Lillian Vernon, The Catalog Queen, Died Today, & She Changed Everything You Know About Shopping
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:
i loved looking at my grandparents’ lillian vernon catalogs https://t.co/G1EH08k6pm— Whet Moser (@whet) December 14, 2015
The Lillian Vernon catalog was such a part of my childhood. My mom loved the personalized gifts.— Anne Marie OKeefe (@aokcamp) December 15, 2015
@4of5 I still remember the personalized ballet bag my mom bought me from Lillian Vernon. Had to love the 80s!— Hollyhocked (@HollyHocked) December 15, 2015
Cue the eBay sales of all of your grandmother’s random knick knacks.
Vintage Lillian Vernon wall plate with a dairy cow and checker board design. Available in my etsy shop. Link in pro… pic.twitter.com/kGFxFWVzt1— Dr. Cow (@DrGaai) December 14, 2015
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.
Image: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images