US retailer Lands’ End has come out of the shadows to reveal its expansion plans and a new target customer.

Across the pond, the wholesome all-American Lands’ End brand is something of a national treasure. Founded in 1963, the preppy casual clothing retailer - owned by Sears - is now a household name with a devoted customer base. In fact, the word customer is in some cases an understatement - many could be described as a devoted fan. One woman in the US was so concerned about sleeping through her alarm clocks on the morning of her wedding that she called the retailer’s customer services team to ask if it could give her a wake-up call. It did.

The Wisconsin-based mail order and online retailer has had a UK presence since 1991, where it has a similarly loyal following but is not the household name it is in the US. But the brand is on a mission with a new, younger customer to target and European expansion on the agenda.

Despite its quasi-cult status in the US, Lands’ End is a business about which very little is written. US president Nick Coe - an Englishman who is brother of Olympics chief Lord Coe - is not a man concerned with column inches: “I would much rather have one great quote on Facebook than a billboard in Times Square,” he says.

Figure hugging

Determining hard facts about this under-the-radar business is virtually impossible. Ask for any figures and the shutters come down. Sales? No chance. Visits to the website? Afraid not. The only approximate figure that either Coe or the company’s managing director for northern Europe Tim Curtis will divulge is the number of parcels it will ship from its UK depot across the whole of Europe next year: 3 million.

Despite its figures being shrouded in secrecy, the Lands’ End management team is shedding some light on its growth plans. The retailer’s traditional shopper is a very loyal over 45 year old, but with its Lands’ End Canvas range it plans to extend its reach to 30-somethings in the UK. Following a successful pilot of both Lands’ End Canvas and Lands’ End Kids in the UK last year, it is now going ahead with a roll-out of the ranges for spring 11.

Having been nearly 50 years since it began life as a seller of sailing equipment, Coe says: “This is about setting up the company for the next 50 years and you will see us talking about the brand on a more regular basis.”

He is confident about the prospects. “We looked at the brand back at its launch and how we could introduce Lands’ End Canvas in a stylish way without losing our core heritage.

He is confident about the prospects for Lands’ End Canvas and believes it could grow to be as big as between 75% and 100% of its current global business. “It’s a white space,” he says.

Also planned is greater expansion into Europe. It has begun trading in France, Austria and Sweden in the past 18 months and Coe says it will continue to expand across the rest of Europe but will not specify individual countries. “We will continue to build ourselves as a global lifestyle brand,” says Coe. “It’s just a question of timing.”

At a time of ongoing economic uncertainty, now may not seem an obvious time for international expansion. But, says Coe: “The stars are aligned for us at the moment. There is a lack of trust in big corporations and big institutions and shoppers want to go back to the brands they trust. The difficult economic times have worked for us - we are good value and we are driving quality. Our timing is great - that classic preppiness has come back.”

But he is aware of potential pitfalls. “One of the biggest dangers US brands face is getting very insular. The biggest challenge we have is making sure that people in the US know that we are sold in more than one country. You can’t have people waking up every day thinking ‘I’m doing this for the States’. We constantly remind people that we trade in more than seven countries.”

New niche

Coe is confident that there is a perfect, Lands’ End-sized gap in the European market to build the brand. “I don’t see anyone who is doing the classic American style well over here. There are US brands that have lost sight of how to do it and there are those that do it well but are very expensive.”

This is a forward-thinking, savvy business. It is also synonymous with innovation - perhaps somewhat surprising given its traditional heritage and older customer base. As Coe says: “We’re a brand of firsts.” One of its biggest claims is that it was the first to offer ecommerce in the US back in 1995. It was also the first to offer free-phone customer service numbers and the first to give a lifetime guarantee on products. If customers are not satisfied with any item, for whatever reason, any time after purchase, they can get a return or refund.

There is no better demonstration of this than Lands’ End’s black cab anecdote. The cab was featured on the cover of the retailer’s US catalogue in 1984 and subsequently bought from the retailer by a customer in Kansas for $19,000 (£11,800) as a gift for her car-collecting husband. Two decades later the couple found themselves short of cash and scrutinised the retailer’s small print. Sure enough, after 21 years, Lands’ End honoured its guarantee and gave the woman a refund.

The retailer’s awareness of the significance of the digital world in the development of its brand has also been crucial in maintaining its loyal customer base and it has embraced technology with innovative ways to boost customer service before many of its competitors. “The digital relationship with customers and social commerce is a more significant player than a lot of people give it credit,” says Coe.

For instance, it launched Lands’ End Live in the US in 1999, enabling customers to engage in a live one-way chat with a customer service representative. Staff man the service from 7am until 11pm seven days a week. The service will go live in the UK in February.

Lands’ End is full of surprises - it may operate away from the limelight but should not be underestimated and is quietly building on an already established presence. Success, says Coe, is about “not losing sight of who you are”. And potential competitors might want to keep their sights on Lands’ End, too.

The Facts

  • Lands’ End was founded in 1963 by Gary Comer in Chicago, selling sailboat hardware and equipment through a catalogue
  • It moved into selling clothing in 1970 and introduced kidswear and homewares in 1990
  • The US business is based in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, and employs about 5,500 people
  • It launched in the UK in 1991
  • The UK business, run by managing director for northern Europe Tim Curtis, employs about 550 people and is based in Oakland, Rutland
  • Lands’ End claims it was the first business to offer apparel ecommerce in the US, launching online in 1995 and selling 100 products
  • It now operates in the US, Canada, Japan, the UK, Austria, Germany, France and Sweden
  • The retailer was bought by Sears, Roebuck and Co in 2002, when its merchandise was introduced into Sears stores
  • The first Lands’ End at Sears shop-in-shops were tested in 2002. There are now 300 shop-in-shops across the US and one Lands’ End Canvas store in Madison, Wisconsin
  • And for the record, the Lands’ End misplaced apostrophe started off as a typo in its first printed material. The company couldn’t afford to rectify it at the time, and it has stuck ever since