Profile on Plow & Hearth--Reaping What You Sow (2,623 words)
When Peter and Peggy Rice founded the Plow & Hearth catalog in an outbuilding on their Virginia farm in 1981, their inspiration was the back-to-basics movement. Nearly 20 years later, the country philosophy remains, but the back-roads mail order business is anything but backwards. Its adoption of a high-tech database in the mid '90s has led to quick, efficient growth through sophisticated modeling, which in turn engendered a home-furnishings catalog spin-off and a highly successful upselling program.
Now Plow & Hearth's dual commitment to direct marketing basics and use of cutting-edge technology is allowing the founders to reap what they've sown.
In April 1998, the Madison, VA-based catalog found an unusual partner in high-profile phone and e-commerce company, 1-800-FLOWERS.
Charmed as much by Plow & Hearth's expert fulfillment systems as its complementary gardening product line, Jim McCann's 1-800-FLOWERS purchased a majority interest in the country catalog. Now Plow & Hearth is finding that its 20 years of catalog experience will help define and shape the future of both companies, on and off the Internet.
Sowing the Seeds
Back when the Rices opened a small retail store in rural Virginia, they had their minds set on a bigger business than could be supported by their isolated community. Their plan was to grow the business through a catalog that would offer many of the necessities that they themselves used.
Peter Rice explains the business model: "In 1980, the prime interest rate was 18 percent, and it still boggles my mind. It was tough to get money, but the concept was really around back-to-basics: rototillers, wood stoves, food preservation, kerosene heaters, bulk vegetable seeds."
The back-to-basics movement emerged from two 1970s social phenomena: increased environmental activism and a broad-reaching energy crisis. Driven by a blend of idealism and pragmatism, Rice claims, "Country living has been at our core from the very beginning."