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When Gary Comer, one of the founders of Lands’ End, started the business, he wanted to combine his work with his passion for sailing. Inspired by his hobby of racing sailboats, Comer left his copy writing job at Young & Rubicam and went to work for Murphy & Nye Sailmakers in Chicago in 1962. He and the owner, Richard Stearns, decided they would start another business together as partners.
This story first appeared in the May 23, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Comer believed that his sailing customers — who were buying sails from Murphy & Nye — would eagerly purchase other sailing equipment. In the fall of 1962, he bought sailboat fittings and advertised them in a new magazine called One Design Yachtsman. The following spring, Comer, Stearns, Comer’s close friend Buck Halperin and two of Stearns’ employees incorporated Lands’ End Yacht Stores, working rent-free out of a basement in an old building in Chicago. They began a mail-order business, selling such products as racing sailboat equipment, duffle bags, rain suits, sweaters and other clothing.
They originally wanted to call the company “Land’s End,” but due to a typographical error, the first catalogue was printed “Lands’ End.” Rather than incur the expense of reprinting, they left it that way, and Lands’ End stuck.
Comer, who served as president, enlisted the help of retired mail-order executive Tom Filline, who ran that business for Sears. Lands’ End became profitable in its third year of operation, but by 1975, the business plateaued at $1.3 million. The partners wanted to sell the business and had a meeting with a prospective buyer. Comer didn’t like the idea of selling and instead decided to buy out Stearns.
In 1975, Comer wrote his friend, Bernie Roer, vice president and group creative director at N.W. Ayer, one of the oldest ad agencies in the country, and asked him if he would work on a freelance basis.
“I was very successful in the ad business in Chicago, and he asked if I would help him out with a clothing catalogue,” said Roer in a telephone interview from his home in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Ill. (He also has a home in Naples, Fla.) Roer freelanced for Lands’ End for two years before joining full-time as vice president and creative director.
“Things went up like a rocket,” he recalled. He said the clothing business was high volume, while sailboat hardware was low volume. He added that the advent of universal credit cards made it more convenient for people to buy.
Comer’s idea was to do four 32-page color catalogues each year, changing the clothing offerings according to the season. He began with the Lands’ End mailing list as his foundation, and rented lists from other outdoor catalogues, including Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean.
For the catalogue, Comer wanted to do realistic shots of the rain suit in action, so the team set up a quick trip to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Comer, Roer and photographer Joe Soucek set out for Florida for the shoot, where they borrowed a sailboat and used its crew as models. (Soucek got seasick, so Comer and Roer grabbed the camera and got the action shots they needed.) When they got back, they laid out the catalogue, giving the rain suit three pages, the clothing two pages and the duffels four. The remaining 22 pages went to more popular items — boat shoes, watches, binoculars, sailing boots and gloves.
As Roer recalled, they mailed out their first issue and crossed their fingers. After one week, the phones were ringing wildly and the mail bags were stuffed — with a high percentage of orders for the apparel. They had sent out 200,000 catalogues and were going to do over $400,000 worth of business, learning very quickly that they might sell six or eight pairs of sailing gloves, but they could sell 600 or 800 pairs of cargo pants.
They ran ads in local papers looking for models. “We paid them $100 to model. They were not professional at all. It gave the catalogue a real look,” said Roer, who retired in 1989.
Roer explained that a lot of the early success had to do with the catalogue’s presentation. Since both he and Comer came out of the ad business, they knew about hooking the prospect with a dramatic presentation, selling headlines and copy. Roer’s responsibilities were to supervise the photography, lay out the catalogue and help select the merchandise. The copy described the quality of the merchandise and the fit, and they would always put a benefit in the headline. When the catalogue began, it was pretty much all men’s wear. He said women were doing the buying, though, so they started to introduce women’s styles. “Today, it’s a women’s catalogue,” he noted.
Asked what the atmosphere was like during the Seventies and Eighties, Roer said, “It was like riding a racehorse. We were doubling sales every year.”
Controlling the inventory was always a challenge, but as the company grew, they hired inventory specialists to tackle it.
In the beginning, they started with four seasonal catalogues a year. They were mailed out monthly with different covers, but Roer noted, “Eventually [by 1985], we produced a different catalogue every month.”
Lands’ End operations moved from its Chicago base to Dodgeville, a small rural town in southwestern Wisconsin. By mid-1978, Lands’ End introduced one of the nation’s first toll-free 800 numbers.
Dick Anderson, a friend and coworker of Comer’s from their Y&R days, joined as a director in 1978 and was hired as vice chairman in 1984 to help Comer run the business. Anderson was named president in 1988 and chief executive officer in 1990. He led marketing, advertising, merchandising and creative.
He brought an editorial feel to the catalogue, using devices like cartoon drawings and pictures of animals to grab people’s attention. He also featured short essays describing the products’ attributes and the fabrics. He and Comer launched the Lands’ End “magalogue,” which combined editorial elements with traditional marketing techniques to create a new type of shopping experience. Anderson, who worked at Lands’ End until 2002, died in 2010.
In a piece published in 1988 for the company’s 25th anniversary, Comer wrote: “Our basic premise for winning customers is little different today than when we started: Sell only things we believe in, ship every order the day it arrives, unconditionally guarantee everything. That was, and still is, the platform.”
Roer recalled a man in Kansas who had bought a London taxi cab from the catalogue. “Twenty-five years later, when he died, his widow said, ‘I don’t want the cab anymore,’ and we took it back,” he said.
Kelly Ritchie, senior vice president of employee and customer service at Lands’ End, said from the start, Comer had an unwavering focus on basic philosophies that “if you take care of the customer and you take care of the employees, the rest will take care of itself.
“He felt so passionate about those simple beliefs. He always encouraged everybody to go the extra mile for the customer,” she added.
For example, she said, once a man’s attaché bled on white leather seats of a car, and a customer service rep told him they’d replace the white leather seats. Ritchie noted that the product guarantee “was absolutely wonderful for business. It’s how you get customers to love you. So many people have asked, ‘Don’t people abuse it?’ They really don’t. It’s a huge win for the organization and part of the backbone of the company.”
John Maher, senior vice president of Lands’ End Outfitters, said what struck him about Comer was “when everyone else was going to the left, he was going to the right.
“[Management] thought big, they thought bold, and they wanted to lead the pack, rather than following,” said Maher. He recalled that Comer wanted to add toll-free phone numbers even though he was advised it would be too expensive for the company. He also wanted to do a national advertising campaign and give the business a nationwide platform. “That was a big and bold decision,” said Maher.
Ritchie, who managed call centers in the early Nineties, recalled the times when a majority of the orders were coming through toll-free numbers. Someone suggested that at the end of the call, if the rep didn’t repeat the customer’s order, the company could shave off a few seconds and save $150,000. “He [Comer] listened to the idea, but shut the conversation down,” she remembered. “He said, ‘How about adding another $50,000 and telling them to have a nice day?’ Therefore, we’ve never monitored how long our customer sales rep stays on the phone.”
In 1986, Lands’ End went public, and Comer retained a controlling interest. Comer owned 52 percent of Lands’ End, when he sold the business to Sears in 2002. Comer, a long-time philanthropist, died in 2006 of prostate cancer.