O Pioneers

We’d be remiss if we detailed the accomplishments of the latest wave of innovators without reviewing those of their predecessors — the pioneers of cataloging. Here, a brief look at those who led the evolution of the industry.

  • Richard Sears, founder, Sears Roebuck and Co. Launched a watch and jewelry catalog in 1988 with partner Alvah C. Roebuck; the general merchandise title followed in 1895. Pioneered the “big book” general merchandise concept to sell big-city store products to rural America.

  • Leon Leonwood Bean, founder, L.L. Bean. The legendary hunting boot purveyor, who mailed his first catalog in 1912, developed the concept of a brand, product quality, customer service, and an unconditional guarantee.

  • Harry and David Holmes, owners, Bear Creek Corp. After the Medford, OR-based brothers took over their father’s Bear Creek orchard in 1914, they planted the food-by-mail concept with the first Harry and David catalog in 1934.

  • Frederick Mellinger, founder, Frederick’s of Hollywood. Mellinger, who founded the venerable lingerie company in 1946, realized in the 1950s that some women would prefer to buy their “unmentionables” discreetly through the mail — and decided he could profit from their modesty.

  • Lillian Vernon, founder, Lillian Vernon Corp. This one-time housewife started her gifts business from her kitchen table in 1951, placing a $495 ad in Seventeen magazine for a personalized purse belt. Vernon has been using her “golden gut” instinct for catalog merchandise ever since.

  • Jack Miller, founder, Quill Corp. A use-tax warrior, Miller’s fight with North Dakota tax officials made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled in Quill’s favor: Catalogers do not have to collect taxes from out-of state customers if they don’t have nexus (a physical presence) in that state.

  • Gary Comer, founder, Lands’ End: The former advertising copywriter started his company in 1963 to sell sailboat supplies by mail; it became a $1 billion-plus apparel direct merchant with a catalog renowned for its detailed benefit copy, provocative covers, and adventure stories.

  • Roger Horchow, founder, Horchow: At a time when mail order was dominated by downscale general merchants, Horchow launched an upscale specialty book, The Kenton Collection, in 1971. Three years later, Horchow bought the catalog from investors and renamed it the Horchow Collection; he sold it to Neiman Marcus in 1988.

  • Dick Hodgson, a catalog consultant for more than 25 years, Hodgson’s credits include executive stints at the Franklin Mint and printer R. R. Donnelly, he’s also a board member on Foster & Gallagher and one of the founders of the QVC network — and the author of more than a dozen books on direct marketing.

  • Harold Schwartz, president/CEO of Hanover Direct in the late ’70s (and later president of Montgomery Ward Direct and Joan Cook), Schwartz is credited with inventing the “stable of catalogs” concept for the then-Hanover House.

  • Richard Thalheimer, founder, The Sharper Image. Thalheimer launched his high-tech gifts and gadgets catalog in 1979; his company, which today includes 100 stores and a Website, continues to score with unique and proprietary merchandise.

  • Irwin Helford, former chairman, Viking Office Products: Upon taking the helm at the office supplies marketer in 1984, Helford directed its foray into international marketing and pioneered its “fanatical” service concept. Office Depot bought Viking in 1998; Helford retired in 1999 but returned this year.

  • Michael Dell, founder, Dell Computer Corp. Dell started the company — with $1,000 — from his University of Texas dormitory room in 1984. A manufacturer/marketer of computers, Dell blazed a trail by selling only its own brand and enabling customers to custom-configure products.

  • Pleasant Rowland, founder, Pleasant Co. In 1986, Rowland innovated the mail order industry by building a catalog around a single product theme: the American Girl doll collection. Rowland sold to her company to toy giant Mattel in 1988 and retired two years later. — Melissa Dowling

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