After 47 years of hard work, Lillian Vernon, queen of the mail-order catalog, relishes the good life. A country home, a city apartment, the occasional pair of designer shoes - all make life a little sweeter for the founder and CEO of the Lillian Vernon Corp.
But Vernon relishes a bargain, too. So perhaps it's no surprise that atop the sales reports on her desk is a $14.98 star-shaped brass paperweight. In neat script, it says "Lillian."In all 560 pages of the nine current Lillian Vernon catalogs, it's hard to find a more telling trinket. Lillian Vernon Corp. took in $258 million in revenue last year from more than 4.9 million orders. The company introduces 3,000 new products a year, and all are designed on the same basic principle as the star-shaped paperweight: If it's somewhat unique and moderately useful, it's for sale.
If it can possibly be monogrammed, so much the better.
Lillian Vernon was born in Leipzig, Germany, the daughter of a prosperous lingerie manufacturer. The family fled the country in 1933 as anti-Semitic sentiment brewed, moving to Amsterdam, then to New York in 1937.
The family struggled in America as her father, Herman Menasche, worked to re-establish his business. Ultimately, he began manufacturing and selling leather goods and assigned teenage Lilly to stroll Fifth Avenue looking for trends.
She went to New York University, but like many women at the time, quit after two years to get married. Two years later, in 1951, she was pregnant, short on cash and restless.
"I couldn't go to work in an office," Vernon recalled. "My God! To work outside of the home as a pregnant woman was a terrible thing back then."
So she figured out a money-making scheme she could run from her kitchen table in suburban Mount Vernon, N.Y. She spent $2,000 of wedding gift money to buy leather purses and belts, an embossing machine, and a sixth-of-a-page ad in Seventeen magazine. She christened the venture Vernon Specialties, after the town. (In 1990, she legally changed her name to match the company.)
"Be first to sport that personalized look on your bag and belt," the advertising copy urged teenage girls. More than 6,000 responded to buy the $2.99 bag and $1.99 belt. The business was born.
What can be bought from Lillian Vernon today?
There are garden tools and kitchen gadgets, jewelry boxes and dog food dishes. The company publishes nine separate catalogs: Lillian Vernon, Lillian Vernon Gardening, Neat Ideas for an Organized Life, Lilly's Kids, Christmas Memories, Favorites, Personalized Gift, Lillian Vernon Kitchen and Private Sale.
Plenty of items are no different than you'd buy at the local Kmart or Macy's: candleholders, coffee mugs, clothes hangers.
But the bread and butter of Lillian Vernon is the truly unusual. Take, for example, one of Vernon's all-time favorite products:
"We had a `hurry-up' knocker designed for bathroom doors back when homes only had one bathroom," she said. "People loved it!"
Currently, they're selling a jewelry rack in the shape of a blue plastic hand.
"When I first saw it, I thought, `Well, I don't know if any woman is really going to put this on her dresser.' But the little girls are crazy about it! They think it's cool, and they all want to be so cool."
Vernon is 70 years old, and with her proper wool suit and perfectly coiffed hair, she may seem an unlikely chronicler of what's cool. But she prides herself on knowing her customers well, and to stay in touch, she sits in on focus groups, reads letters from consumers and often answers them personally.
She knows her average customer well: She's 38, and most likely a working mother. Her household income is $53,000 to $55,000. And she's probably reading the catalog at the end of a long day in the office, on the soccer field or in the kitchen.
In 1981, Lillian Vernon strayed too far from that core customer and paid a price. The company launched At Home, a slightly more upscale catalog, where a fountain pen sold for $75. It flopped, and Vernon now dubs it her "million-dollar mistake."
After steady growth in its first two decades, Lillian Vernon took off in the 1970s, passing $1 million in annual sales for the first time as women flooded the workplace and found less time to shop.
A costly computer upgrade and the opening of a distribution center in Virginia Beach, Va., held down earnings in the 1980s. But Vernon made two big moves that decade: She began opening retail outlet stores to sell overstocked or discontinued merchandise. And in August 1987, she took the company public.
She has learned to endure spikes in the price of paper, which can hammer a catalog company's profits, and has overseen Lillian Vernon's venture onto the Internet. The company offers merchandise on its own Web site and through America Online.
"Right now, it's primarily a tool for male shoppers," Vernon said of the online business. But her coveted female customers are increasingly shopping online, she said, and the company forecasts $1 million in online orders in the current fiscal year.
At home, things are changing, too. Vernon was married this month for the third time, to businessman Paolo Martino. She's clearly delighted but less than sentimental about her own role in the festivities.
"The oldest bride in America," she said, rolling her eyes and grin-ning.
From her first marriage came two sons, now in their 40s. The eldest, Fred Hochberg, worked at Lillian Vernon for years, ultimately becoming president and chief operating officer. He left to pursue politics, and in May was named deputy director of the Small Business Administration. David Hochberg is a vice president of Lillian Vernon and handles his mother's publicity.
Both say they do not want to run the company, but Vernon holds out hope that one will change his mind. In the meantime, she's not giving it up.
"I'm the founder," she said. "I can work as long as I want."
Every day, she said, there's something new to discover.
"You never stop learning," she said. "If you do, then you'd better go home."