Merchandising from the past

Is your company sitting on an unmined goldmine of product investment? Nearly every cataloger I know has a wealth of potential new product ideas right in its very own “past” closet of merchandise.

The past can be as recent as last season or three years ago. You can go even further back to your company’s founding, or perhaps outside your industry altogether. I like to call this closet a merchant’s Plan R.

What’s the “R” stand for? R is for repurposing. R is for rethinking. R is for reimagining. R is for reinventing, and even R is for reviving. Plan R is all about a product’s second act.

Plan R reminds merchants to bring forth the richness and the robustness of the past. Fashion and home designers constantly reinterpret clothes or furnishings from times gone by and apply contemporary twists.

Candy companies now colorize and “holidayize” what once were season-specific candies to every season. Movies, musicals, songs and even some books all have revivals.

Think about some of your product success stories that were carried again over the seasons and eventually retired. By reimagining these “retired” products in new ways, merchants can give these winners a second act. Here are a few practical ideas:


Steve Leveen, cofounder of Levenger, a brand that sells tools for serious readers, has a great repurposing story. One of Levenger’s iconic products has been a lap desk, a kidney-shaped reproduction of one designed by Thomas Jefferson for drafting the Declaration of Independence, and crafted out of cherry veneer.

The company’s original lap desk spurred the idea for Levenger’s Laprador Leather Lap Desk. This smaller lap desk better suits the needs of working with a laptop computer.

Then when Leveen was in a surf shop shopping for a surfboard for his son, he took note of the lightweight yet sturdy and smooth surfboard material. After much iteration, Steve repurposed a surfboard into the Surf Desk, a new product for customers who enjoy its lighthearted functionality. Repurposing can indeed be fun.


I first experienced the power of reimagining product more than 20 years ago working as a merchant for a book and gift boutique. In those days, books were sold shelved vertically with other books, plain and simple.

As the book buyer, I collaborated with the gift buyer to create unique displays that showed books as they might appear in customers’ homes. Coffee table books resting on end tables with decorative lamps or candles. Cookbooks on kitchen shelves with gourmet food nearby.

Books helped promote the gifts and home accessories we were selling, and vice versa. Just look at any Pottery Barn catalog spread or Anthropologie store layout.

Imaginative cross-selling works and even helps some products have an unplanned second act. Reimagining can be as easy as reassigning places or positions for your products.

Nancy L. Schneider, director of merchandising for the Cooking Enthusiast catalog, shares this recent experience: “Our new merchandising strategies are prompting us to dig deeply into our pool of past products as a source for items that tie directly into a cultural theme or recipe.”

While Schneider doesn’t recommend chasing bad performers, as “a dog is a dog,” Coo.king Enthusiast has been successful turning marginal items into winners by taking a fresh approach to how they are merchandised.

For example, Schneider says, “we’ve been selling French snails along with the shells and serving pieces for an authentic escargot presentation. When the snails were featured in a recipe (Escargot & Porcini Mushrooms in Brandy Cream Sauce), our unit sales almost doubled.”


The publishing world is masterful at repackaging “content” into calendars, gift books, serials, movie tie-ins and events, from the Chicken Soup series to the Harry Potter enterprise. Gail Richards, creative director of consultancy Whizbang! Creative, knows the value of reformulating content.

“A whole new world of possibilities opens up when people realize the many ways in which their intellectual capital can be turned into products,” Richards says. From tangible products such as card decks, games or audio to service products like teleclasses, there are countless ways to package what you know. “And when you do that, you build your core business and your brand in the process,” she says.

L.L. Bean is a good example of creative line extending. The boat tote, one of the outdoor apparel and gear merchant’s iconic products, has been masterfully reconfigured in numerous ways — shapes, sizes, stripes, colors.

Bean has repackaged a mini tote into a seasonal gift container. The cataloger’s small canvas tote has now become a clever and practical holder of a Down East blueberry breakfast gift, or a dog-treat gift, or even an amaryllis-filled tote at the holidays.

In what ways might your best-selling merchandise be repackaged into new products?


Sometimes we just need to see our products with new eyes. This can happen with a personal “aha!” or by bringing in others. Lisa Helming, senior merchandiser at Abbey Press, a provider of inspirational and religious products, encourages stepping back and taking a look at your merchandise as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Ask a colleague to brainstorm multiple sales opportunities with you as you prepare for your next sales season.

Helming elaborates: “When I study sales analyses, I often see an item that I know has the attributes of a good seller, but I’m less than thrilled with the sales results. This prompts me to ask myself if I have merchandised this item to the right people or in the right theme.”

For example, Helming says, “last season I had a wonderful wood and metal plaque that featured a quote that sold well on other products. The quality, design and price point of this item were in line for this to be a great seller — or so I thought.”?

As Helming looked again at the product on the page, “this item did seem too rustic and not a great fit with the more contemporary faith product on the page,” she says.

It occurred to Helming that the product would look great hanging in her father’s den, “and that it might be the perfect fit for a masculine gift page I was working on.”?

She repositioned the product to a spread of fishing and golfing merchandise “and saw the sales for this item pick up significantly.”

How can you look at your tried-and-true merchandise with new eyes?


Some companies make a business out of reviving products. Think vintage clothing stores, classic cars or Ebay or even The Vermont Country Store, a brand that specializes in the “practical and hard-to-find.”

For more than 60 years, The Vermont Country Store has built a business bringing customers items that they have long remembered.

Head of merchandising Jane Patton says: “We focus on what we have always done — practical frugality with a touch of nostalgia. It is our practice to always bring back revivals,” what the cataloger calls products from the past.

On its Website, The Vermont Country Store encourages its customers to reminisce about products from the past, whether it’s candy counter memories or Fischer-Price toys or even Lifebuoy soap.

How can you revive hit merchandise from your company’s past?

The potential savings gained by the ingenuity of your company’s Plan R might be just the competitive advantage your company needs to sustain itself in today’s lean economic times. Don’t be afraid of the R word!

Andrea Syverson ( is president of IER Partners, a consulting company specializing in brand and merchandising transformations.

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