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Swiss Colony deal includes former 'icon'
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MONROE - Swiss Colony has purchased Montgomery Ward, an early giant of the American retail industry that fell on hard times in recent years.

Midwest Catalog Brands, Inc., a subsidiary of Swiss Colony, purchased the Montgomery Ward catalog and Internet brand for $15.5 million through a foreclosure sale, Swiss Colony president John Baumann announced Thursday.

The purchase includes the Charles Keath and Home Visions catalog and Internet properties.

"The purchase of the Montgomery Ward and Charles Keath properties is very exciting," Baumann said in a news release. "As recently as the 1990s, Montgomery Ward was a pre-eminent brand in the United States. We're hopeful we can breathe new life into what was once an American retail icon."

Montgomery Ward was founded as America's first mail-order catalog business in 1872. It grew to be the country's third largest retailer, with retail stores a fixture in many American downtowns. The company floundered through the 1980s and 1990s, eventually closing the last of its retails stores in 2001.

Iowa-based Direct Marketing Services Inc., purchased the brand names Montgomery Ward and Wards and began selling products online. In July, however, it was announced DMSI would be sold at auction in August.

Baumann said the first step will be to rebuild the Montgomery Ward Web site; that work will begin immediately. A catalog will be coming out by the end of this year or early next year, he said.

The purchase of the Montgomery Ward brand is consistent with Swiss Colony's efforts to build stronger Internet-based businesses, Baumann said. There's no immediate plans to re-establish brick-and-mortar Montgomery Ward stores.

"Retail stores are a couple of steps away," Baumann said.

The newest incarnation of Montgomery Ward will be "true to its brand image," Baumann said, referring to the retail outlet's tradition of being a true department store, similar to "an old Sears and JC Penneys." These were stores that sold a wide variety of basics, he said.

There are no plans to add staff, rather Swiss Colony will look to streamline its operation and use existing staff in focusing on the Montgomery Ward brand. Doing so may mean smaller ventures under the Swiss Colony family may be "set off to the side," he said. Durdy Looks, a catalog targeting trend-setting customers who "are accustomed to living a high fashion, designer lifestyle," is one example.

Baumann said the reality is a well-known brand name is more likely to succeed.

"It is extremely difficult to grow consumer catalog businesses today," he said. "We're finding that more consumers are using Internet search engines for shopping or are visiting name-brand sites. Although the Ward brand needs to be rebuilt, it does have strong recognition among consumers."

It's "not a contemporary brand," but that could work in Montgomery Ward's favor. Baumann gave the example of restoration hardware as being one product line that would be successful for Wards online.

Monroe native Ray Kubly started Swiss Colony in 1926 when he began selling cuts of bulk cheese by mail-order from his basement. The company today has seven affiliated companies and sells furniture, home decor, clothing, electronics and gift items in addition to its flagship food wares.