Garnet Hill Draws Strength From Change

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CAMBRIDGE, MA -- Garnet Hill has experienced many changes in its three decades of existence and continues to thrive today because it chose to embrace change, company president/CEO Russ Gaitskill said Friday at the New England Mail Order Association's spring conference.

The company was founded in 1976 by Pegge and Grant Dowse with one product: English flannel sheets. Those same sheets have been in every catalog since and remain a strong seller, Gaitskill said.

In the early years, Garnet Hill was a family-friendly business before people knew what that term meant. The foundation was laid for a lifestyle catalog that sells products around a specific customer. Internally, Gaitskill said, Garnet Hill sees itself as editors sifting the many products available to consumers and choosing only the ones that fit its customer's lifestyle, price point and affinity.

The company almost collapsed after the Dowses died in a plane crash in 1985, but it was acquired a year later by the Hamblin family and a growth period ensued. During this time, the company built its first real warehouse with computers and developed a brand imagery that it continues to use and that includes lots of beautiful photography.

In 1997, the company was acquired by Cornerstone Brands, which owns a host of other catalog brands. Though creative, marketing and merchandising remain fiercely independent under Cornerstone, anything not customer-centric, such as IT, paper purchasing and human resources, was consolidated with significant savings, Gaitskill said.

Cornerstone Brands was acquired in April 2005 by IAC, which also owns, and HSN. The company operates as before, but it now has the exposure to interactive TV, with all of Cornerstone's brands being featured on HSN in their own block of time as part of a test.

"We have learned a lot," Gaitskill said of the test, adding that he thinks all retailers will get involved in interactive TV in the future. He also said HSN recently finished a test in Hawaii where consumers could make purchases in real time from their television using their remote controls.

Some people may think home shopping is down market, but Gaitskill isn't concerned. When Internet shopping came along, no one thought you'd be able to sell apparel via a computer, and look where we are today.

"Be careful of what you turn your nose up to," he said.

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