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A monogrammed scarf from Things Remembered.
Photo: Things Remembered

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Malls Are Dying, but Things Remembered Is Still Hanging On

Personalization keeps the store alive, even in the age of Etsy.

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For her first wedding, Jennifer and her ex-husband ordered Champagne glasses from Things Remembered. “We also got an engraved cake server as a gift, and my ex got the groomsmen engraved keychains,” she says. “We purchased from [Things Remembered] because it was inexpensive and easy. We could just go in and be done within an hour.” Now, Jennifer, who is from Chicago, says, “I probably won’t go into Things Remembered unless somehow I heard they were way more modern now. I suppose nice gifts from or for coworkers or bosses would be appropriate to get at Things Remembered, or engraved products for special occasions like weddings.”

Meredith, who lives in Jersey City, recalls receiving a locket from Things Remembered as a gift. She liked it because it had her name on it — it was something she couldn’t easily find, even if she didn’t really like the style. She says shopping there is “not even something that comes to mind when I’m looking for a gift for others.”

And Melanie, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, still has a Christmas ornament she received as a gift from her college newspaper editor. “While I experienced a warm, cozy feeling when I saw the store [recently], I am not sure I would buy something there today. That type of design is not really my style.”

Personalized beverage holders from Things Remembered.
Photo: Things Remembered

But despite what these women think about Things Remembered now, just as its name promises, they — and you, probably — remember the items purchased or gifted from there (and chances are you probably don’t throw these things out, because that would induce guilt; your name is on it).

Things Remembered is generally known for engraving a multitude of sentimental gifts for any occasion (housewarming, wedding, back to school) or relationship you can think of (boss, client, coworker). Mix and match locations and relationships featured on the website and you have a recipe for a year’s worth of improv show suggestions. The types of gifts are also myriad, if generic — boozy Man-with-a-capital-M gifts like decanters; mother-in-law gifts like bags, robes, or jewelry; boss gifts like desk pieces; a $45 “personalized decision maker,” should you need something for the Chidi from The Good Place in your life. It appears to pride itself on being a leader in personalization — if personalization to you means “has my name on it,” which to some, it does. Being thoughtful is hard; knowing someone likes whiskey and their name is not.

According to the history it details on its website, Things Remembered was launched as a small store called Can Do over 40 years ago. Since then, it has grown to well over 600 stores, though various locations have shut down in recent years. It occupies that intersection of online, in person, personal enough, and quick. The company prides itself on customer service and its commitment to giving back through a partnership with the Make-a-Wish Foundation and its support of various charities.

But there’s something worth pointing out that is likely known to anyone who’s ever made a purchase there: It is very much a Mall Store. And it’s often found in malls that are anchored by stores like Sears, J.C. Penney, and Macy’s: exactly the kinds of places that you think of when you see headlines declaring the near-death of the mall.

Things Remembered declined a request for an interview and is a private company, but there’s a trail of information available about its financial history. In 2012, private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners acquired Things Remembered Inc. for $295 million. Despite the heartfelt platitudes on its gifts, it is not immune to the woes of most mid and low-level mall retailers. In June 2015, Moody’s — which no longer covers Things Remembered — said the store had eight quarters of declining sales. In 2016, The Wall Street Journal noted the company was carrying a $178 million debt load and that it brought on FTI Consulting, the same company that helped Sports Authority Inc. and Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. with their bankruptcies. (Sports Authority closed all of its stores.) In July 2016, Moody’s downgraded several of Things Remembered’s ratings, and announced it would withdraw its ratings of the company, “because of inadequate information to monitor the rating, due to the issuer’s decision to cease participation in the rating process.”

A Things Remembered in Madison, Wisconsin.
Photo: Corey Coyle/Wikimedia Commons

And there’s the fact that malls as a whole are in trouble. “The [malls] in danger [are] the C and D malls that are heavily represented by the dying department stores — many of whom have been there over the last decade,” says Sucharita Kodali, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “Part of the challenge with a company like Things Remembered is that it has been around, [so] they’ve signed leases probably 20 or 30 years ago, [when] those malls were more popular. They’re still stuck in that real estate. It takes a while to cycle through.” Neighborhood-center types of malls — anchored by big-box stores like Bed Bath & Beyond or grocery stores — are primed for success these days.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean being in a low-tier mall is a kiss of death. “Obviously, there are too many malls out there,” says Gabriella Santaniello, founder of retail research firm A Line Partners. But sometimes stores in these malls find their way. “There are certain regional malls where mass-market retailers have closed their stores but then regional retailers will move into those spaces and do perfectly fine.” They go into B malls on purpose, she says, and they have no desire to be in more upscale surroundings.

