If you find yourself swiping through pages of sweaters this season, remember that even the best online shopping experience is trying recreate that old catalog feel. Which is why it’s very sad to know that Lillian Vernon died today at the age of 88 in Manhattan. The queen of catalog merchandising created the catalog experience for the pre-Internet shopper. When we try to “customize” t-shirts on a random website or order monogrammed coffee mugs in 2015, we should just call it the Lillian Vernon effect. She made shopping over a breakfast table easy, fun, and personal, even if you had to call or — gasp! — mail in an order form.
Vernon came to the U.S. as a Jewish refugee and started her catalog business in 1951. She traveled the world and found low-cost items to sell via her catalogs. From figurines to bath towels, her catalogs were varied and “whimsical” according to the New York Times. The paper writes that:
A middle-class homemaker herself, Ms. Vernon had what she called a “golden gut” for knowing what women wanted — often even before they knew. Her products were as diverse as “rescued shards” of Ming vases, fashioned into pendants and bracelets, and the all-pink Lady Tool Kit, complete with hammer, screwdrivers, wrenches and sometimes a power drill.
If you’re old enough to remember flipping through her catalog that no one in the household seemed to order, consider yourself lucky. The Lillian Vernon catalog was about everything you didn't know you wanted and everything you definitely didn't need.
In the midst of holiday shopping mania, Vernon holds a special spot in shoppers’ hearts:
Cue the eBay sales of all of your grandmother’s random knick knacks.
Really, Vernon was a savvy businesswoman who started a business that any online retailer could only hope to emulate. She killed it. The next time you monogram something and have it shipped within two business days, think of her.
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