Gone Too

I’ve been wanting to write this posting for more than six months, but was waiting for the right occasion – which occurred last week. More on that in a minute.

Do you remember the dot.com meltdown of 1997 to 2001?  During this time, many new online companies were founded and quickly failed, some in spectacular fashion. They spent money like there was no tomorrow, mostly on foolish extravagances.

I see a similar catalog meltdown coming, but with a specific sub-class of catalogs. There are about a dozen catalogs, mostly men’s, and all started since 2007, that are aimed at the urban logger, city-living rural camper, all-around country-loving upscale guy.  These catalogs include Rail Riders, Huckberry, United By Blue, Jonnie-O, along with several others.

The right occasion that occurred last week was the announcement by one of these catalogs – Ibex – that they were going out of business and closing down at the end of the month. I hate to admit this, but Ibex was not only located in Vermont, but located in the same small town as Datamann. However, despite several offers to work with them, they never sought our advice or assistance. They did not subscribe to this blog.

What made Ibex’s departure so predictable was clearly evident from looking at their website. First, they had nothing unique about their products. They were just one more company selling earth-toned wool underwear, sweatshirts and hoodies. Absolutely nothing special about the stuff, except that the company was located in Vermont, where they think pure thoughts while packing your order.

The true tip off to me that these guys would not last was the page on their website that listed the “dogs of Ibex”, and showed photos of all the dogs owned by people that worked there, and who brought said dogs to work. There is a no-so-complex algorithm which I developed that links the propensity for catalogs to go out of business with the number of dogs staff members bring to work.

So, another catalog gone. And we haven’t even gotten to Christmas. Usually the announcements of bankruptcy and business failure wait until after December 31, as catalogs hope that Santa and FedEx will somehow magically deliver a Christmas Miracle of sales at the last minute.

Dogs aside, there are two common traits among these upscale rural-wannabe catalogs. First, is a dearth of products. They usually have one product/page or worse, one per spread. They focus on the lifestyle nature of their product, instead of the virtues of the product as being something you would actually want. Look at the spread below from Huckberry’s Fall catalog and first, find the sweater, then find a reason to buy it.  Why do some companies make this so hard?

Or check out the spread below from United By Blue. There is ONE $12 pin on one page, and eight products on the facing page, with no product description, just product name and price.

Yes, I believe that catalogs don’t have to give lots of product detail in the catalog, and can use their websites to provide that. But this catalog gives you no reason to visit their website. This is another sign of the coming catalog meltdown – you can’t give a whole page to a $12 pin and expect to be around for too long. And yes, I understand that United By Blue has a social mission (you can read about it here), but in my opinion, that makes it all the more important to have an efficient catalog in order to fund that lofty mission.

The second common trait is their inclusion of really stupid hard goods. Almost every one of these catalogs sells an axe or multiple axes. Why is that stupid?

Both of my grandfathers had a “camp”, which in New England in the 1930s to the 1960s meant a little cabin in the woods on a small pond, with an outhouse. The only convenience that both had was electricity. My parents had a camp, as did my wife’s grandparents and parents. My brother inherited my parent’s camp, and my wife and I built our own – a small cabin in the woods. I mention all this to show my “camp” bona fide credentials. Both my wife and I have been going “to camp” for our entire lives. And the last thing in the world that I would buy for my camp is a $135 axe, not when a new chainsaw is only $300. And if you have ever split a cord of oak with an axe, you know there is no romance in it. It is not a transcendental experience. The smart campers get a log splitter.

The merchants for these catalogs live in la-la land. They are not trying to appeal to a camper, or real rural person. They are positioning their catalog to appeal to the wanna-be, whether it is a wanna-be camp goer, or wanna-be exercise hound. The problem with that is that being a wanna-be is always a short-lived fad. There is no loyalty to any wanna-be lifestyle for long.

And that is why these catalogs will fail. They are not selling the customer’s dream – they are selling the catalog owner’s dream. Their coming failure lies in having no truly unique products. They are just another lifestyle catalog selling flannel lined khakis, all going after the same customer, and all prospecting to the same tiny pool of co-op supplied names, including me.

Unless these catalogs can truly differentiate their products with something unique, something hard-to-find, and something proprietary, they will, one by one, be the victims of a coming catalog meltdown that has nothing to do with Amazon or dying co-ops. It has to do with the “irrational exuberance” that led to their founding, and which will lead to their undoing.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235