The news that Stateside cataloguer/retailer Eddie Bauer had filed for bankruptcy protection wasn't much of a surprise. What did surprise, however, is that according to the Wall Street Journal, it had sales of roughly $1 billion last year. That means an awful lot of people must like what Bauer stands for. For my part, I'm not sure what that is.
When outdoors enthusiast Eddie Bauer founded the company in 1920, it was as a sporting-goods shop. According to the company website, Mr Bauer patented the regulation badminton shuttlecock still in use today and the first quilted goose-down jacket in North America. So clearly the brand has plenty of outdoor cred.
But somewhere along the way the company branched out into selling casual apparel for both men and women, then workplace-suitable fashion. It even brought out a range of home furnishings and soft goods. Quite what Egyptian-cotton towels had to do with fly-fishing and camping in the Cascade Mountains is beyond me.
As Bauer extended its range, it also diluted its brand. Maybe the company founder had invented the goose-down jacket--but if you were a hunter, say, looking for a heavy-duty version, you were just as likely to buy one from L.L. Bean or Orvis or REI. If, on the other hand, you wanted a pair of comfy chinos or an unflashy polo shirt, you were just as likely to buy it from Lands' End or Gap. And if you wanted towels--hell, I don't know why anyone would buy towels from Eddie Bauer.
Each of the other brands I listed had a distinctive unique selling proposition. L.L. Bean: hard-nosed Yankee (as in New England rather than American) integrity, resulting in unparalleled quality and a legendary guarantee. Orvis: outdoor gear produced by outdoor enthusiasts for outdoor enthusiasts. REI: activewear for younger, eco-friendly outdoor lovers. You get the point.
But Eddie Bauer stood for... um, yeah, the quality was good, I guess, but not the stuff of legend like Bean's duck shoes. The service was fine, but not as remarkably accommodating as that of Lands' End. Bauer had become an also-ran.
During the past few years Bauer's latest CEO, Neil Fiske, made great strides in trying to return the brand to its outdoorsy roots. The company launched a range of heavy-duty winter outerwear and, to prove the hardiness of the line, sponsored an expedition to Mount Everest. Yet the home page of EddieBauer.com gives no indication of this, or at least not above the fold. Instead you see a sale promotion, a photo of a generic ocean, and alternating shots of a man and a woman donning rather bland casualwear.
The problem isn't that Bauer has been resting on its venerable laurels. Rather, it's that the company hasn't made enough of its laurels, nor has it decided what to rest upon instead.--SC