I mentioned last week that catalogs don’t have to die – and they don’t. If your initial merchandise concept was valid, and not a lame copycat of some other brand, you still have potential to survive. But let’s talk about the fundamental changes you need to make to your business to survive in 2018.

First, you must acknowledge that catalogs are dying (trending down, tanking, foundering – whatever euphemism you want to use). If you won’t acknowledge that fact – then read no further.

Second, accept that your future may include a catalog in your business, but that the catalog will always be of secondary or even tertiary importance in selling products and acquiring customers. That’s not to say that your website will be of primary importance. There will be many channels of distribution and acquisition, with none being as dominate as catalogs were 20 years ago.

Third, the giants like Amazon are out for Total Market Domination. You simply cannot compete against them. You can play in their arena, and you will generate sales, but the nature of your business will fundamentally change. If you embrace Amazon as your future, you are simply a reseller at that point, completely dependent upon a sales platform over which you have no control. Someone else will control your destiny.

Fourth, if you accept that the first three points are true (maybe inevitable), then a little lightbulb should have gone off by now. You should realize that your survival as a company will mostly likely be as a smaller company than you are now. And that is OK. However, if not smaller, certainly different – with new vendors, new staff, new thinking. No one likes change. We all want to maintain the status quo. For some of you, that means the desire to still mail catalogs, however that is not how it is going to play out.

If you have read this far and are not muttering to yourself that “Bill is just  too damn pessimistic”, then there is hope. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to detail the five primary areas where change must occur:

  • UPOD
  • Acquisition
  • Selling (not creative)
  • Being something
  • Staff/talent

This week, I’m going to start with the most important area. This is what will make or break every business. UPOD!

If you went to the Catalog Conference 20 years ago, you would have heard many speakers say the same thing – you need to develop unique product, you need to have proprietary products. Those were catalog basics then, and still are today. Some of you followed those dictums, but most of you did not, certainly not to the degree you should have.

But today, you must have Unique Product Or Die (UPOD). It is no longer a trite phrase to throw around during your next strategic planning session. It has become the deciding factor in why a consumer will turn to you instead of Amazon. Consumers don’t care about your legacy of being a great brand. They don’t care about your founder’s lifestyle or mission. They certainly don’t care about making another purchase with you to ensure continuation of the receipt of future catalogs if they can get your products elsewhere, much cheaper and faster.

The clients with whom Datamann works which are the most successful – and still increasing circulation on their catalogs – are those with truly unique products. But here is the thing about unique products – the more specific you make it, the more selective it is for a specific audience, the smaller the universe of potential customers. But, the greater the response if you are the only source.

Here is another truism about unique products – uniqueness is relative. Your merchants and buyers will insist that their version of an LED flashlight, or their black yoga pants are unique. In both instances, you are talking about a commodity product. There is absolutely no such thing as a unique LED flashlight, or unique black yoga pants. Don’t fool yourselves into thinking there are – and you are the easiest person to fool.

It is difficult for me to show examples of unique products, because every merchant can scramble and show you something that is similar – unless of course it is their product, in which case they will swear there is no other like it.

But you know what makes something unique. It is yours. It is not a commodity product. It meets a specific need, and provides a specific benefit. And, most important, you won’t find it on Amazon.

Throwing around scary facts about Amazon is a parlor game among marketing consultants. No one knows if these facts are true or not, since Amazon rarely confirms any data. One source I read stated that in December 2016, Amazon had 50 million products for sale, and that number had swelled to 100 million in 2017. A similar search on Google revealed that no, the numbers were much higher – 480 million products in 2015 had grown to 573 million in 2017. It does not matter which number is correct – the point is that Amazon is aiming to sell everything it can get its hands on – so if you are simply selling “stuff” that everyone is selling, you’ll lose every time.

Here is an Amazon fact that appears to have validity. I read that Amazon had contracted with several famous apparel designers to provide Amazon with proprietary apparel products. The representatives from Amazon were not worried about margins, or the number of potential units they would sell. They instead were looking for “quality” – better materials, better stitching, easier care – because they wanted 5-star reviews.

That is what you are up against. Not only is Amazon adding lots of products, but they are adding their own propriety products, and they are adding quality products. That is what you are competing against whether you have a catalog or just a website.

So, what are some unique, proprietary products? Here are some examples:

LL Bean is now making their ubiquitous boots in small batches, like craft beer. They are making unique color combinations for just one season. They are not saying they are a limited edition, so the small batch might have been 1 million pairs of colonial red boots. The point is, the only place you can get LL Bean boots is LL Bean, and these “small batch” boots makes these even more unique.  Are you creating signature products at your company, limited to just one season of production?

LL Bean offers adventure trips in Maine. Ok, people have camped and gone white-water rafting in Maine for generations. Many of these “adventures” were sold by tour companies. LL Bean has taken the concept to the next level by combining the outdoor experience directly with their products. In the trip pictured above, Bean supplies all the equipment along with the campsite. They are hoping that if you enjoy the experience, you’ll stop at the LL Bean flagship store in Freeport on your way home and buy all the necessary products for your own camping trip next time. The camping products may not be unique, but the “experience” is.

Below is an example that looks unique, but one which I think will fail. It was hard to miss commercials for UNTUCKit shirts this year during NFL broadcasts. Then, I received a catalog from them in November, which indicates they have 25 stores.

It seems unique – a shirt that looks good when untucked. But here is the problem. Men’s casual shirts are basically a commodity. This catalog has created several different styles with a unique cut along the tails. Could someone else produce a  knock off? Of course, and easily. The reason – it’s too big a product category to think you could have a unique product that relied solely on the cut of a shirt. Despite the 25 stores and TV commercials, I think this is a poorly conceived catalog concept flawed from the start – too easy to replicate and not unique enough to compel a guy to purchase more than one or two.

The mantra Unique Product Or Die is going to define your success and survival over the next few years. If you are simply selling products that everyone else has, which are readily available on Amazon, then you should head for the lifeboats. I want to see UPOD signs in conference rooms of every catalog/ecommerce company. I want to have CEOs challenge – really challenge – the merchants on what makes their products unique. I want the CMOs and VPs of Marketing to start searching for ways to promote these unique products that does not involve the co-ops, Google, or Facebook.

Most important, I want every merchant to embrace UPOD as the greatest opportunity to re-establish themselves as what a great merchant should be – someone who identifies a need, and finds a manufacture to make that product specially for that merchant. Consumers are not stupid and they now have the tools to find exactly what they want, so merchants need to work harder or lose sales. Being a merchant/buyer is no longer about going to a new product show in Las Vegas. It means you will no longer be using product vendor sales reps and jobbers to find products. It means your margins will finally be healthy. UPOD is a rebirth of freedom for merchants.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235