Personal organizers carry around a lot of important stuff-appointment schedules, phone numbers, addresses, business cards, and anything else you can cram into them. They're pragmatic in function and, for the most part, design. Most organizers come wrapped in dark vinyl to withstand the wear and tear of an entire year. Quite befitting a man's briefcase, perhaps, but not very appealing for a young woman to pull out of her purse. Or so thinks Thomas Cushing, president of The Willard Group in New York City. "Most organizers look like accounting ledgers," he says. "They're a personal accessory, but no one had taken a real fashion approach to them."
Recognizing that niche, Cushing's company launched Kate Spade Paper last summer as a license of handbag maker Kate Spade. The stationery line marked the first license for Kate Spade, whose simple, chic totes have shown up on the arms of fashion-forward females since designer Kate Brosnahan started the business with two friends and her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Andy Spade, in 1993. Revenues have rocketed, climbing from $6 million in 1996 to an estimated $30 million last year. Maintaining a low profile has been part of the company's strategy. "Customers don't want us to be a big name," Andy Spade said during a symposium last fall at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "We're a reluctantly growing handbag company." Stationery fit the maker's vision, Cushing says, because it was a little unexpected, not like shoes or belts. Besides selling the line through high-end retailers like Neiman-Marcus and at a handful of Kate Spade retail stores, Cushing decided to add a catalog to the marketing lineup. "Why should we make a customer go to a store to get refills for her organizer?" he says. "Those products are easily purchased through the mail."
But how could Kate Spade Paper reach the right customers? The target consumer, Cushing notes, is not the same person who buys a planner from Day-Timers or Franklin Covey, two giants in the personal-planner business. Cushing first studied the demographics of Kate Spade buyers. They are almost entirely female, between the ages of 20 and 35, college-educated, and living in urban areas. They flip through fashion mags and definitely know, for example, what color is in for spring. They're also loyal: Women who flaunt Kate Spade bags tend to have two to four hanging in their closet at home.
Still, not every girl is a Kate Spade girl, says David Wolfe, creative director at the Doneger Group, a retail consulting company in New York. Since the handbag maker has done only modest advertising so far, many potential Kate Spade Paper customers may not be familiar with the brand. "You have to be in the know to know Kate Spade," Wolfe says. "They can be a boutique line of stationery for their knowledgeable customers, but if they want to be mainstream, it may not happen so readily." To broaden its client base, Kate Spade Paper also set out to target people who buy stationery products as well as those who make mail-order purchases.
The first Kate Spade Paper catalog went to 50,000 prospects last August. Roughly 15 percent of recipients were Kate Spade retail customers; The Willard Group cobbled together another 10 percent from its in-house Rolodexes and work in the fashion business. Name lists from places such as J. Crew, Tiffany & Company, Town & Country, and J. Peterman Company comprised the rest. The response rate was 1.5 percent with an average order of $105. Another 2.5 percent of recipients requested catalogs for friends and relatives, Cushing says. A second catalog landed in 200,000 mailboxes three months later. New names were added from subscriber lists of fashion magazines like Elle and general publications such as New York, Martha Stewart Living, and Time Out New York. In December, as the holiday season closed in, the firm was receiving roughly 120 orders a day through the catalog with an average order between $95 and $105.
The unusual format of the catalog may be one reason why some consumers stop and look instead of chucking it in the garbage. Designed like a storybook, the 5-by-6-inch catalog tells the tale of "The Day Kate Missed a Tea" and then introduces products such as Kate's Opulent Organizers, address books, note cards, and photo albums. Keeping with a "handbag theme," illustrations of stuff found in a woman's purse dot the pages of organizers and journals. One hot item is a $35 pencil case, complete with pencils and an eraser branded with the Kate Spade logo. It sold out weeks before Christmas, Cushing says.
Based on its early success, Kate Spade Paper plans more catalog mailings this year, probably every two to three months. New items, such as wall and desk calendars, are possible as well. An "etiquette" theme, Cushing says, will unify the product line of 2000. Perhaps missing an appointment in the 21st century will still be considered bad form. Kate Spade hopes so.