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

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PHOTO COURTESY OF LANDS' END

RECRAFTING CLASSIC

While the customer has always been king, the challenge for Lands’ End in the last decade, and especially in the last five years, has been to become more relevant to today’s savvy, fashion-conscious shopper, overcoming its old reputation as a classic, no-nonsense, no-frills sportswear brand. There are a few ways the creative and design teams have been rethinking this area, says merchandising VP Ryan.

“When we started we largely had two product deliveries a year: spring and fall. And we recognized that if we wanted to be market-paced and relevant, we needed to deliver more each year. So now we’re up to four deliveries ... we are bringing awareness to our customers at a faster pace. Even just four to five years ago, [our customer] probably wasn’t as well informed as she is today. She’s aware of key trends. One of the things we found in testing new product is that some of our most ‘traditional’ customers were our biggest fans of our new concepts.”

Ryan points to a leopard-print smoking slipper about which the merchandising team initially had “angst” as to whether their key customers would like it. The shoe had a higher price point and was a bit out of their comfort zone. Not to worry—the product had to be reordered twice. “This brought a period of due diligence where we thought, ‘We can do more; maybe we’re not doing enough.’ We’re finding that history is repeating itself. One thing we started doing twenty-four months ago was taking the silhouettes and styles we’re known for and updating them instead of giving them a whole new style. What we’ve tried to create is products that [our customer] trusts and knows that work for her, and give her updates instead of reinventing the wheel every season.”

FROM DODGEVILLE TO EVERYWHERE

In addition to customer service and loyalty, one of the biggest challenges for a retailer is forecasting and controlling inventory. After all, if every retailer small and large knew exactly what would sell and in what quantities, wouldn’t they all be wildly successful? With 4,500 employees in the U.S. (which rises to over seven thousand during the holidays) and 1,150 employees abroad, Lands’ End has considerable clout and resources at its fingertips. So part of the company’s future growth plan includes an investment in “large data,” as Huber calls it—something that many mass retailers and clothing brands are tackling right now to stay close to consumer trends and industry evolution.

“Our business model very much will evolve to data mining and digital marketing,” Huber says. “The challenge sometimes is to attract the talent to where we operate, and this is why we’ll build an even stronger presence in New York … because some of the digital and data mining talent will be based there.” They’ll also look to New York for resources in digital customer research, acquisition and marketing.

Those marketing and outreach efforts will be especially helpful when expanding their portfolio of international business.  Lands’ End ships to 172 countries worldwide out of Dodgeville. The company has three international offices—in Oakham, United Kingdom; Mettlach, Germany; and Yokohama, Japan—but all of the “brand assets,” which include photography, creative and marketing, come out of Dodgeville. The next two major markets Lands’ End is expanding into are China and Russia. Currently Russian shoppers rank third in the world for Lands’ End merchandise shipping orders.

While most shoppers probably don’t know how ubiquitous Lands’ End is outside of the U.S. Bry Roskoz, senior vice president of international, oversees this booming business. “Not every brand resonates in every country,” says Roskoz, who came to Lands’ End because she saw huge opportunities in the global marketplace. “The great thing about Lands’ End is that our core value and proposition resonate outside of the U.S.,” she says. “We have a strong [international] base that was established in the early ’90s and there’s still a ton of room for growth.”

CARRYING ON 

So, with all this projected growth and expansion, just what are Lands’ End’s annual sales figures? Company execs hold the numbers tightly to their No Iron Supima Pinpoint Shirt pockets. A few former employees note the billion-dollar number was bandied about in the office but they were never told specifics. Indeed, upper management won’t divulge their information, either.

In a 2012 Wall Street Journal article, analysts estimated the company’s 2011 sales at $1.7 billion. The piece reported that in 2012 Sears was shopping the Lands’ End division to private-equity firms to raise cash. Credit Suisse retail analyst Gary Balter told WSJ that Lands’ End could fetch between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion, less than the $1.86 billion Sears Holdings paid for it ten years before.

Now there are new talks of Lands’ End separating from Sears Holdings. In a corporate statement made in late October, Sears said it is considering a split from the iconic brand in order to focus on its other businesses. There is no timeline for any spin-off decisions, according to a report in the Wisconsin State Journal.

Never flashy or over the top, Lands’ End has built a business from the simple idea of a sailcloth and a solid promise to its customers. Appropriately, as a nod to the company’s fiftieth anniversary, the subtleties are etched into the clothing—if you know where to look. Just check out two of the chinos from the men’s fall Canvas line: The “Comer” and “Elston” styles are nods to the founder and the street the business was built on in Chicago.

“The company has such a brilliant heritage,” says Ryan. “There are so many people who have told me that it’s been a part of their family for years, and there’s such a trust. In this day and age, brands come and go. And it’s hard to build a brand.”

Shayna Mace is the style editor of Madison Magazine. She covers the city’s style and retail scene in her Window Shopping blog

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