it’s easy to see why his upper-management team enjoys working with him. Sara Dennis, senior vice president of design, says Huber’s willingness to back her on bold decisions in product and clothing design are key. “I love Edgar,” says Dennis. “He’s very much a supporter because he’ll say, ‘If you’re having a hard time pushing something through because people are too chicken, use me!’”

Huber has an impressive résumé, starting with the Mars Corporation of M&Ms and Snickers fame. From there he moved on to L’Oreal, where he headed up the brand in France, Germany and the U.K. Eventually he led various divisions within L’Oreal, such as Kiehl’s, and moved on to manage the luxury portfolio, which includes Lancome, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren fragrances and Shu Uemura. Next was retail heavyweight Juicy Couture, where Huber was CEO for three years before Lands’ End snatched him up.

“I got contacted to lead them to the next phase of growth in national and international development,” says Huber. “I connected with the brand, connected with the founding values and the owner, and I don’t regret it. It’s a lot of fun; it’s a lot of work.”

Huber’s main platform is an ambitious growth strategy he calls the “3–5”—five initiatives in five years that will make them a $5 billion company. He cites “flawless execution” as initiative number one—“that we improve everything we do today, but do it better.” Second is to develop an accessories line, which was partially achieved in September with the introduction of the Landmark leather collection. The diverse line of men’s and women’s belts, wallets, handbags and wristlets range in price from $29 to $268.

The third goal is to increase the brand’s retail footprint by opening more of their own locations. Currently Lands’ End operates thirteen stand-alone stores—including one in Madison on Junction Road—and its products are sold in just under three hundred Sears stores. In an effort to bolster their brand presence within Sears, Lands’ End is pursuing the “shop within a shop” model where products are grouped together in one location in the store, rather than scattered throughout the individual men’s, women’s and kids’ departments. Within these mini-shops, like the one at West Towne Mall, you’ll also find Lands’ End’s trendy Canvas line—a younger, fresher take on the brand’s iconic styles. The only stand-alone Canvas store operated on State Street from late 2009 until this July, when the decision was made to “right-size” the division and fold some of the Canvas offerings directly into the Sears stores and online.

Huber’s fourth strategic initiative is international growth, as the majority of Lands’ End sales are within the U.S. right now.

And fifth is to further grow Lands’ End Business Outfitters, the company’s business apparel arm. Huber proudly names “prestigious customers” like Chase, AT&T, Apple, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Verizon as business-wear partners. Landing big-name clients has sharpened the focus on this high-growth area. And the company’s already got the corner on the school uniform market.

Huber says Lands’ End is the number-one school uniform company in the U.S., with nearly two million students—from public, private and parochial schools alike—donning its product.

“One of the ways people are exposed to our brand for the first time is through our school uniforms and through the kids’ wear,” says design VP Dennis. “And so we’re always thinking of, ‘How do we get this mom to buy things for herself while she’s buying snow boots or backpacks or whatever?’”

GUARANTEED. PERIOD.

Get in early on the ground floor. It’s a smart strategy. Giving time-crunched parents a reliable product within easy reach, especially when they’re already familiar with it, is guaranteed to produce sweet results. But there’s more to it than that: Lands’ End’s stuff lasts. Like Good Housekeeping-brand-of-approval-worthy. Dennis notes their boys’ “iron knee” pants that resist tearing have indeed won this honor, as have other products.

This constant emphasis on quality as well as the customer experience was one of Comer’s main principles. “If you look at the great history of Lands’ End from the beginning, we were so fortunate to have a founder ahead of his time,” says Kelly Ritchie, senior vice president of employee and customer services, herself a twenty-eight-year veteran. “He had the focus on the customer regardless of what role you’re in. You have to think about the customer and respond quickly.”

Many of the innovations that seem commonplace, even required of retailers now, were in fact pioneered at Lands’ End. “We were the first to have an 800 number, the first to take online orders as an Internet retailer in 1995, the first to have 24/7 customer service and the first to have online chat,” says Ritchie. Lands’ End is also famous for its no-hassle return policy: If at any time you’re unsatisfied with one of their products, return it for a full refund, no matter if you purchased it yesterday or, unbelievably, five years ago. According to archivist Roer, one of the company’s first employees, “We were sitting around discussing how we could express this guarantee in a better, more memorable way. Karl [Vollmer, a longtime copywriter] came up with the simplest way. Just say: ‘Guaranteed. Period.’ That did it.”

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