Most people associate J. Peterman with his Seinfeld character, the eccentric, peripatetic businessman played by actor John O'Hurley. The real J. Peterman, however, is Lexington, Ky., entrepreneur John Peterman, a former Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman who founded his eponymous retail business in 1987 with a single item of clothing, the horseman's duster.
The J. Peterman Company and its fashion/lifestyle catalog (the "Owner's Manual") attracted well-heeled consumers and celebrities such as Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman and, of course, Jerry Seinfeld, who began parodying Peterman and his exuberant catalog copy on his show in 1995. Thanks to the exposure, investors lined up, and J. Peterman expanded, quickly opening 15 stores across the country. But cash flow never caught up. The business went bankrupt and was ultimately sold to Paul Harris Stores.
In 2001, after Paul Harris went bankrupt, Peterman was able to buy his brand back (with O'Hurley as an investor). However, returning J. Peterman to its former glory was slow going and required some reinvention.
Peterman brought his son Tim on as CEO in 2008 and began building a web presence that exploited the brand's hallmark: great storytelling. The linchpin of the new J. Peterman site is a content-driven section called Peterman's Eye, described on its homepage as "a community of curious travelers." It's a popular repository of content from customers and fans who post photos and links to oddities and tidbits they find interesting.
J. Peterman also promotes monthly sweepstakes, such as offering an all-expenses paid trip to Paris or giving members the opportunity to enter a talent show to win cash. The site has sections on food, history, travel, politics, farming and "Notables & Gossip," as well as a daily missive from Peterman himself, detailing his thoughts and whereabouts (from Italy to Thailand to his farm in Kentucky).
Online traffic has increased fourfold to more than 2 million visitors annually. While the company's sales volume is still half what it was in the '90s, revenue has more than doubled since the site relaunch in 2008. This year the brand is expected to break $30 million, and the majority of the new income has come through the web.
A Second Opinion
Shauna Nicholson, communications, strategy and planning manager at Detroit-based Vectorform, is impressed by the breadth of community involvement on Peterman's Eye. Often companies will try to "own the story and own the content," she says. "But J. Peterman lets its consumers tell the story on the company's behalf, which is new to this age of marketing--especially in its execution." She adds that the site does an excellent job of placing the consumer within the narrative.
Nicholson says J. Peterman could take this idea a step further by incorporating geolocation apps like foursquare. "They could let people pin their stories to different locations," she says, "so consumers could see in real-time where [J. Peterman's] customers were throughout the world."