WisBusiness: Quirky sells, says Duluth Trading Co. president
Price still matters, but in today's "omnichannel" 24/7 shopping world, companies need to be both remarkable and willing to take risks to succeed.
That's the mantra of Stephanie Pugliese, president of the Belleville-based Duluth Trading Co. and a former executive with the Ann Taylor and Lands' End companies.
Her company is known for its quirky and humorous catalogs, simple No Bull guarantee and products such as T-shirts designed to cure "Plumbers Butt" by covering backsides and beautifying America. Also known more modestly as the Longtail T, with three inches more fabric than comparable Ts, these shirts were introduced a decade ago and sales have now topped one million, she said.
Speaking to an In Business magazine "Icons in Business" breakfast gathering, Pugliese said consumers are now much more in control of shopping with online reviews, social media and the ability to find products from a variety of sources.
"They are telling us when, where, what and how much," she said.
"Retailing as we knew it is gone ... but that represents a huge opportunity," said Pugliese, who described her firm as a direct-to-consumer, multi-channel brand with brick-and-mortar stores and a Facebook page that debuted in April.
"And not a moment too soon," she quipped.
Pugliese said while consumers are now in charge of buying, they are also often overwhelmed by how much information is available to them.
"So our job at Duluth is to cut through that noise and make the decisions easier ... and clearer for the customer," she said.
Pugliese said companies like Walmart and Amazon have taken much of the meaning out of pricing, because they have the power to undercut competitors, especially with what she described as "vanilla" products.
Nor is the old path to success of heavy advertising a good technique anymore, she said.
Now, she said, companies must create proprietary products that people want to talk about and are wrapped in an experience.
"We find ourselves in a world where, suddenly, the idea of giving away one pair of shoes for every pair sold is a profitable proposition ... and creates growth," she said, pointing out the example of Toms Shoes.
Or where the yoga look can build a billion-dollar company like lululemon with 46 percent annual growth by convincing millions of suburban moms to wear $90 tights – that will never see a yoga studio – while driving their SUVs and minivans, she said incredulously.
Pugliese said Duluth has bolstered its brand by using "uncanny merchandising" techniques and being able to anticipate what trends will influence tomorrow's clothing purchases.
To do that, her company uses panels of real men and women to test products and feature in catalogs, partners with experts and focuses on a "select" group of products that keep customers coming back for more.
A recent cover of the Duluth catalog featured a colorful illustration of an underwater welder wearing Firehose pants over his wetsuit to prevent it from wearing out.
"We got a letter from Tony the diver and we said 'Hey, let's use it,'" she said.
Other catalogs featured women, including a farmer in Wisconsin and a rancher in Oregon.
"They are inspirational and beautiful, real women," she said.
Pugliese said Duluth has also ventured into edgy radio and television ads, one of which features an giant, angry beaver that bites off the leg of a worker who isn't wearing the company's "Fire Hose" pants. By contrast, the beaver breaks its big teeth and whimpers when it encounters the considerably tougher Duluth workwear.
"People tell me our ads are ridiculous," she said. "But it cuts through the clutter. Great storytelling makes people laugh. We have fun with it, and the bottom line is that we are building a brand. "
And that leads to pricing power, so the Walmarts of the world don't matter, she said. Moreover, it gives leverage with producers who want to partner with Duluth.
"It also rallies our talent around a central voice and look," she said. "We let them play in our sandbox and the result is magic."
For details on Duluth Trading Co., visit duluthtrading.com.
-- By Brian E. Clark