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
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?’”
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.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF LANDS' END
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.”
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.