At The Start Of Every Disaster Movie, A Scientist Is Ignored

Last week was an interesting week for me. I did not mention it at the time because it did not seem like a big deal, but my posting last week on Ted & Muffy – A Sad And Cautionary Catalog Tale was the 300th I’ve done for this blog in my six years here at Datamann.

I bring that point up now because that posting had the highest open rate, and highest pass-along (forwards) of all my postings this year. Not bad for mid-summer when many people are on vacation.

In addition, I had 11 new subscribers sign-up the day the posting went out. That may not seem like much, but for a mature blog on a small industry, 11 new subscribers in one day is way cool, and way above average.

But here is what makes this all so interesting: I was writing about a catalog that tried to appeal to a new demographic, and failed in spectacular fashion.  I could see from my email tracking that many of you forwarded that email – probably to advocates within your own company of a similar strategy.

If I had written about some arcane aspect of catalog circulation planning, merge/purge processing or matchback, hardly anyone would have forwarded it, and I would not have gotten so many – if any – new subscribers.

But when I offer evidence of a creative catalog melt down, you jump all over it. It is beyond morbid curiosity – you don’t want the same fate to befall you.

I received an email from a reader that asked why I had waited until I saw Ted & Muffy’s final PDFs to comment on the odd and potentially disastrous creative direction in which they were taking the catalog. Why hadn’t I spoken up when the catalog was planning this new direction? Oh, that question was priceless….

As I’ve said in this space many times before, I’m not a catalog creative person. You would not want to mail a catalog I designed. But that doesn’t mean that after 30+ years of mailing catalogs, I can’t spot a pending disaster.

Mailers – and more specifically – my clients at Datamann, know this. They know I will tell them when they are making a boneheaded mistake. That is why they wait until the final files are due at the printer in less than two hours, to send me the PDFs of their catalogs.

They wait that long because they don’t really want to make any changes. They want affirmation that this year’s fall catalog is perfect. “Bill said it was great!” If I tell them there are problems, just like the scientist at the start of every disaster movie, my advice is usually ignored.

I do have two clients that send me copies of their respective catalogs, when it is pretty far along in the design process, but with still some time to make a few important changes if necessary. They ask me to look at it from a 30,000-foot perspective. I’m not reading copy or checking prices. I’m looking at the catalog the way a consumer would. Since both of these clients are based in the UK and mailing here in the US, I comment on things which they may not be familiar with here in the US.

Both of these mailers know what they are doing. They have been mailing a long time. They are not looking for me to nit-pick their catalog, but suggest obvious omissions or changes that if fixed, would drive response.  Most of time, I don’t find fault with anything. Sometimes, I will suggest changes to offers to make them more responsive to an American audience.

Here is the point. They don’t always agree with me. But, they want a catalog that drives response and drives sales. They usually make the changes I’ve suggested. They are not looking for affirmation of a job well done – they are looking for profits.

Of my 300 prior postings, my favorite was this one I wrote back in 2013 on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (Pickett’s Charge and How I Became A Catalog Critic). It is the story of how I stood on the sidelines 25+ years ago when I worked at Brookstone and watched our Hard-To-Find Tools catalog be eviscerated. I learned from that experience that most people that want to make major creative and merchandise changes to a catalog don’t have a clue as to what they are talking about. They often don’t even have any “skin in the game”, and don’t have to share in the responsibly if the changes fall flat.

Here are the final two paragraphs from that posting – which are worth repeating:

“Finally, I learned that most people are too afraid, too naïve or not experienced enough to speak up. Business is not warfare. But, we have all experienced similar futile new business efforts similar to Pickett’s Charge. The question is, what do we do about it? As Pickett’s men marched across the Gettysburg field 150 years ago, some of them must have felt that they were doing their duty. Conversely, some of them must have felt that not only was this not a good idea, it was just going to be a slaughter. But those men could not complain – they just had to keep marching. You don’t.  When you see something happening to your website or catalog that just seems like it will lead to disaster, you have to speak up and take action.

One last thought – I have been critiquing catalogs and websites for more than 20 years. In all the speeches I’ve given, and all the catalogs I’ve criticized, I have only received one nasty-gram after the fact – and that catalog went out of business a year later for the reason I cited in my critique.  I have always been fair and factual in my commentary, and never personal. But, I also don’t hold back. You should not either – when your job and your company’s sales are on the line, don’t beat around the bush.”


