Bad Business: Land’s End Goes Over the Edge

Bad Business: Land’s End Goes Over the Edge February 25, 2016

I haven’t written up a business case study in ages, but the latest Land’s End fiasco was fodder for discussion among the family this evening.  A few quick points that I think shed light on Steinem debacle.

As my beloved finance professor always said, financial reports contain no answers, only questions.  Still, you can take a look at Land’s End’s financials here, and the Q3 2015 earnings report is chilling.  All is not well.

The brand has been losing itself for years.  My husband (tall, thin, hard-to-fit) purchased Land’s End slacks since before I ever met him a quarter-century ago. Eventually he had to write them and explain that he wouldn’t be purchasing their products any longer because the sizing and quality had become unpredictable.  He didn’t mind paying a premium for well-made clothing, but he wasn’t going to gamble.

The kids and I hung on a little longer, but when our local Sears closed we lost the option of free returns.  I’m not interested in paying return shipping for items that don’t fit, and my children are hard to fit.  We had a few quality issues as well.  The relationship fizzled.

Meanwhile, Land’s End was growing its school uniforms business, if the catalogs and local customer-base are to be believed.  School uniforms appeal to people who like order, tradition, and preppiness.  A year or two ago, the uniform catalog shows up, and all the kid-models are doing that disaffected, slovenly thing that’s been all the rage on album covers these last forty years.   I had to ask myself: Are there really parents who were hemming and hawing over how many school-color polos to purchase, but they were inspired by the association with disheveled hair and untucked oxford-cloths hanging out from under the crewneck sweaters?

I considered the possibility that I was too far removed from popular culture, but it seemed to me that the uniform catalog was the one place a vendor might risk sending the message, “We’re dropping $15K a year on prep school because we aren’t like the Great Unwashed.”

In other pieces of the retail pie, Lands End has been heretofore popular with conservative Catholics.  You know, the ardently pro-life types.  We are a minority, but we procreate.  My own family had to quit buying our girls’ dresses from LE when they raised the hemlines (long legs — see “tall father” above — thus knee-length to you isn’t knee-length to us) but our short friends swore by the modest, timeless styles.  [This despite that thing they did a couple years back where they mailed Glamour magazine subscriptions, unasked-for, to their catalog customers.  Um, yeah, my recycle bin ate that one up real fast.]

Still, you could see the struggle on the pages of the catalogs.  There was the creation of an edgier Starfish brand-within-the-brand aimed at ladies who didn’t feel comfortable with stodgy old Mom’s Land’s End, but I guess they couldn’t help looking, like hipsters sneaking a peak at Reader’s Digest in Grandma’s bathroom.  Comfort waist? We don’t see no stinkin’ comfort waist.

It’s an age-old struggle for any business that lives long enough, trying to keep your old customers and get new ones too.  I don’t really know what portion of sales came from each of Land’s End’s types of customers, but I’m beginning to think they don’t know either.

I say that because into all the struggle they throw Gloria Steinem?  Gloria who isn’t just a founding-mother of the sexual revolution, she also just insulted the political intelligence of all the 20-something Democrat girls?  That Gloria?  Really?  It was the last straw.  Open your new spring catalog with someone who is likely to offend both your stalwart conservative, family-centered mom-shopper and your coveted next-generation younger female shopper?  This was not wise.

And keep in mind: No one was looking for interviews in the Land’s End catalog in the first place.  We’re looking for mix-n-match swimsuit separates and a new color cardigan, thanks.

I’d be fascinated to look at the internal financials and operations and find out what else might be amiss at Land’s End. But from a business perspective, the causes of the company’s income-problems are written all over the catalogs: Here is a company that does not know its customers.

Other high-end prep-style retailers are flourishing, and Land’s End, which ought to have that market sewn up, is floundering.  My teenage daughter who follows all things prep-style points out they could have made a killing just marketing that anchor-logo, but instead Vinyard Vine and Simply Southern (and sheesh even Target with its Lilly Pulitzer release) get those buyers.

More disturbing, the Steinem disaster suggests Land’s End doesn’t understand American culture, period.  One has to wonder how a major American retailer could be unaware that abortion is one of the most divisive topics in American politics, and that Americans find political debate to be uncomfortable and unpleasant?  Social media (see: Facebook, hangout of the Land’s End customer) is rife with people who are literally ending friendships over firmly-voiced political opinions, and you want to wade into that?  Person trying to make a living pleasing everybody?

It reads like one of those cautionary tales they teach you in the “International Business” chapter of your b-school case studies.  Don’t wave your shoes at the Saudis, don’t sell a car named “No Va” in Latin America, and don’t try to enamor yourself with Americans by wading into a political fight.  Sheesh Land’s End.   No wonder.

File:The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle 08.jpg

Artwork: Illustration of the Sherlock Holmes short story The Blue Carbuncle, which appeared in The Strand Magazine in January, 1892. Original caption was “HE BURST INTO CONVULSIVE SOBBING.” [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

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