Coldwater Creek Inc. History
Sandpoint, Idaho 83864
Telephone: (208) 263-2266; (800) 262-0040
Fax: (800) 262-0080
Sales: $143.1 million (1996)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
SICs: 5961 Retail Catalog & Mail-Order Houses
The Company believes that the successful execution of its marketing and merchandising strategies coupled with its high customer service standards and efficient order entry and fulfillment operations has allowed it to develop a unique brand identity and strong relationships with its loyal customer base. Coldwater Creek focuses on providing extraordinary customer service well above industry standards. All aspects of the Company's operations are designed to provide a superior catalog buying experience as well as strengthen relationships with existing and new customers.
On its way to achieving incredible rates of growth in the 1990s, Coldwater Creek Inc. redefined the catalog business and raised new consciousness about selecting locations to do business. Coldwater Creek employed sophisticated design skills and advanced technology in its wildly lucrative quest for absolute customer satisfaction.
Yuppies Find an Outlet in the 1980s
Coldwater Creek had its source in the Hudson River. Dennis Pence had earned a philosophy degree at Antioch College in Ohio and was working in 1983 for Sony Corporation, as national marketing manager for consumer video products. Pence and his wife, Ann, who had been a copy director for Macy's California, decided to flee New York City in 1983 and start a business they could run from a pristine rural location. The locale they chose was Sandpoint, in northern Idaho, population 5,000; the business they chose was catalog sales, a competitive, crowded field that would offer 7,000 different titles in the mid-1990s.
Savings of $40,000, credit cards, and pawn shops launched the business. While Ann served as creative director, later to become chairman of the board upon the company's incorporation, Dennis headed the management side of the operation, eventually filling the roles of president and CEO. They communicated with their first clientele using a typewriter. They designed their own materials from the beginning. Early one-color catalogs were printed by the local newspaper; the first was only a brochure proffering 18 items. Print advertising rounded out their marketing media. The other necessary part of the formula was the mailing list. Initially, the couple maintained a roster of clients on handwritten 3 × 5 inch index cards. They concentrated their initial efforts on distinctive crafts supplied from small makers and other nature-related items, such as bird feeders and binoculars. In spite of their modest means, the Pences dedicated themselves to providing the highest levels of customer satisfaction.
The romantic appeal of their pristine location next to Lake Pend Oreille factored into the company's plan from the beginning. Another advantage of the site, once the Pences moved their operations out of their small apartment, was a motivated, loyal work force. The isolated location proved a tough sale when recruiting skilled management talent, however. Later, when Pence considered relocating to West Virginia, the state of Utah subsidized job training and helped obtain money to develop the area's infrastructure.
In the Mid-1980s, Things Get Colorful
Northcountry, the company's first four-color catalog, debuted in 1985. This catalog of clothing, jewelry, and gifts would land most of the company's sales because of its broad appeal. In the mid-1990s, most items in Northcountry were priced between $15 and $90.
Writing and design were conducted in-house. The company maintained its own photographic studio and used outside photographers as well. Quality--in paper, printing, photography--was the watchword. Coldwater Creek commissioned original photography and artwork for the covers of its catalogs. Inside, pictures of rivers and mountains complemented photographs of the merchandise. Models were not used; the customer was not to be distracted by how the clothes would look on ideal bodies, but to relate to them directly, as if they were viewing them in a store. Color printing was done to the highest practical standard. Equally luxuriant were the purple prose captions describing the goods. The entire package was coordinated into a lushly illustrated narrative designed to take the targeted reader to a favorite place. Coldwater Creek's customers tended to be affluent, cultured female city dwellers who pined for outdoor spaces. The company made its first profit in 1986; at the time, the company had less than ten employees.
Entering the 1990s with New Tools
In 1991 and 1992, the company spent more than $1 million upgrading its computer system with a Hewlett-Packard minicomputer and software carefully customized to the company's requirements. The computing power was needed to process data on the millions of households that received the company's catalogs. Purchase records and demographic information were tracked; appropriate customers would be sent additional catalogs such as Milepost Four upon its introduction. To supplement its own data, the company rented mailing lists to identify prospects, who were started on Northcountry, which had the broadest variety and appeal of the Coldwater Creek catalogs. In addition to the equipment upgrades, new executive personnel were hired in 1992 to provide adequate administrative structure to the fast-growing company. In 1991, profits were $1.6 million on revenues of approximately $11 million.
High performance in customer satisfaction remained the company's focus. In 1992, the company reported a 3.5 percent merchandise return rate and minuscule abandoned call rates, as well as fulfillment accuracy and speed and call answering times that well exceeded industry standards. To provide the most knowledgeable assistance, merchandise samples were kept handy for the sales associates to answer detailed inquiries.
