Lillian Vernon Weaves Its Way into Wal-Mart

In a match made in personalized-products heaven, Lillian Vernon Corp. is teaming with discount retailer giant Wal-Mart. More specifically, the gifts and home products cataloger is partnering with Hometown Threads, a franchise network of embroidery/personalization shops; Hometown Threads boutiques in six Wal-Mart stores are now selling Lillian Vernon-brand personalized products on a test basis.

The 35 Lillian Vernon products being sold in the Hometown Threads shops include a keepsake bible, a karate bag, and naptime and activity blankets. Hometown Threads approached Lillian Vernon because “we had a lot of inquiries in our stores of ‘Do you have this product that Lillian Vernon sells?’” says Hometown Threads president Howard Arnberg.

Hauppauge, NY-based Hometown Threads is a division of Hirsch International Corp., an embroidery technology and business systems provider. All told, Hometown Threads boutiques are located in 24 stores, 18 of which are in Wal-Mart locations across the country.

For Lillian Vernon, “the potential to get into more stores is exciting,” says David Hochberg, a spokesperson for the Rye, NY-based cataloger. When investment firm Ripplewood Holdings and media management company ZelnickMedia purchased Lillian Vernon earlier this year, they cited the potential for branding opportunities as a key reason for the acquisition. The Hometown Threads partnership “is a prelude to more licensing-type initiatives,” Hochberg says.

Although Hometown Threads and Wal-Mart have a strict tenant/landlord relationship, Arnberg says that Wal-Mart has veto power over any new items Hometown Threads might bring into its stores, should they compete with Wal-Mart merchandise. But he was encouraged that Hometown Threads received approval from the nation’s largest retailer to stock the Lillian Vernon products.

A six-city test

The initial Lillian Vernon test, which will run through January, is in Wal-Mart locations in Omaha, NE; Bartlett and Chattenooga, TN; Butler, PA; Evans, GA; and Lexington, KY, “to give us a broad range,” Arnberg says. “We knew we had customers in these stores who had asked for these kinds of products on a regular basis.”

During the test period, Hometown Threads might expand the number of stores carrying the Lillian Vernon personalized products, “because our franchisees would like access to them and sales have been so encouraging so far,” Arnberg says. The company will decide on store expansion between September and November, but Arnberg estimates it might go up to 20 stores.

The first of the Lillian Vernon merchandise appeared in the stores on July 10; within two weeks, sales had already exceeded expectations, Arnberg says. In fact, the first franchisees had to reorder 40% of their goods just eight days after getting the products in.

“Ordinarily, when we release new products to our stores, it takes time for customers to know they’re there,” Arnberg says. “This was the first time customers immediately started buying — and that seems to be pretty consistent across all six stores.”

Hometown Threads is, of course, hoping to see sustained interest in the new personalized products. Even so, “it’s been very encouraging from the beginning,” Arnberg says.

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