Ya Snooze, Ya Lose – The Joys of Dynamic Pricing

This is part two of why last week was interesting. Sometime in early July, I put a pack of five solar eclipse glasses in my Amazon shopping cart. They were $5. On Thursday August 10th, I finally decided it was time to order them. When I opened my shopping cart, the price was now $20. Plus, my wife, with whom I share my Amazon Prime account, had a put some other stuff in the cart.

I waited until she got home from work that night to confirm she wanted the other items. When I finally went to place the order around 8 PM that night, the glasses were now $25. Plus, they were out-of-stock. They would ship on August 16th, and arrive on August 21 – the day of the eclipse. Since our UPS deliveries from Amazon don’t arrive until about 6 PM, the glasses would arrive about 6 hours too late.

I’ll be at the Datamann office in Vermont that day, probably hoping that it is cloudy, so that I won’t feel like I blew this big opportunity.


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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

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Ted & Muffy – A Sad and Cautionary Catalog Tale

Most of you have an obsession with youth. You believe that the solution to your response problem is to appeal to a younger audience with your catalog. You have the 65-year-old woman in your back pocket, but you struggle to get her 35-year-old daughter to even look at you, let alone place an order. It is even worse if you appeal to a 45-year old, and you are attempting to acquire a 22-year old customer.

I’ve mentioned many times before that Datamann works with a number of UK-based catalogs mailing here in the US. They were all brought to us by a consultant with whom we work, who is based in London.

One of those companies was Duo Boots. Prior to 2015, they had a great catalog of nothing but women’s fashion boots, knee length and thigh length. These all-leather boots are handmade in England, and individually fitted to your foot and calf measurements.

Cool products, well made, great story and delightful catalog. For a fashion catalog, it did not stray from focusing on the products, the beauty of the products, or the craftsmanship of the boots. I’m usually not a big fan of editorial content in a catalog, but in their case, I thought it was well done. The book had a few design flaws (too much knock-out type), but in general, I loved their catalog.

Then in the fall of 2015, the Art Director sent me PDFs to review for the coming Fall season. They were repositioning the catalog to go after a younger audience. And, they were changing the catalog name to “Ted & Muffy – Fairytale Fitters”.


Below are a few of the spreads from that catalog in 2015.

I pleaded with the Art Director not to go in this direction. The consultant in London pleaded with them. Then we both begged them not to do it. We knew what the consequences were going to be. No one listened. In their mind, we were two old guys that did not understand how to appeal to the intended younger audience.

Aside from the totally bizarre creative direction, I was also concerned with the decrease in product density and a significant price increase. In addition, the products themselves were changing, with more “colored” boots.

The catalog mailed, and results, as you would expect, tanked. In 2016, they toned down the fairy tale aspect, and focused more on the boots, but still stuck with the new name of Ted & Muffy.

Sadly, things did not go well, and we learned earlier this year that the company had been placed under the administration of the bank, which luckily – and rather quickly – found new owners, that are keeping the business alive in the UK.

I’m sure there were many factors which led to the company’s downfall. The odd creative style is the most visible evidence of how the catalog drifted in a direction that alienated not only existing customers, but prospects as well. But pricing, product density, and overly trendy merchandise all contributed.

The point is this – it is really difficult to take an existing brand, especially one that is doing reasonably well (and they were doing well, at least here in the US), and think that you can acquire a totally different demographic by changing the creative, the mailing list and even the merchandise. If you are going to do all that, it’s probably better to just start a new title, and protect the core business.

I received the email below a few weeks ago. Duo Boots is back. Ted & Muffy, at least the name and the funky styles are gone. The new owners cannot be held accountable for the mistakes of the past, and I wish them well with the business.

Let the catalog brand positioning lesson of Ted & Muffy be a cautionary tale to any of you who are thinking that you can wave a magic wand over your catalog and suddenly get a younger consumer to be your new customer. It ain’t going to happen.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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The Coming Mobile Tsunami

Let’s get this out of the way right at the start – I don’t like the word tsunami. In my day, it was a “tidal wave”.  And that is the start of our problem – some marketers just can’t accept change.