New Lines Stir Sales in the Mid-1990s
First introduced in the fall of 1993, Spirit of the West thrived in its niche of premium women's clothing and jewelry. As prices came down for the catalog's offerings, it proved even more successful. Beginning in 1996, a new spring edition boosted the line's sales further. From then on, the company's emphasis would be on clothing rather than jewelry and accessories. Eventually the company would develop its own line of private label apparel, allowing it to tailor its offerings and differentiate itself further. To win a younger audience, Ecosong, first mailed in fall 1994, offered lower priced gifts than Northcountry, most between $10 and $50. The Coldwater Creek Credit Card, also introduced in 1994, helped maintain the company's customer relationships.
Coldwater Creek continued to develop its infrastructure in the mid-1990s. From 1994 to 1996, nearly $20 million was spent to upgrade telecommunications systems (based on Northern Telecom telephone switches), data processing systems (based on the Hewlett Packard 3000 series), and distribution facilities.
A new call center was built in more densely populated Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, 50 miles south of the company's original call center. The new facility provided redundancy and additional capacity for the company's toll-free telephone traffic: 1.1 million phone calls in 1995 and 2.1 million in 1996. The center's 195 stations brought the company's total to 315. During the height of the 1995 holiday season, the company received about 9,000 calls per day. If one of the centers ran out of available operators, an alarm would sound and personnel at all levels would be obliged to answer calls. In addition, if either center should be rendered unavailable through natural disaster or equipment failure, calls would be forwarded to the other call center. Should both centers become inaccessible, calls could be routed to sales agents' homes. A redundant data processing system, in which orders entered at either location were automatically recorded instantaneously at both sites, was also installed at Coeur d'Alene. Eighty percent of orders were received through the telephone; the remainder were mailed or faxed.
Building upon Mid-1990s Success
Coldwater Creek built a retail store in 1995, converted from an entire two-story downtown shopping mall, perched atop a covered bridge. The 14,000-square-foot complex was eventually demarcated into stores for each of the catalogs as well as an "outlet" store. Other stores were opened a couple of years later in Seaside, Oregon and Jackson, Wyoming. Although the Pences chose Sandpoint because of its isolated location, tourist destinations were preferred for their small chain of retail stores to raise brand awareness.
To expand sales beyond the mostly female buyers into other members of the household, in spring 1996 Coldwater Creek introduced a men's clothing catalog, Milepost Four, which spurred sales. The average sale grew to $133 from $91 the previous year.
In the fall of 1996, Smithsonian Magazine and The New Yorker ran advertisements supporting a national campaign to build the Coldwater Creek name, particularly to support its private label apparel and store sales. Conversely, retail stores also helped establish the brand in the consumer's mind.
During the mid-1990s, the company's active customers increased in number from 30 to 50 percent per year. Half the sales were of apparel, the rest divided between jewelry and accessories. In 1994, sales were $43 million; in 1996 they reached $143 million and profits amounted to $12 million. The company's vendor list had grown from only a handful of suppliers to more than 400 manufacturers. Coldwater Creek offered more than 4,200 different products through its catalogs, which reached four million mailboxes. Catalog distribution grew more than 50 percent per year from 1994 to 1996.
Going Public at the Fin de Siècle
Another way the company attempted to establish its name as a national brand on par with L.L. Bean was through its initial public offering (IPO) in January 1997, which raised $37.5 million. The Pences retained 75 percent ownership. Other benefits desired from the IPO were to make the company more attractive to management talent because of higher visibility and incentives such as stock options.
The company planned to heighten international efforts in 1997. Significant inroads had already been established in Japan and Canada, which accounted for ten percent of total net sales. In addition to increasing its mailings in those countries, Coldwater Creek also planned to enter the European market. Most of the company's products were made in either the United States or Canada.
Coldwater Creek's marketing efforts also flowed into a new frontier, the Internet. Initially, the company's web site informed prospects about Coldwater Creek products and lore. They could also request a catalog online. The company did not, however, immediately establish interactive ordering capabilities.
Coldwater Creek employees numbered more than 1,000 in 1997, most of which (745) were temporary. It had less than 175 employees in 1993. Employment rolls swelled by as much as 300 during Christmas.
Coldwater Creek's operating figures indicate torrents of success in the spring of its existence. From fiscal years 1995 to 1997 net sales rose from $45 million to $143 million, despite considerable increases in expenses such as paper and postage. Its unique setting, sophisticated approaches, and single-minded focus on the customer provide lessons that its well-heeled customers would be happy to see other businesses emulate.
- Case, John, "How to Launch an Inc. 500 Company," Inc., October 1992.
- ------, "Looking for Jobs in All the Wrong Places," Inc., March 1994.
- Coldwater Creek Prospectus, Sandpoint, Idaho: Coldwater Creek, 1997.
- Fenn, Donna, "Sooner or Later Almost Every Inc. 500 Company Hires an Ace Management Team. But How Soon--Or How Late?," Inc. 500 Special Issue, 1995.
- Geranios, Nicholas K., "Catalog Company Tucked Away," The State (Columbia, South Carolina), May 4, 1997, p. H5.
- Murphy, Anne, "Where the Growth Is: Hot Spots," Inc. 500 Special Issue, 1994.
- "Welcome to Our Little Corner of the World," Sandpoint, Idaho: Coldwater Creek, n.d.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 21. St. James Press, 1998.