J. Peterman Redux
This month, we begin a new column devoted to introducing you to your colleagues in cataloging. Enjoy!
Who did not love J. Peterman’s catalogs—dubbed “Owner’s Manuals”—and his wonderfully wafty copy that turned every SKU into an award-winning short story?
But in the late 1990s, Peterman lived every cataloger’s worst nightmare: investors squeezing him to grow and be profitable, forcing him to spend his time chasing capital rather than chasing great product and making deals.
In the end, he tried to open 70 retail stores, succeeded in opening 10, but then went bust, turning over the detritus of a magnificent dream to a discount chain. He was stripped of everything, including his own name. It was a horrific plunge. “Icarus Peterman” had simply flown too close to the sun.
Renowned for his signature item, the cowboy duster, and known to millions as himself on “Seinfeld,” Peterman was the quintessential world traveler, entrepreneur and bon vivant. He said to me several years ago, “I could travel anywhere in the world, stay anywhere I liked, eat anywhere I wanted, meet anybody in the world and buy anything I felt like buying.”
“Life doesn’t get much better than that,” I mumbled lamely.
Peterman licked his wounds, wrote an article for The Harvard Business Review that became a book, hunkered down in his old Kentucky home, turned a spare bedroom into an office, and began to dream and scheme once again.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cemetery
Peterman is a patient man. As he predicted, the catalog’s buyer did not succeed, so Peterman went into partnership with his alter ego, John O’Hurley, the actor who played Peterman on “Seinfeld.” Last January, Peterman and O’Hurley—with plenty of financing—bought back the catalog’s mailing list, the intellectual property (copy and artwork), product files and the J. Peterman name (previously he was allowed to go only by John Peterman).
In June, Peterman issued his first Owner’s Manual, followed by issues in September, October and November. The most recent, the holiday book, is 42 pages. While he wouldn’t reveal the catalog’s mailing quantities, Peterman says his average unit of sale is reflective of past history. However, unlike the old days, Peterman is mailing “v-e-r-y c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y and t-a-r-g-e-t-e-d.”
Peterman is back to doing what he loves—traveling the world and re-establishing relationships with vendors. At press time, he was in negotiations for an international line of furniture. All we can say is: “Go, John, go!”
- Harvard Business Review
Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at dennyhatch.com.