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
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