What Makes You So Unique?- Merchandise Haiku

April 1989 – my first day on the job as the new marketing guy for the Brookstone catalogs. I had the usual litany of forms to fill out, obligatory tour of the warehouse, and review of our systems with IT.  Around 3 PM, one of my co-workers said “Oh, by the way, you have a 4 PM meeting in the main conference room. It’s a critique of the Spring catalog, the book that just mailed last week.”

This was new to me. I had come to Brookstone from the Potpourri catalog, which was still family owned, and family controlled. The family may have held critiques of the catalogs that we mailed, but we mere mortals never participated. I never knew what products were going into the catalog until we received samples back from the printer. Further, since the catalogs looked the same issue to issue, year to year, there was little to comment on from a creative perspective.

As I was headed down the hall to my 4 PM meeting, my co-worker yelled out “Oh, and watch out for Frank!” Who was Frank?

Frank turned out to Frank Oliver, who at the time was the merchant/product buyer for the Brookstone Hard-To-Find-Tools catalog.  Frank left Brookstone in the early 1990s to become head of merchandise at Gardener’s Supply, and then head of product development there.

Frank was astounding in that critique meeting, which included the CEO, the VP of Marketing for stores and catalogs (my boss), the catalog art director, and a cast of four or five others. Frank was animated.  Frank was LOUD (and still is). There were no results yet on the book, as it had just mailed, but Frank started to rattle off a list of changes that needed to be made for the next book.  He knew his facts. He was quantifying his opinions and ideas with data! This was back in the era of Lotus 1-2-3, with floppies that held one program each. Where was he getting this stuff?

Over the years, I have come to regard Frank as one of the best merchants I’ve known for one simple reason. He is passionate, yes, passionate about products. (But, then again, have you ever met a merchant of whom you would not say they were passionate about products?)   Yes, he’s great at envisioning fiendishly ingenious new products. Yes, he has some fantastic relationships with product vendors around the world.

But, those reasons are not why I consider him to be one of the best merchants. The simple reason Frank is so good is that he strives to quantify what he is doing. I have met tons of merchants who have no concept of how to quantify their product’s performance, or who don’t consider it part of their job. It’s not that it is “beneath them”, they just don’t know how to do it, or are not very good at it. They strive to excel at finding new products, that correspond with the persona of the catalog’s customer (who is named Colleen), and to discover the right color palate for this coming’s season.

Yes, those merchants do care about how those products perform; after all, their personal compensation depends on it. But they limit their knowledge of that performance to what their IT department can furnish for a “performance report”. These reports are different in every company, but they are rarely designed with the true needs of the merchants in mind.  They are typically designed by someone in IT, and focus on SKU numbers, not sales trends.

Are there merchandise metrics that matter? How does a merchant determine the true performance of their products? Again, everyone wants to see different things, and has different methods of evaluating products. Where do you start?

The Task for March 2017:

I gave Frank a challenge when I asked him to speak at our seminar on March 30.  Frank’s had quite a bit of exposure in the past few years, speaking at our first seminar 5 years ago, and a couple of times for NEMOA. He’s been his usually jovial self. He’s offered some great tips, but I told Frank that this time, I needed him to focus on not what the audience wants to hear, but on what they need to hear. Last summer, he agreed that he could do this.

Around January 1, I checked in to see how he was doing with getting ready for his presentation. Here was his response:

“You have given me a formidable challenge.  One that I am wrestling with, in all honesty.  The outline in the agenda you and I agreed upon has flexibility, so that’s fine. Less entertainment and more serious presentation content.  That’s tough. Takes time…

Working on a serious idea that might work. No laughing matter. Need just a bit more noodling to see if it holds for the complete talk. My flight plan:

I will distill all previous merchandising presentations to a concise, “best of breed” fast overview: merchandising key metrics, data management, and performance reporting (Building the Titanic), Merchandising goals – Marketing goals (Ready-Fire-Aim), Demand Conflicts (Attribution Retribution), Multi-channel Merchandising (Drone Warfare) Surviving World War III…….

Too dramatic?  Perhaps, but not so far off.”

I could tell from his response that Frank was going to exceed my expectations. Here’s why: some people get asked to speak at lots of conferences. They often just dust off last year’s speech, update a few slides with this year’s buzz words (social engagement) to sound relevant, and show up at the appointed hour on the designated day. Frank was wrestling with how to develop something new, something that was going to challenge you to think (which is what I ask both he and Kevin Hillstrom to do this year).

Last week, I asked Frank for a few “tidbits” from his presentation that I could weave into this posting. His response was so good, that instead of editing it, I offer it here in its full and original form. I’m not sure what “device” Frank uses to send me his emails, but because of the short sentences, and lack of paragraphs, this struck me as being a form of merchandise analytics Haiku.

“What makes you so unique?’

When a casual conversation drifts to hometowns, I always say I don’t have one!

‘My hometown is nowhere, and my friends are everywhere.’

‘Your Dad must have been a traveling salesman?’

No, career Military. I was a Brat.

Always moving, changing friends & schools every couple years, a drifter’s life, no roots really.

Makes me pretty unique, right?

I really thought so, until I saw the movie “Brats: The Long Journey Home”.

You see, Brats may physically look different, but our story & character is exactly the same in so many respects.

We are socially comfortable (aka Out-going), fiercely loyal (aka Keep America Strong & Protected), and refuse to give up (aka Excellent Survivor instincts).

Brats will tell a stranger their life story over a beer, but fail to share feelings of sadness or grief with their own family.

Brats are “invisible” and everywhere.  5% of our population are Brats. Millions of us!

Your catalog customers are really like a diverse group of Brats. Like it or not.


So spend less time trying to figure out what your Brats “look like” and more time enhancing their lives with meaningful product they will respond to!

When was the last time you immediately improved a new product based on negative Power Reviews?

When was the last time you surveyed buyers of a long time “best seller” to find out how it really works or how it could be sold effectively for other purposes?

When was the last time you spoke to a real customer about a real product that you sell?

When was the last time you had an “email relationship” with a customer that lead to introducing a great new product?

Merchants need fewer customer profiles and more good product intelligence!

Going to trade shows and asking suppliers “What’s selling” is NOT what should guide your new product strategy.

Merchants need to use their internet web tools to the fullest extent, because their customers are invisible & EVERYWHERE!

New rules apply; we are always moving, changing relationships and forced to survive in a more challenging market.

I would contend, therefore, that Military Brats make excellent merchants, they are personable, loyal, and very used to adapting to constant change!

They also don’t mind traveling…….they have friends everywhere, some they have yet to meet.”


Yes, as Frank stated, new rules apply. We must make changes to survive. If you are trying to determine how to grow by improving not just merchandise performance, but merchandise development, you need to be at the Datamann seminar on March 30th in Concord NH.

There is still time to register, but I recommend that you do it soon. Our registration is running 20% ahead of last year’s numbers.  Our host hotel is full, but there are still plenty of other hotels in the Concord, NH area.

If you have not already registered for the seminar, click here to visit the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website.

Registration costs for this all day event:

  • $135 for VT/NH Marketing Group members
  • $200 for non-members
  • Registrations are accepted until March 28, 2017

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235