A match made in

On Aug. 2, Lands’ End president/CEO Mindy Meads gave the opening keynote address at eTail 2005 in Philadelphia. She didn’t disclose any earth-shattering insights: “If you veer off track, recognize it and immediately course-correct” was typical of the common-sensical tone of her speech. When asked what keeps her up at night, she replied, “How do we keep getting better?”

No doubt that’s not what’s keeping her up at night now. Two days after her speech, Meads was no longer with Lands’ End or its parent, Sears Holdings. Both Meads — who when I met with her briefly after her keynote was gracious and cheerful — and the Sears brass are keeping mum as to whether she resigned or was fired, let alone as to the reasons behind the departure.

The rumor mill is busy filling the void left by Sears’ refusal to discuss the situation: Meads took the rap for Sears’ inability to improve its sales of soft goods and successfully integrate the Lands’ End apparel line into its stores. Meads left because she didn’t want to see the Lands’ End brand suffer further erosion by being sold in Sears’ Kmart stores. Meads was kidnapped by body thetans sent by Xenu…oops, got my BusinessWeek and my Dianetics mixed up.

What’s clear is that Sears still doesn’t know how to make Lands’ End work for it. Other mass merchants have managed to burnish their own images by adopting glittering name brands. Think Target with Michael Graves, Isaac Mizrahi, and Liz Lange. Think J.C. Penney with Bisou Bisou, Nicole Miller, and Chris Madden. Even Kmart managed it for a time with Martha Stewart. But when Sears tries, folks say that the company ended up tarnishing the Lands’ End brand instead.

Really, though, do you think anyone who used to order from the Lands’ End catalog or Website stopped once the brand became associated with Sears? “Ooh, Biff, Tom the plumber was wearing a Lands’ End Sea Wash T-shirt when he fixed our bidet yesterday, so we simply have to clear our closets of anything Lands’ End.” So far I’ve heard no one say that the quality of Lands’ End’s merchandise has declined in the three years since Sears acquired it (nor as a customer have I seen any decline). And when you consider that Sears’ best-known brands, Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances, are known for their top quality and are hardly among the cheapest in their product categories, the company’s image problem vis-a-vis Lands’ End baffles me.

Perhaps it’s time for Sears to give itself a complete overhaul: Sell only hard goods at Sears stores; strengthen Kmart’s position as a viable rival to Target, Wal-Mart, et al.; and open stand-alone Lands’ End boutiques or simply keep Lands’ End a direct brand.

As for Mindy Meads, at one point during her keynote she quoted Lands’ End founder Gary Comer: “Take care of the customer, take care of the employee, and the rest will take care of itself.” From everything I’ve heard, Meads adhered to the first two pieces of that advice, so hopefully the third will fall into place for her.

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