Visiting the Web Past: Lillian Vernon, Catalog and Web Pioneer

Filed as Features on November 15, 2007 6:22 pm

A few years ago, I found an article on SCORE, a non-profit group of retired professionals, by the veteran catalog guru, Lillian Vernon, called From My Kitchen Tabletop to Your Computer Laptop.

In the fascinating article, she shares her insights and history of the Lillian Vernon Corporation and catalog from a small kitchen business to a worldwide company with millions of dollars in sales online every year.

When I founded Lillian Vernon Corporation on my yellow Formica kitchen table in 1951, I couldn’t have imagined selling to customers linked by little boxes called “laptops” to a “tabletop” of mine that is actually a big box called a server, located in cyberspace rather than physical space.

Back then, a visit was a friend stopping by for coffee, the number of hits told us if the New York Yankees would make it to the World Series and a web was spun by a spider. The only thing launched in the 1950s was a rocket in a Buck Rogers serial, and a site was something for sore eyes. User friendly? Well, in those days, we didn’t even talk like that in mixed company!

So, you could imagine my hesitation when, four and a half decades later, in 1995, we took our first steps into what is now called “e-commerce,” or selling electronically. That year, realizing that e-commerce would play an important role in the future of catalog retailing, we set up an online shop through America Online, where we thought our customers were most comfortable.

The following year, we unveiled our own online catalog, featuring 200 of our best-selling items, at our new address on the Internet: www.lillianvernon.com. And in December 1998, we completely redesigned the site, expanding our online offerings to more than 400 products in nine categories. In doing so, we enhanced our customers’ ability to shop with computers.

The article gives some great sights into how forward thinking Lillian Vernon was, and how she understood that embracing the web meant bringing her business directly into her customer’s homes, “where we thought our customers were most comfortable.” With the growth of the peer-driven, highly social Web 2.0, she understood even better than most of us what the power of the web really meant.

Forced with her family to flee Germany before World War II and the persecution of the Jews, they arrived eventually in New York with nothing, struggling like so many refugees to survive in the early 1930s. Lillian and her family had to learn English and cope in a new world very quickly.

At 22, pregnant and newly married, Lillian Menasche Hochberg decided to start a side business to supplement her husband’s business, a radical thought in that day and age. She took out an ad in Seventeen Magazine, calling her company and herself “Lillian Vernon”, and with $2,000 of their wedding gift money, sold matching handbags and belts with personalized initials. The first week the ad came out, she was overwhelmed with 50 orders. After $32,000 worth of orders from her first ad, her mail order business was launched. Today, Lillian Vernon has more than $200 million in annual sales and over 5,000 employees, and ships more than 4 million packages to customers all around the world..

Recently, Lillian retired, selling the company to Sun Capital Partners, leaving behind an amazing legacy.

In the article, while she admitted that much of what she did in her first steps onto the web were done because that was how she wanted it to be, and how she’d always run her business, rather than how the “experts” told her it should be done, the tips she offered continues to pave a path all bloggers and businesses should follow. Here is my summary of her tips:

  • Fear Not To Tread Into Technology: Vernon knew that to be successful her company had to embrace change in order to stay ahead in her industry. The web was one more change, moving from mail order to telephone orders, faxes, then the web.
  • Self-Education First: Vernon admitted that she needed to learn about how the web worked before putting her business online. So she learned. It wasn’t easy, but she knew that if she could figure out how to find a web page, move around a website, search for an item, place an order, put that order through, and so on, then she would know better how her clients would do the same thing with her products. Rather than trusting “experts” to tell her how it worked, she learned from the ground up.
  • Think Like Your Customers to Meet Your Customers’ Needs: Vernon admitted that the convenience of shopping on the web made total sense to her. During the holiday panic, why wait in long lines? Shop from the convenience and comfort of your home. When you think and live like your customers, you have a better understanding of their needs and how best to serve them.
  • Respect Your Customer’s Needs: Since the beginning, Vernon has put her customer’s needs first with a long standing policy of a 100 percent money-back guarantee, which stated that “customers can return a product even ten years after it has been purchased.” This same “customer first” commitment and reputation for confidence was put into the website. Understanding how the web would make the process of shopping faster and easier, especially if the shopper was confident in placing a credit card order online, Vernon and her team worked hard with techs to create strong security measures and to reassure their customers that the guarantees and commitments to customer needs would not change because the orders were not placed online.
  • User-Friendly is More Than Words: The concept of user-friendly and usability is critical to a successful website. Understanding how people use websites, and how to make it easier to use them, is critical to make the visit and experience simple, easy, and fun. Vernon knew that the easier and more fun the process, the more likely customers would shop, and return to shop more.
  • Help Them Help Themselves: As many online businesses do today, Vernon was ahead of her time when she offered gift buying advice and recommendations to her online customers. By helping them to find more related and interesting products, shopping became less stressful. By offering your blog readers more, through related or recent blog posts, well thought out categories, and very specific tags to related content on your blog, you help your visitors help themselves find more of the information they need.
  • The Personal Touch: Taking your personal business from the kitchen table to the web meant working even harder to keep things “personal” and not “technical”, bridging the gap between the business and customer. Vernon continued to put her face on her website, with personal messages and an email so she could be contacted quickly and easily. She worked hard to put the human touch and face on the web.
  • Reach Out To Non-Computer Clients: The web isn’t the end all and be all. Vernon continued to reassure her customers that the print version of her catalog is still available for all who want to order the “old-fashioned” way, determined not to leave any of her customers, at any technological level, behind. Be careful putting all your business online. If you leave the “real world” behind, you may be missing customers.
  • Get the Best Technicians: With high standards and goals, Vernon knew that reaching her online dream wasn’t going to happen because a neighbor offered to program an online database for her company, or a cousin would design the site. It happened because she sought out and hired the best to create this online version of her company and catalog. In order to make it the best, you need the best support people with creative minds and the financial support to make it “worth their while” to give you the best to make your online business and blog work. Sure, it takes money. Even more, it takes the right people to create the money it takes to make the money.
  • Believe in the Process: In the 1990s, I wonder how many people told Vernon it would never work. I know how many people told me that there was no way to make money or have a business in the “virtual world”. Vernon knew, from all of her previous experiences with the evolution of modern technology, that the web was something special. Technology that needed to be embraced, not avoided or delayed. The web brought the store front right into a customer’s home. It allowed calm, peaceful, stress free shopping, without getting dressed up and driving the car long distances, dealing with parking, traffic, crowds, or other fusses. She had the faith and confidence in this new media to see it through, setting some of the highest standards for online shopping in the history of the web.

How does Lillian Vernon’s experience related to blogging?

Readers first. Keep it personal. Believe in yourself and the process. And be willing to take the technological risks to keep improving your business and its ability to communicate and interact with your clients, your readers.

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  1. By Regina Patterson posted on November 28, 2007 at 2:02 pm
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    I really enjoyed reading the information on your website. It really speaks to the reader who is experiencing some of the same situations.
    I currently have a small website and wiuld like to invite you as well as some of your reader. It is reg911.com. I appreciate any comments. I thank you in advance.

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