If you have been a reader of this blog for a while, you know I have never given an endorsement to a 3rd party, except for the speakers I’ve had at our annual catalog seminar, including Amy Africa, Kevin Hillstrom and Frank Oliver. I also don’t believe in citing research published by 3rd parties, especially the DMA and the Postal Service, whose data, in my opinion, is always suspect.

I’ve been asked many times by other vendors to give their product or service a plug, but that is not the purpose of this blog. I want you to think about growing your business – I don’t want to always be giving you a sales pitch, not for Datamann, and especially not for some other company.

However, I’m making an exception today. Carole Ziter, from Trigger Email Marketing, sent me some original research that I want to share. I’m doing this for three reasons:

  • I’ve known Carole since 1991, when we began serving together on the Board of the VT/NH Direct Marketing Group. Last fall, I had the honor of presenting Carole with that Group’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • Carole and her husband Tom have helped me a number of times in my career with answers to direct marketing problems, which is what her research is about today.
  • Carole is a direct marketer at heart, owning her own catalog for many years, and now co-owning an internet service company. She is always thinking about driving response.

That bears repeating. For the almost 30 years I’ve known Carole, she is one of the most passionate people I know with regards to a love for direct marketing and getting someone to respond to an offer. With Carole, it’s not about a catalog or an email – it’s about getting a customer to respond.

Carole sees what’s coming and from her perspective, it’s a Mobile Tsunami. Unless you are one of those rare catalogs whose consumers are over 75, your customers are going to continue migrating to their phone to shop from you. If your target audience is 35, you already know this.

This spring, Carole’s company tracked 500 major catalog and ecommerce companies on one thing – did they have cross-device shopping carts, meaning if I put something into my cart while on my laptop, will it show up in the cart when I access the cart on my phone?

Below are the results of that research:

  • Of the companies tracked, 44% did not send a single email within their 3-week test period;
  • 60% had no abandoned cart recovery program – many of them well-established brands;
  • Of the companies with abandoned cart recovery programs, 39% sent a single autoresponder and 22% sent just 2 reminders, and 54% do not rebuild their carts across all devices.

Carole then took this a step further, and analyzed the cross-device shopping cart abilities of sixty of the companies that attended the Datamann catalog seminar in March. This was her process: Email subscriptions were completed via desktop when possible; a single item was placed in a shopping cart and abandoned via desktop; abandoned cart emails received were opened via phone; Return to Cart buttons were clicked via a phone to verify the presence of a cross-device feature.

Of the 60 companies Carole reviewed, only 29 (48%) had abandoned cart recovery programs. Of those 29, only 11 companies (18% of the total) had some form of a cross-device cart saver program.

One of the reasons I don’t write about these types of programs is that I feel that 90% are common-sense things that you should be aware of and should already be doing. Amy Africa was speaking about the need for abandoned cart email programs more than 10 years ago. Of course, Amy’s ideal was to start emailing consumers within 3 seconds of their leaving your site, but still, the concept has been around for a while, and has been proven to work. Plus, it’s not like the competition is getting any easier and that your response rates could not use a boost. So, it always comes as a bit of shock to see that companies are not doing some of the basics.

(Part of Carole’s research also tracked basic check-out procedures, and I was further shocked at the number of companies that still don’t have a Guest checkout. Why don’t you just tell customers right up front to go to Amazon?)

On the other hand, what is considered a “basic marketing technique” to one mailer is an extra hurdle to other mailers. There are literally hundreds of additional programs, services, products and methods that you are constantly being sold, and of which you are told that failure to implement each one will spell instant doom for your company.  Plus, there are ten different versions of each of these services from different vendors. You don’t have the time, staff or resources to do all of these things that you are told you should. You have scarce resources which you are struggling to manage.

But, as you get ready to go into this fall/holiday season, having a shopping cart that can be viewed across multiple devices seems to me to be one of those standard customer expectations similar to an 800# twenty years ago. You can’t compete with Amazon on many levels. But one thing which Amazon has perfected is convenience and speed. They don’t have a beautiful design, nor many digital bells and whistles. It is all about being efficient in getting your order. Keep that principle in mind as you think about your website this year. Get with it. (And if you want help, contact Carole by going to the Trigger Email Marketing website).

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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