Brands of Yesteryear Find New Life at Vermont Country Store
Old brands don't die, they just retire to Vermont. The Vermont Country Store, that is, which bills itself as the "Purveyors of the Practical and Hard-to-Find."
About 15 million U.S. households are hearing the thunk of its catalog hitting their mailboxes this Christmas, its pages packed with generations of venerable products from Jubliee kitchen wax and Lifebuoy soap to Turkish Taffy to Postum -- even Fuller Brush products. A trip through its print or web pages is a trip down memory lane. Just check the comments section.
It's a purposeful strategy. "Nostalgia is different for everyone. … But it always creates an emotional connection," said Chris Vickers, president-CEO of Vermont Country Store. "You're taken back to your childhood, or sometimes back to something you remember about your parents."
But nostalgia requires the necessary years to be looked back fondly upon. That means the store's average customers skew older than the often-coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic. Mr. Vickers, 48, said the store's idea of younger customers aren't teens or 20-somethings, but rather 40-year-olds and baby boomers. And that's just fine by the company.
When Vrest Orten founded Vermont Country Store in 1945, it was about nostalgia even then. The first catalog listed "prudent gifts" and included a convertible rubber-tire buggy. As Mr. Orten explained in a 1952 Saturday Evening Post article, he wanted to create "a real old-time country store, selling all the good things to eat that I used to see in my father's place and articles that have vanished from the modern stores."
Today his son Lyman and three grandsons (Cabot 44, Gardner, 41 and Eliot, 40) maintain that precept with products such as Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific and Lemon Up shampoos from the '70s; the Fisher Price Chatter Phone pull toy from the '60s (with a rotary dial); Max Factor Pan-Stick popular in the '40s and '50s; and Midnight in Paris perfume, a scent brought to the U.S. by GI's returning from World War II.
Allison Cena, strategy director at DDB, Chicago, said retro brands have resurged in part because consumers' stressful and time-crunched lifestyles leave them wistful for the simpler and happier times.
"Retro brands that do well stay true to who they are, but also contemporize a little bit. So you can't be an old brand with old tricks, you have to be an old brand with a few new tricks," she said.
The Vermont Country Store has two physical locations in rural Vermont and advertises its website online, but its main source of marketing is its catalog, which goes out once or twice a month. The privately held company does not disclose sales, but its store sends out 50 million copies of the catalog every year -- 15 million of them at the holidays. The cataglog is still the dominant sales driver, Mr. Vickers said. The retailer does little other marketing -- mainly some web ads, a YouTube channel and some appearances on programs like the "Today Show," Martha Stewart's TV show and NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me."
The primary inspiration for which brands to sell comes from customer requests and suggestions, said Mr. Vickers, a Harvard MBA who came to the company in 2010 from L.L. Bean where he was VP-merchandising. When the store looks for those products, sometimes it finds them and sometimes it doesn't.
In the case of products like Garabaldi raisin biscuits or Charles Chips potato chips, Vermont Country Store found manufacturers and acts as a reseller. In other cases, such as the shampoos mentioned above, the retailer couldn't find manufacturers. So it reverse-engineered the products and manufactures them itself. Its popular Lemon Cooler cookies were also revived and redeveloped from the '70s favorite made by Sunshine.
Mr. Vickers contrasted Vermont Country Store's ethos with Nike. The sports apparel giant, he said, was one of the first brands to create the marketing idea of constantly introducing new products because "if you never give someone the same thing, they'll always be excited to buy the next new thing." Vermont Country Store believes in giving consumers the same products they depend on.
"They're simple, practical products that just work," he said.