Plow & Hearth Reaps Its Rewards

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CAMBRIDGE, MA -- Peter G. Rice launched the Plow & Hearth brand a quarter century ago with one store and built it into a $120 million-plus multichannel operation that's now owned by 1-800-Flowers.com. And while Rice retired from the business in December, he didn't escape from the catalog industry without having to tell his story at the New England Mail Order Association's spring conference yesterday. Attendees were an appreciative group, however, and immediately afterward presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.


Plow & Hearth's first tagline was "a center for self-sufficient living," and it sold wood stoves and other functional items during a time when there was growing concern about energy sources. The first catalog launched in 1982 and mailed to 100,000 names. It had a very low response rate and a low average order, Rice said. He gave mail order another try the following year using different mailing lists and saw "a huge lift." By the third year, Plow & Hearth was mailing to 250,000 names.


Between 1985 and 1990, Plow & Hearth was named one of the country's fastest-growing companies by Inc. magazine on several occasions.


"What got us there was we started expanding our product line," Rice said, adding that around this time the brand's tagline shifted from "essentials for country living" to "products for country living."


It also was a good time to have a catalog business as there was growing interest in this distribution channel, he said. In the early '90s, the company started acquiring other catalogers, with mixed results. Its acquisition of Green River Tools, a highly specialized tool catalog, proved successful, while its purchase of gift catalog Kemp George didn't go as well.


In 1994, it expanded its offerings again with items that weren't part of its core products, but always with an eye on merchandise that would make sense to the consumer. So when it moved into footwear, it started carrying Birkenstock, Dansko and Ugg, for example. Plow & Hearth also eventually moved into apparel and food. All of these new categories are very big for the company around the holidays, Rice said.


As a result of this strategy, the company acquired many new customers that helped it ride out tough financial times in 1995, when paper and postage prices skyrocketed.


In 1998, 1-800-Flowers bought Plow & Hearth, and it has grown quickly since then, launching two new catalogs: Home and Problem Solvers. It also has acquired several more catalogs, including Wind & Weather this past fall. For the future, the company eyes retail expansion.


"It is difficult to continue to grow circulation, so growing through retail is one of the most important strategies we have," Rice said.


One of the most valuable lessons that Rice said he has learned is to be passionate about the products.


"It is really important to be personally attached to the mission of the business -- that makes it a whole lot easier," he 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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