Profile on Plow & Hearth--Reaping What You Sow (2,623 words)
In the holiday season of 1981, the young couple mailed their first catalog—a slim jim printed half in color and half black-and-white with a blend of the products featured in their tiny store. The Rices sunk their capital into a 100,000-piece mailing. Overall, the response to the lists they had rented was "pretty negligible."
"That was an interesting time," Peter Rice says with typical understatement. Unsure whether their dream was still viable, the Rices turned to The Millard Group, the company's then (and current) list broker, which also served as the fledgling catalog's primary business advisor.
"At the end of the first mailing," Rice relates, "we sat down at the old kitchen table with Don Cody, who was with Millard at the time, and we asked ourselves, 'Is this a business? Is there enough of a pulse to keep going?'"
They looked closer at that negligible response, and found that among the 100,000 names, there were "enough lists that did pretty well and enough products that did pretty well." They decided to give it another shot with a refined strategy and list selection. They scratched together more capital, and a year later, dropped another 100,000 catalogs.
The results were significantly better using the fine-tuned lists and product mix. The next holiday season, they mailed 250,000 catalogs and graduated into seasonal mailing.
"From that point on, we grew rapidly," says Rice. "We were in the 'Inc.' 500 list of fastest-growing businesses four years in a row," from 1986 to 1989.
Finding a Niche Product Line
Today, a customer who flips through the Plow & Hearth Products for Country Living catalog is more likely to find hand-cast wind chimes and rustic table lamps than gas generators and food dehydrators.
"The business changed pretty quickly from essentials for country living to products for country living," explains Rice. "It's a subtle difference, but an important one because, while retaining a core of functional products that we're known for, we offer more products that are discretionary or decorative."