The Antithesis of the “Social Media” Catalog

Have you noticed this too? Since November 1, I have seen 42 articles in the various publications, newsletters, and blogs to which I subscribe on how to use social media to grow my business. I have not seen a single article on traditional cataloging.

I know that for many of you that are catalog practitioners, this over saturation of the media with stories on the potential success of social media, and its close cousin, mobile marketing, causes problems.  Your boss, or someone in upper management, or a board member, sends you an email asking why you are not doing the same with your own catalog.

I remember when I was at Brookstone in the early 1990s, every time our president went on a trip, he’d always come back with a copy of the SkyMall catalog (the catalog with multiple vendors found in the seatback pocket on airplanes). He’d lay it on my desk asking “How come Hammacher Schlemmer and Sharper Image are in here and Brookstone isn’t?”.  I finally got tired of explaining that I didn’t  think that SkyMall was the best way for us to acquire new customers, and Brookstone finally entered SkyMall.  As I predicted, the customers we acquired were terrible, they never reordered, and the whole experience was break even at best. But, everyone in upper management felt better because we were now in SkyMall.

I see the same phenomenon happening today with social media. You are being pushed to spend your marketing and customer acquisition dollars in ways that just don’t make sense, or are just plain unprofitable.

And, yes I acknowledge that some catalogs do have a strong presence in social media, and may even be acquiring customers in that manner. The demographics and the product category have to be right.  But let’s face it, no one has successfully replaced their catalog with a Facebook page. The catalog is still doing the heavy lifting.

As a catalog consultant, I am continually asked by clients to name those catalogs that I think are best at doing certain things – best children’s photography, best at introducing new merchandise, best at acquiring new customers. Then I’m often asked – what is my favorite catalog?

I usually answer by listing a number of catalogs, some from which I purchase, some from which I don’t, that do a good job in a variety of areas.  But, last week, I was placing an order from a catalog,  and I thought – which catalog do I order the most from? I asked my wife to tell me how many times I had ordered from this specific company in the last four years.

I knew she could tell me, because this catalog – which has the inglorious name of Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller Company – does not accept credit cards, only accepting checks. I have been ordering from this catalog for at least 20 years.

As the name suggests, this is a catalog of books, DVDs and some CDs. It is not Amazon – it doesn’t sell everything. It sells mostly books and DVDs that are publisher overstocks.  All the prices are discounted – sometimes by as much as 80%, and almost always cheaper than what Amazon is charging for the same book. Once a new book is published, it takes at least a year to end up in this catalog – so it is not even the NY Times best-seller list.  When I first started buying from this catalog, it was printed on newsprint – and paper that was thinner than a normal newspaper. They switched to four color glossy paper, two years ago.  At about the same time, they launched a website, which is only mentioned in the catalog twice (order form and back cover), and which does accept credit cards, buts adds an additional fee to each item to cover the credit card expense.

The Edward Hamilton catalog has a bound in order form with an envelope, but has no phone number, no Facebook page, no promotions, absolutely no creative design (page after page of book photos with 50 words of copy), no expedited delivery, no loyalty program, no Black Friday specials, and charges more if you pay via credit card on the website. How dumb – right? These are all barriers to customer response. However, despite all these alleged modern catalog deficiencies, I realized that when my wife told me that in just the past 4 years, I had placed 28 orders for over $2,000 – that by default, they do have a loyalty program.

The reason this catalog is able to survive – and grow – is that they recognize that their catalog has to encourage people to browse. My wife, son and I all love to read. As such, we all browse this catalog – cover to cover. We typically order 10 to 12 items at a time, so the bound-in order form is a necessity. The catalog succeeds in getting the consumer to do what all catalogs should and which most websites can’t – by sheer mass of product assortment, it encourages us to buy items we did not even know existed.  More important, the focus of the catalog – the entire reason for its being – is on the books and DVDs. Someone takes the time to learn enough about the book to write 50 to 60 words of copy that always adequately conveys the subject.

Three simple building blocks for success – focus on the product, continual supply of new product, and encourage browsing.  By default, those three things have built and will continue to build loyalty. Those are the three tenets that made catalogs great, and which are never mentioned in all the hype about engagement and social media.

There is still life in traditional catalogs. This is not that hard. Remember this the next time you get invited to a social media webinar.


By Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics