Why are US Catalogs so Provincial?

I’ve mentioned previously that Datamann works with a number of catalogs that are based in the UK, but that mail here in the US, as well as their home base of the UK.  The attraction to a UK catalog to mail here in the US is obviously size – we have 310 million potential customers, while the UK has 62 million.

When I meet with our UK clients, I’m always surprised at what they know about America. Their perception of our country is largely based on our TV shows, which I suppose is no different than our understanding of the UK based on watching Downton Abbey or The Vicar of Dibley.   I always give them a little geography test, asking if they can name the 4th and 5th largest cities in the US (Philadelphia and Houston), which they almost always get wrong. (Would you have gotten that correct?) They also have a much better grasp of our political system than the average American knows about Parliament or the Labour and Conservative parties.

What really impresses me about our international clients is that they are not only mailing in the US, but they conduct business in Germany, France, Japan, Austria, Australia, etc. They are unafraid of trying to expand their markets by going into foreign lands.

Relatively speaking, the US Postal Services makes it so easy to mail a catalog in the US that we get anxiety at the thought of having to learn  to mail our catalog differently in another country. Most of you don’t even bother to mail into Canada, which really should be no different than mailing into Wisconsin.

We don’t think in terms of world markets for our catalogs or our business. The paradox to that point is that our merchants and buyers travel to all points of the compass around the world looking for new product – but we content ourselves with simply selling here in the US. Why?  I believe it is mostly it is fear of the unknown, and in this case, it is fear of unknown cultures.

When we do try to conduct commerce in another part of the world, we are usually ignorant of local customs. I received an email in January from Leonisa, a lingerie company based in South American that is actively trying to break into the US. They promoted a “20% off bra sale” to commentate Martin Luther King Day.  I’m sure that that is not what Dr. King had on his mind when he marched on Birmingham. That’s the kind of cultural mistake that an American company might make going into other countries.

We can also be arrogant. Many of the catalogs I’ve seen from US companies mailing overseas still have American pricing, American sizing, and American terminology. Consumers in the UK don’t purchase in dollars, and they don’t buy pants – they buy trousers.

Mastering new postal regulations is easy compared to the cultural issues tied to getting a consumer in another country to buy from you. At least most Americans recognize that we can be the “loud American tourist” when we go overseas, and we really do want to avoid making too many cultural mistakes if it will impact response.

That is why almost all of the UK clients with whom we work have a consultant they use to avoid those cultural mine fields when mailing into the US. Those clients don’t always listen to their consultants but they do at least ask questions. I tell all of them that American men wear trousers one day in their lifetime – when they get married, but they still use the term “trousers” throughout their catalog.

More important than the cultural landmines are the business ones – and I’m not just talking about good cataloging basics.  I’m referring to the business nuances that go into running a catalog in another country that are different from anything encountered in the US. It really is more complex than simply mailing into Wisconsin. Contact me if you want the name of consultants that can guide your catalog into foreign markets, steering you around the cultural and business traps.

In my opinion, the real barrier keeping US catalogs from exploring foreign markets is that we continue to view our business as a catalog – not as a web-based company that also has a catalog. If we saw ourselves as a web-based company, with a website that was better than our catalog, we’d see the whole world as our potential customer base, not just the 44,000 zip codes in the US. Until we break out of thinking of ourselves as “catalogs”, we can’t be thinking of global markets.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 802-295-6600 x235