Lands’ End looks back on 50 years — and looks forward to a radically different future
Many fans of the venerable mail-order retailer Lands’ End are familiar with the story of the company’s famous typo, but most are probably unaware that the company carries that grammatical faux pas forward as something of a badge of honor.
As an army of English teachers has told company officials in the last 50 years, the proper place for the brand’s wayward apostrophe is inside the “s,” as in “land’s end” (a reference to the company’s sailing-supply origins).
Unfortunately, an early printer’s error thwarted company founder Gary Comer’s best-laid plans — and in the process cemented Lands’ End’s oft-tested reputation for putting the customer first.
“What we don’t know exactly is how many of these customers order because they have a catalog and how many don’t need a catalog to go online — that’s more difficult to figure out.” — Lands’ End CEO Edgar Huber on the company’s continuing transition to online retailing
“It was quite a dilemma because it was his very first catalog, he was very excited, but he realized that in order to correct the error he would have to raise prices in the catalog to afford it,” said Michele Casper, senior director of public relations for the company. “He decided at that point that sometimes it’s okay to live with an error as long as the customer benefits. So for the past 50 years, we’ve had the misspelling of that apostrophe in our name, but the great lesson there was that Gary believed in not raising the prices and keeping the prices fair for our customer. So right from the beginning, what became an error actually set us apart from everyone else.”
As Lands’ End continues to mark its 50th anniversary — which was officially celebrated on May 21 with a 6-foot lighthouse cake at the company’s Dodgeville headquarters — company officials are taking time to look back on the retailer’s sometimes quirky history before looking ahead to a future that’s looking brighter and more imposing all at the same time.
Mail order catalogs, which seem almost quaint in today’s digital world, still represented an alternative retailing model when Lands’ End was founded in 1963, perhaps auguring the ascendance of online sellers. But the company actually started as a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer, selling yacht supplies out of a small Chicago store.
Comer, along with Dick Stearns and three other partners, also ran a basement mail-order operation, which eventually blossomed into a full-fledged catalog company.
In the ’70s, the company’s focus moved toward clothing, and in 1978, it moved from Chicago to Dodgeville, which Comer had grown fond of during his visits to the area.
“He realized that in a very rural community, there were a lot of people who were working seasonally, and they would be available to work when they weren’t farming during the winter months, which were the busiest times for the holiday season,” said Casper. “So there were a number of factors that really brought Lands’ End to Dodgeville, but for the most part it was the work ethic, it was the beauty of the countryside, and Gary just really felt it was the right place to move Lands’ End when he left Chicago.”
Sticking to the Web
In the ’80s, the company computerized its order-taking, and in the ’90s it established itself as an international company, opening its first distribution center outside the U.S. in England and founding catalogs written in German and Japanese. In July 1995, it launched landsend.com, establishing an online presence when the Web was still relatively new to consumers. In the early 2000s, the company strengthened its reputation as an innovative Internet retailer, being named one of the Web’s top 100 sites by PC Magazine.
By that time, the company had all but exploded beyond the borders of Dodgeville (and remade the town itself, eventually employing around 3,000 of its residents), and in 2002, it was sold to Sears — another firm with a strong traditional brick-and-mortar and catalog presence. Now, with 50 years of burgeoning success behind it, it continues to look to the future of retailing.
Increasingly, that future points to online retailing, which already accounts for around 80% of the company’s overall sales. But that doesn’t mean the company is ready to get out of the catalog business just yet.
“What we don’t know exactly is how many of these customers order because they have a catalog and how many don’t need a catalog to go online — that’s more difficult to figure out,” said Edgar Huber, Lands’ End’s president and CEO. “We hired a consulting company last year and we worked with them on a paper-to-digital strategy, and we’re now implementing a strategy which is focused on optimizing our investment, which is linked to paper one way or another. …
“The future is in digital development, which once again doesn’t mean that we’ll stop printing catalogs. We’ll always be printing catalogs. The question is how many and how often?”
Huber said the company has outlined a strategy that calls for turning Lands’ End into a $5 billion company in five years by focusing on several priorities, including increasing the company’s retail footprint, increasing its international presence, and greatly enhancing its business-to-business unit.
Of course, the company values that got Lands’ End where it is — such as its unconditional “Guaranteed. Period” return policy — remain a strong focus.
“The big secret of Lands’ End is the commitment to our customers, and this might seem very generic to you, but I think it’s very true,” said Huber. “Our business model is based on quality, value, and service, and everything we do every day is to provide value and service to our customers. And the principle of our founder was to say, ‘Take care of your customer, take care of your employees, and everything will be sorted out by itself.’”
As it was in the early days, the company’s commitment to its customers was tested again — in a big way — just a few short years ago. Lands’ End customers have always been told they can return any item at any time for its original purchase price. But the company’s policy was never challenged more vigorously than when one couple decided to return a big-ticket item that they simply didn’t want anymore.
“Back in the ’80s, we used to, at Christmastime, feature very unusual and unique gifts, and this particular gift was an actual authentic London taxicab that was filled with holiday sweaters and all sorts of apparel,” said Casper. “What happened was a couple purchased this London taxicab and then a few years ago, they came back to us and said, ‘Your return policy is ‘guarantee, period,’ we’re downsizing our home, and we’re wondering if you would take the cab back.’ So it’s a famous story in the fact that we believe so strongly in ‘guarantee, period’ that, of course, we took the London taxicab back. We have it here at our headquarters, and it really stands for our commitment to customer service.”
Celebrating 50 years with 50 trees
One way Lands’ End is celebrating half a century in business is by making sustainability a priority, in both substantive and symbolic ways.
On Earth Day, April 22, the company planted 50 spruce and pine trees around its employee walking path, which circles its Dodgeville campus. In recognition of the company’s 50th anniversary, Huber and Lands’ End’s 50 most-tenured employees were tasked with planting the first group of trees.
In addition, the company has partnered with the National Forest Foundation (NFF) to plant nearly 400,000 trees in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin and the Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The plantings were made possible through a $50,000 gift to the NFF.
“Our employees are very passionate about what we’re doing to help the environment, and for 50 years we’ve been very cognizant of everything we’re doing, and we want to keep going, and that’s why we thought the National Forest Foundation was a great partner,” said Casper.
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