Fare Thee Well, Coldwater Creek


Elizabeth S.

Every company has a story. If it is a good one, people will be attracted to it.
The story of Coldwater Creek has come to the last page. Bankrupt and closing its doors, many analysts cite reasons, but for those of us who think of it as a living breathing entity, this is a sorry state of affairs.
Started in a ski condo, in 1984 by Denis and Ann Pence, it had an unlikely beginning. After moving to Sandpoint and saying goodbye to their corporate jobs, they decided to launch a catalog business. Their first attempts when, described by Dennis, were funny. A whale watching instrument which ostensibly one could play on the coast and illicit a response, yielded but one sale. It was later returned. One day a package arrived, unbidden. A stunning silver buckle with a native theme became the product that launched the company. Ann came up with the name as they walked along the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. A former copywriter, she played a huge part in creating a national brand selling women’s fashion over three channels: catalog, web and retail. It was not long before they became a Fortune 500 company.
It was 1999 when I answered an add in the paper and began a new chapter in my life. As a hands on Mom at home, my previous place of employment had been a ski lodge and nightclub in Aspen, Co, back in the late seventies.  After agonizing over my resume, I went down to the call center and sat in the lobby for about twenty minutes. I wanted to get a sense of the people and know the feel of the place before I tossed my hat in the ring. A woman walked by with a pail. Thinking it looked a bit odd, she responded to my quizzical expression by telling me that she was going out to feed the birds. That was the clincher for me. The fact that she took the time to speak to me, a stranger sitting there as if waiting for something. Feeling that it would be a friendly, welcoming place, I took the leap. Initially hired to be on the ‘phones as part of the rank and file, we were told in training class that if we could write a letter, we should apply for the web team. While the title sounded daunting, we were informed that live chat was just around the corner and they needed people to man it. 1999 was the year America discovered online shopping. Oh, how we had to coax people to pull out their credit cards. Business went through the roof and the intrepid little web team worked at breakneck speed. We would be up to five written conversations going on simultaneously, while answering email. Not only did we manage, this small team of fourteen people won an award for best Internet Customer Service and we were written up in the Wall Street Journal.
After that, I went on to become a Product Trainer. Teaching agents in both Coeur d’ Alene, and by video teleconference, West Virginia, we enjoyed continued success. Something strange began to happen when the customers would call in: they began professing their love for us. We were given an ethic of customer service and we were empowered to make our customers happy. If they complained about shipping costs we were allowed to erase it from their account. We took any return; we bent over backwards to make sure that they were pleased with their purchases. We knew their figure problems, their life problems, their weight gains and losses. We were allowed to talk, off script, within reason of course, but we enjoyed those relationships. Through it all, it seemed unlikely that such an endeavor could spring from a small town like Sandpoint.
The company grew and expanded. Denis Pence had the essence of a true entrepreneure. He tried new things. He scrapped ideas that didn’t work. He knew every product. He would come and talk to us, meet with all his agents, and hear their concerns. We didn’t sit in those meetings mute with fear: we spoke up and told him what were hearing from customers. They wanted long tops, we told him. The wanted to be comfortable. They wanted to get out of sweat pants, look nice, but still be able to move and bend. They had a hard time finding pants that fit. We all got on the ‘phones at Christmas. Men would call beseeching us for help. We gave them a set of steps. Go to her closet. Find something she wears all the time. Get a tape measure and give us the statistics. It used to make me laugh to hear them go to their toolbox and get out the metal one used on fix it projects and carpentry, but they were so happy to have a plan in place.
Training manuals, letters, live chat, and interpreting the copy, all fell under my jurisdiction. It became a job of both writing and speaking. Defining the brand became an interesting challenge, especially as it grew and changed. I relished the chance to be writing, in whatever form, and I thanked my lucky stars that my love of fashion and writing had come together in this form. Having gone to a girl’s school and a women’s college, the best part of punching a time clock every day for me, came in the form of a work place full of kind and caring women. We had nice guys there too, but they were greatly outnumbered.
Any company is so much more than the products on the shelves, or the ebb and flow of dollars out and in. It is a complex set of relationships. It is also a story. The garments in my closet still hold the Coldwater Creek label. For most people, it will be nothing but a memory soon. Yet it will be something different for me. A lesson learned, a collective of people of good faith, and a never ending sense of gratitude for all the great souls I met along the way.