DODGEVILLE, Wis. - Like Santa's elves, the workers at the Lands' End warehouse here scurry about with lists in hand, plucking items that customers have ordered from row upon row of shelves: a pair of elastic-waist corduroy pants here, a long-sleeve button-down blanket plaid shirt there, and, of course, a solid turtleneck, always a solid turtleneck.
Navel-baring hip-hugger pants? Stiletto heels? Handbags with the designer's rather than the owner's initials? Not here at the catalog and online retailer that sells the kind of traditional apparel that, though never making the cover of Vogue, has boosted company profits to levels that make more fashionable retailers green (or light kelly or emerald or dark fir) with envy.
Lands' End reported a 173 percent increase in third-quarter earnings over the same period last year - at a time when many retailers are suffering from the economic recession as well as the free-floating malaise that has fallen over consumers since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Lands' End's bucking of the trend might stem, retailing experts say, from how its no-muss, no-fuss approach to clothing speaks to the mood of an edgy nation. Much as restaurants are finding that during these uncertain times diners crave comfort foods like meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, retailers see a hankering for comfort clothes like the flannel and fleece wear sold by Lands' End.
"When I think of Lands' End, the words warm and cozy come up," says Ellen Moore of Carton Donofrio Partners marketing firm in Baltimore, which recently conducted a wide-ranging study of consumer attitudes in the wake of the attacks.
The study, in which anthropologists descended on eight U.S. cities and six foreign countries to talk to and observe people shortly after Sept. 11, found that many were searching for meaning and connections in their lives and retreating from anything that seems inauthentic or frivolous. How that translates into the marketplace remains to be seen, but Moore says she believes consumers are for now more interested in a few familiar products than in lots of faddish ones.
"People are a little risk-averse right now in many ways. There are the safety issues out there, of course, but also in areas like investing, people are converting from stocks to bonds," says Moore, who specializes in helping retailers "optimize customer experiences" in their stores. "People are looking to old standbys. People are looking for simplification. People are saying, enough, let me do other things with my life than organize my closet. People want to live their lives."
Moore and others say such trends should help companies such as Lands' End, which have long focused on personalized customer service, whether by phone or on the Internet. Moore says the company's Web site is particularly inviting and easy to use - customers can chat with an employee, for example, and create a virtual model of themselves that allows them to "try on" various items.
Lands' End has managed to grow huge - it sold more than $1.3 billion worth of merchandise in fiscal 2001 - while retaining a small-town sensibility befitting its headquarters in tiny Dodgeville, population 4,220, in the dairy country of southwestern Wisconsin. Lands' End, which started as a sailboat equipment company in Chicago in 1963, moved here when it expanded and began focusing more on apparel, and its founder, Gary Comer, bought a farm in the area.
Much of the work of the company takes place on a campus about the size of 16 football fields: Designers create new styles, photographers shoot them for the catalogs and Web site, suppliers ship in boxloads of products, telephone and online operators take orders for them, and packers box them up to be trucked across the world.
This is peak season, when the number of employees jumps from 6,500 to 9,500, and among the holiday hires is a group of retirees who come in every year to wrap gifts. Even with seasonal hires, though, the jump in Christmas orders requires managers and office workers to drop their regular duties and pitch in on the line.
"Everyone puts in at least four hours a week in what we call peak-season support. You can choose your area, like monogramming, packing or gift-boxing," said Andrea Stephenson, who normally works in public relations for the company. "Last Christmas [season], there was this big snowstorm, and some of the people who work the phones couldn't get in, so it was, `All hands on deck.'"
It's that kind of corporate culture that makes Lands' End, to the casual customer, seem like a mom-and-pop shop. Customers can join the "lost mitten club" and get replacements for the inevitable disappearances during the course of the winter, and the company keeps buttons used on even discontinued styles in case someone ever needs a spare one.