Sunday, February 28, 2016

Lands' End, you've made everyone unhappy

In the 1980s when I was drowning in a sea of student-loan debt, Lands' End was everywhere in Wisconsin, where I live. Well-made, classic American clothing, but beyond my budget until the company opened a seconds shop on State Street in Downtown Madison.

Since then, I've turned to Lands' End for everything from turtlenecks to LBDs. I was cautiously optimistic when Sears acquired the company a decade ago, remembering the quality and value the former behemoth catalog firm represented in my youth.

I continued to order parkas and pima-cotton tops from LL Bean, and was never disappointed in quality or service, given the reasonable cost and the fast delivery.

But Lands' End was losing other customers. The company began to plot a comeback in late 2014.

I was excited when a new CEO was hired a year ago. I didn't see her as an especially good fit for a company that got its start with canvas sails, but I thought the results of the transformation she would lead might be interesting.

The fake preppy family gatherings of rail-thin models on the cover of the new catalogs didn't do much for me, but then I'm part-Sconnie: Down to earth and suspicious of pretension.  I'd have used photos of sailors in the Chicago-Mac race or something similar. Lands' End needs to return to its core customers, and that wasn't happening.

A week ago, I tossed the spring catalog into the recycling after a brief glance. I've been following Gloria Steinem for decades. In college, some people thought I looked like her. I didn't bother to read the center-spread article because I simply don't see what Gloria has to do with sportswear.

The backlash from conservative, "pro-life" customers didn't really surprise me, but Lands' Ends' knee-jerk response was disappointing. Quickly apologize and scrub the company Web site? Really?

One of the cardinal rules of crisis management is to "tell it all and tell it fast." It's not "back down and do it fast." Someone, a group of someones, on the LE management team acted too quickly, fearing the company's parochial-school uniform sales would be damaged.

Seriously? They didn't consider this when they chose to feature a polarizing figure in their catalog and on their Web site? Does this company know what it wants to sell? I have my doubts.

That's what worries me. The company ended 2015 on a disappointing note. Now it's made a seemingly foolish public relations decision that's made everyone unhappy. Established customers who like and respect Steinem are unhappy with Lands' End capitulating to anti-abortion types.

Gloria Steinem stands for more than a woman's right to choose. But she doesn't have much to do with Lands' End. The decision to feature her was not well-considered.

Nor was the decision to yank her image off the company Web site. Read what PR specialists have to say here.

I won't threaten to boycott Lands' End because of the decision to throw Gloria Steinem under the bus. I have no plans to purchase anything this spring or summer, but who knows what the future will bring? Lands End made some management changes earlier this year, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if more were to follow.

Current management is confused about goals and core customers, I suspect, and has little clue as to how the company might regain some of its former luster.

It promises to be an interesting spectacle to observe.




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