They Won’t Be Back

In 1991, when I was the marketing guy for the Brookstone catalog, I convinced upper management that we needed a toll-free 800 telephone number for ordering. We installed it in early September, in time for the first drop of the Holiday catalog. Our Operations Department, which oversaw the call center, drove this implementation, not Marketing.

Two days after the new number went live (and the biggest mailing of the year was in-home), the CEO called me down to his office. His assistant had fielded calls all morning from angry customers complaining that our new 800 number just rang and rang, with no one answering. The basic problem was that we had under-estimated demand, and had not reserved enough incoming lines to handle the demand.

I went to the warehouse and tracked down the VP of Operations, who had been at Brookstone since the end of the French and Indian war. I explained the situation, and his response was one of the more memorable moments of my career. He tilted his head to stare at me over his reading glasses and said very calmly “What’s the problem? They’ll call back.”

Consumers don’t dislike catalogs – they dislike bad catalogs with lousy websites, and lousy mobile sites. A bad catalog has stale merchandise, merchandise that you can find on Amazon, and that targets a completely inappropriate consumer.

A lousy website/mobile site has not updated since the Clinton administration and which has none of the features considered basic expectations in today’s world (basic things like a shopping cart that synchronizes between desktop and mobile users).

Here is the problem as I see it. Companies with catalogs haven’t decided what they want to be when they grow up. They keep cranking out catalogs (“hey, the print file for the Summer edition is due at the printer in 3 days!”), but also must invest in their ecommerce and mobiles sites. They lack the resources to invest enough in all three to have great examples of any of them. So, they settle for what they can afford, which rarely is what the customer wants/expects.

The attitude of “they’ll call back” is still pervasive, just applied to different technologies. And you already know that the consumer won’t be back.

Unfortunately, most companies are not executing their catalogs well. At this point in the evolution of catalogs, your catalog should be a slam dunk. But there are three factors at play.

First, many companies have lost a significant amount of catalog design and merchandise talent. Couple this with risk-adverse owners and upper management, and the results are boring, non-responsive catalogs.

Second, the remaining designers and merchants are pulled toward devoting time to the web/mobile sites. They’re not devoting time to improving offers in the catalog with better creative and stronger merchandise. Instead, they just keep requesting more space, more pages (hey, the postage is free!) and the result is an incredibly inefficient catalog. I especially see this in B2B catalogs, where the “if you don’t show it, you can’t sell it” philosophy reigns supreme.

Third, there are many catalogs with “unwritten” rules (or worse, they are written down in a “style guide”) that prevent any truly new creative direction from occurring. Never mind that Amazon is eating your lunch at every turn – the style guide dictates that every product on this spread gets a headline – don’t deviate. “Yes, we want you to be creative – but follow the rules”.

The polar icecaps of catalog design knowledge and catalog efficiency are going to begin melting at a faster rate as more companies shift attention toward their online presence, and the inconvenient truth is that you’re going to be too busy to care. The resulting catalogs will look even worse than they do today.

One option is to hire outside catalog creative help. Companies do this all the time with their websites – but still object to doing it with their catalogs. They fear that giving up their “catalog creative” department would mean they truly were no longer a catalog. So, they are willing to hire outside agencies to design the website, but keep a staff of copy writers, designers, and artists on board for “print”.

In-house creative and marketing staff have a standard concern about using outside creative agencies that goes something like this: “You bring in a new agency, and they encourage you to do new stuff. They tell you all the stuff you were doing was wrong. They have you reinvent the wheel. You spend a ton of money on people that have no skin in the game, it bombs, you don’t acquire any new customers and alienate all your existing customers. And the agency says you failed to implement their vision correctly.” There’s probably some truth to that, but why doesn’t the same thing happen with your online presence?

I’m not advocating that you fire all your creative people and out-source the function to improve response rate by a tenth of a percent. No, I’d rather see you do something else.  I’d rather see you acknowledge that Amazon is playing in the top half of the second inning, but your catalog is going into the top half of the ninth inning, and you only have one more at-bat. You need to make some changes.

I’m a big believer in the idea that most creative people are, in fact, creative. However, they suffer from years of being told by non-creative people (people that could not drive response if they had too) how to do their jobs. They have literally had the creativity sucked out of them. Give them a chance to make some changes to the catalog. Give them a chance to create a smaller catalog, with fewer pages and fewer products, but which drives customers to your website. Give them a chance to create something efficient, while protecting profit.

Don’t assume that your creative people are going to go off on some weird “creative” tangent, and say that the opening spread should be blank (although I did see one catalog do that in 2016!). If your creative staff has any talent, they know how to sell. They know the key is not telling a story about the founder/owner. It is telling a story about the product. If it makes you feel better, have them read my 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules.

Your catalog does not have to fail. But, you must do something different. Changing the creative “look” for the sake of change will have minor impact – and in my experience, usually has negative impact. However, cutting pages, making the catalog more efficient, driving customers and prospects to your website, all while saving some money – that will have impact.

One Place To Start:

These types of changes are what I will be giving more details about in my presentation at Datamann’s 6th Annual Catalog Seminar sponsored for the VT/NH Marketing Group.

Click here if you have not registered for You Must Do Something Different.

You Must Do Something Different

Date: April 5, 2018

Location: Nashua, NH

Early Registration Discount – Save $50 when you register by March 2, 2018

  • $135 for VT/NH Marketing Group members
  • $200 for non-members

Registration Cost after March 2, 2018

  • $185 for VT/NH Marketing Group members
  • $250 for non-members
  • Registrations accepted until April 4, 2018

The Marriott Courtyard/Event Center is located at 2200 Southwood Drive, in Nashua, NH – just off Route 3, 13 miles south of Manchester, NH, and only 45 minutes north of Boston. Special room rates of $121 are available for attendees of the seminar if they book their room with the Marriott Courtyard by March 16, 2018, but rooms at that discounted price are limited. You must call 603-880-9100 to make reservations at the discounted price, and mention your attendance at the seminar to receive the special rates, or reserve your room directly at this special link: click here to reserve your hotel room online at the special seminar price.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235