Circulation Blossoms for Seed Catalog

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The D. Landreth Seed Company not only is the oldest seed house in the country, it also may be one of the oldest direct marketers around, as the company has mailed some form of sell sheet or catalog since the 1780s.


But just because it's an old-timer doesn't mean Landreth is past its prime. After many years of shrinking customer lists, the company increased its annual catalog's circulation 500 percent this year.


The Baltimore-based company takes credit for introducing many of the fruits and vegetables popular today to American soil, such as the white potato and various tomatoes. The 1848 catalog carried seeds for many contemporary favorites such as artichokes and asparagus. However, it also offered items such as a Spanish watermelon and a curled India lettuce.


Barbara Melera, a former venture capitalist who was looking to escape the world of high tech, acquired Landreth in September 2003 with her husband. The company was a shell of its former self after decades of waning interest in gardening among U.S. consumers. It didn't help that many members of the Landreth family had sought work outside of the seed industry and the company was sold in the 1940s.


As a result, Landreth had returned to mailing a sell sheet after publishing a catalog since before 1838. Melera mailed the first new catalog in 2004 and has watched the mailing list grow "exponentially every year" since, she said, though she declined to say how many names it goes to. The catalog is distributed yearly. New names come mainly from garden shows that the company attends during the year and from word of mouth.


Landreth's target audience is small hardware stores, nursery and garden centers as well as home gardeners.


"What I wanted to create with Landreth was a company that serviced the middle class primarily," said Melera, Landreth's president. "With scarce resources, I believed that the best way to communicate with people that there is new ownership and that the focus is on quality was with a catalog."


Part of the catalog's success is that it borrows heavily from Landreth's past. Though the oldest catalogs were destroyed in a fire in the first half of the 20th century, the company has many vintage etchings that it featured throughout this year's book. The etchings also are reproduced on note-card sets sold in the catalog.


In addition to the etchings, this year's catalog has a sepia tone throughout that adds to the vintage feel. The exception is a 16-page insert that's new this year featuring nearly 200 photos of flowers and herbs. This year's catalog also offers 40 new seed varieties.


Landreth introduced an e-mail newsletter last fall that's "probably been the most successful marketing tool we've had outside of the catalog," Melera said. The newsletter mails to 3,000 to 5,000 names, and she expects the schedule will be every three weeks during gardening's high season, once a month between June and October and every six weeks after that.


The newsletter's style "is taken from the chatty rural registers that the company produced in the 1800s," she said. For example, the latest issue focuses on potatoes and includes a long history of potatoes and how to grow them using various methods as well as a section for people who are gardening with children.


The company's Web site, landrethseeds.com, which launched in February 2004, accounts for 20 percent to 30 percent of overall revenue and "is a growing percentage every year," Melera said.


Chantal Todé covers catalog and retail news and BTB marketing for DM News and DM News.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters


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