Don't forget Gary C. Comer

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Next weekend begins DMA•06, the direct, interactive and database marketing industry's biggest event of the year. Expect more than 10,000 people from the United States and overseas to network and learn, and 500-plus exhibiting companies to display their prowess and wares at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. They all seek to blaze new trails in marketing and commerce. That's why they should take a moment to remember Gary C. Comer.

Mr. Comer did what symbolizes American entrepreneurialism best: turning a passion into a successful business. A Chicagoan with a love of sailing, Mr. Comer gave up a decade-long copywriting career at ad agency Young & Rubicam and launched a mail-order sailing equipment business. He was 34, and the year was 1962. The next year, Mr. Comer and five partners launched Lands' End Yacht Stores in a rent-free basement on Chicago's North Side.

Let's leave aside the misplaced Lands' End apostrophe and focus on what Lands' End intentionally got right.

Top of the list was product that the customer desired. Lands' End's colorful, targeted catalogs and enticing e-mails - like those of competitor L.L. Bean - set standards in multichannel retailing. The apparel and accessories are vibrant, comfortable and affordable. Selling apparel without touch and feel is tough. But Lands' End's adherence to quality products and standards won it what most retailers and marketers seek most: customer trust. The brand promise was believed.

Let's take admirable feature No. 2: customer service. Call a Lands' End number, and that phone is answered in seconds. The voice at the other end is trained to be respectful, friendly and knowledgeable. They know to ask the catalog source code or SKU number, if needed. At www.landsend.com, placing an order is simple. Items are displayed to their advantage, and the checkout is quick.

Then there is the returns policy. You don't like the item, it doesn't fit or you have buyer's remorse? Lands' End is happy to take it back if it's still in its original condition. No hustle, no hassle.

Finally, there's the remarkable marketing linked to season and customer. The production qualities, imagery and copy online and in the catalog are enviable and on par with L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer's efforts. The mail and e-mail drops stoke desire where none existed or meet needs where they are not filled.

What catalogers and online retailers like Lands' End, L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer get is that satisfying the customer is front and center of everything they do. That means the right product, right staff, right customer service, right marketing and the right processes and technology in place to change with the times.

Mr. Comer sold Lands' End to department store chain Sears in 2002. He was a philanthropist in Chicago and Dodgeville, WI, a town housing Lands' End's warehouse, phone banks and memories of Mr. Comer's generosity to its people.

This exemplary direct marketer died Oct. 4 of cancer at age 78.

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