Mark Lilien, Things Remembered’s former CIO, says that when it comes to retailing in a mall, it’s important to think of how the goal is to “get the highest profit possible. So if I offer you a mediocre location, but a rent that is the bargain of the century, you might make more money than the best location in the world but [with] a rent that would sink a battleship.”

There’s a benefit to being there, too. “My sister, who hates shopping online ... is a confirmed mall shopper on Long Island [where there are] many choices of malls,” says Lilien. “Her favorite mall is the mall that I would call a ‘ghost mall’ or a ‘hollowed-out mall’ or declining mall, and she loves going into that mall, because she gets great customer service because there aren’t any other shoppers. At Things Remembered, we did customer-satisfaction surveys constantly, 365 days, several years on end — [there was] excellent customer satisfaction often in the worst locations. I think it’s because you don’t have to fight six other people to get attention.”

Because what happens in person matters. Yes, online, there are plenty of places to buy “personalized” goods: there’s Lillian Vernon, which has been around since the 1950s and boasts that Century-Gothic-font-and-bright-color aesthetic;; and printing-oriented brands like Zazzle or There’s also Mark & Graham, which is owned by Williams-Sonoma Inc. and is known for its monogrammed goods, like linens, wallets, bags, and jewelry. It’s in some ways a higher-end version of Things Remembered, but it’s direct-to-consumer. And, of course, there’s Etsy, which arguably possesses a more popular aesthetic. Jennifer — who bought those wedding items from Things Remembered — has now shifted to getting personalized products from Etsy, Snapfish, or Shutterfly.

But there’s a counterargument to that.

“Etsy is definitely in that world, but there are no Etsy retail stores,” Lilien says. “So you can’t put it in your hand before you buy it; you can’t show it to your mom or best friend before you buy it. Therefore, it is somewhat handicapped.” The biggest competitors, he says, are companies that embroider linens. (Plenty of places sell monogrammed linens, from high-end department stores like Neiman Marcus to Bed Bath & Beyond.)

“We know the No. 1 reason people don’t buy online is they still want to touch and feel merchandise, and that’s never going to go away,” Kodali says. “Some of these internet solutions [like Etsy] have created a new market,” and while they “absolutely [eat] into the share of existing incumbents … there’s a space and a place that exists for cheaper scale products for people who are more price-sensitive and less discriminating about what they want.” (Etsy goods, she says, are “really unique,” but they’re not “particularly cheap — and it can take a long time for you to get it, but you get exactly what you’re looking for, something really unique and special that can fit your vision.”) So if you’re the kind of person who waited until the last minute to buy a gift and doesn’t want to go spend a lot of money, you’re in luck.

Lilien says that when he was at Things Remembered, he recalls the company having an “extremely robust online business” — and that the website was constantly improved, along with the company’s ability to get things engraved even more quickly. Yes, you can have items engraved under an hour, and that speediness is more significant than one might think.

“I might [have been] willing to wait a week five years ago,” says Marcie Merriman, cultural strategist at consulting firm EY. Now, she says, most people “might be willing to wait an hour.” There’s an “expectation of [things being] instantaneous.”

So the people buying gifts might not even be who you think they are. “What I was surprised to learn when I came to the company was the demographic was considerably higher-end than I thought it would be,” Lilien says. “The [shoppers] are well-educated and they’re of good income. A substantial amount of the shopping is women buying presents for women — for their friends.” Though the wedding business is large, he says it’s more than just that. He has explained that the target demographic for Things Remembered is women in their 20s and 30s. Hard to believe at first, but the store does sell monogram brand-name dishware, including Lenox, Vera Wang Wedgwood, and Waterford.

Even if people who have purchased items from Things Remembered in the past no longer prefer its style, and even if the company is experiencing the inevitable struggles familiar to most mall-store brands, it seems that shoppers there are treated with dignity even during what some might consider their low moments. As in: when they waited until the last minute. One Yelp reviewer of a now-closed Dallas location credited an employee named Julia with “[saving] the day!!!!” after she waited too long to go gift shopping. Another Yelp reviewer of a now-closed California location gave the store a five-star review for a patient employee who helped her while she looked for a last-minute Father’s Day gift. (There are plenty of negative ratings, too... this is retail, after all; not everyone is always so sanguine.)

As perfect and as thoughtful as we’d all like to think we are when it comes to gift-giving (monogrammed Madewell totes for all! A wine-delivery subscription! Something other than a candle!), few of us are strangers to the struggle of suddenly realizing we need to buy something for a loved one, and desperately wanting it to seem as though we put more thought into their gift than we actually did. The recipient will probably remember it — or at least keep it — and isn’t that what counts?


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