retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The New York Times this morning has the story of how a retailer, looking to add value for its customers, managed to largely miss the target and alienate a number of shoppers, many of whom have gotten vocal about it via social media.

The scenario involves Lands' End, which has a year-long arrangement with magazine publisher Condé Nast, sending lifestyle and fashion magazines to its shoppers as a way of rewarding them for their purchases. For Condé Nast, the motivation is simple: it wants to attract new subscribers at a time when fewer people than ever are reading magazines.

Last month, however, the deal went south when Condé Nast sent out the current edition of GQ, the cover of which featured model and actress Emily Ratajkowski wearing nothing but a come hither look and a strategically placed white flower lei.

Well, there were some Lands' End shoppers who were upset.

One wrote: "We received your ‘Lands’ End Bonus’ of GQ magazine this weekend, and we are absolutely horrified. How can buying something as family friendly as school uniforms lead to soft porn in the mailbox? I’m thankful my son did not bring in the mail.”

Another wrote: "I ordered Christian private school children’s uniforms from your company and you sold my home address to a magazine company that peddles in soft porn for men???."

The thing spun out of control so quickly that Edgar Huber, Lands’ End's CEO, sent an email to customers apologizing, saying it was a mistake. "To make amends," the Times writes, "Lands’ End said in its apology that it had switched its customers’ names from the GQ subscription list to subscriptions to Condé Nast Traveler."

(I hope that magazine doesn't have a swimsuit edition…)

The Times writes that "Lands’ End’s botched promotion comes months after Sears spun off the retailer into an independent publicly traded company. (Sears acquired Lands’ End in 2002 for $1.9 billion.) As part of an effort to keep its brand fresh, Lands’ End has added a touch more stylishness to its more traditional merchandise in hopes of attracting younger shoppers. Glossy fashion magazines would seem to align with that ambition.

"And while GQ is a long-respected voice on men’s fashion and home to narrative journalism, the magazine’s image has evolved in recent years — especially its covers. Until recently, the covers rarely featured women, instead opting for portraits of celebrities like Muhammad Ali or Sean Connery. But now, scantily clad women — Jennifer Aniston, Kate Upton, Rihanna — are routinely featured on its covers."

Make no mistake. This was a Lands' End mistake. Condé Nast makes it clear to the Times that the list was provided by Lands' End, and that it had no input as to who would get the magazine. And the kerfuffle certainly suggests that retail brands, when looking to reward customers, have to be a lot more careful about what the reward is and who it is going to.

On the other hand … until now, I had no idea that Lands' End was trying to be more stylish. (Though it only will really matter to me if they can achieve the stylish heights of my favorite designer, LL Bean.) Maybe all this bad publicity could end up being good publicity, if it raises brand awareness and also establishes that Lands' End has gotten away from the Sears umbrella. Maybe Edgar Huber is trying to suppress a smile as he strolls to work this morning.

I also think that "kerfuffle" is pretty much the right word to describe all this. I happen to get GQ (though clearly not for fashion advice), and when the magazine showed up in the mail, my first reaction was "wow," and my second reaction, about five seconds later, was that they were pushing the envelope a bit. (No further than they did when the magazine featured Jennifer Aniston wearing nothing but a tie, which also elicited a "wow" and a "whoa" when it showed up.) But I think there is a difference between "evocatively pushing the envelope" and "soft porn," though I'm not exactly sure where the line is and I recognize that the placement of the line sort of depends on your perspective. (It also may have something to do with the placement of the lei.)

That said, I am amused by the person who wrote to Lands' End saying that her "14-year-old son brought in the mail today & was quite disturbed & fascinated by a ‘gift’ Lands’ End sent us."

I'm sure he was fascinated. But disturbed? It wasn't that long ago that I was 14 (attending a Christian private school, as it happens) and I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't have been disturbed by it. But I definitely would've been fascinated, because the cover, if nothing else is an Eye-Opener … as well as a lesson in target marketing gone awry.
KC's View: