Lillian Vernon, Sharper Image Crash. Why?
The king of high-end tchotchkes (Richard Thalheimer, former CEO and chairman of The Sharper Image) and queen of low-end tchotchkes (Lillian Vernon) have been dethroned.
Lillian Vernon and Sharper Image—two iconic catalogs—were known to have been struggling in recent years.
Their bankruptcies were expected.
That they were announced on the same day is astonishing.
How could this happen?
Both Vernon and Thalheimer launched businesses without paying their dues.
Ultimately, neither of them knew what the hell they were doing.
Lillian Vernon’s Story
In 1933, Lillian Katz’s family fled the Nazis. They left Leipzig, Germany, for Amsterdam, and four years later were lucky enough to catch a ship to the United States.
Fast forward to 1951. Living in a small apartment and using her kitchen table as her desk, Katz took $2,000 of wedding gift money and placed a small ad in Seventeen magazine selling a purse and belt with free monogramming. Her $495 investment in ad space generated 6,450 orders and $32,000 in sales.
(The $495 ad that launched Lillian Vernon is illustrated below. Alas, I could not find the ad that launched The Sharper Image.)
From the first thrill of seeing stacks of envelopes containing cash money through the next half century, Lillian Vernon was passionate about her business, growing it into a behemoth.
Her corporate and personal moniker, Lillian Vernon, was a combination of her first name and the last name of her hometown, Mount Vernon. Over more than 50 years, 5-foot-1-inch dynamo Lillian Katz Vernon built a mail-order powerhouse, moving from space ads to catalogs that averaged 96 pages and 700 items. Retail and outlet stores followed, and in 2001, her Web site was launched. She was able to get inside the heads of her customers—think like they thought, feel what they felt—and offer merchandise that they bought and bought and bought.