No, I Bought A Different Brand

A few weeks ago, I wrote very favorably about the B&H catalog, and their 330-page behemoth of photography equipment, which added editorial pages sprinkled throughout the catalog on how to pick the right photo equipment. At less than 5% of the page count of the catalog, this is by no means a “magalog”, which typically devote at least 50% of the space to non-selling editorial or “lifestyle content”.

It is easy to see what B&H is doing – they are trying to differentiate themselves as the de facto place to go for photo and video information and by extension, for purchasing that equipment. But, here is the problem that I see: I purchased a Nikon camera from them a year ago. I have subsequently purchased a few filters for my existing Nikon lens. It’s pretty clear, I’m sticking with Nikon.

But, they keep sending me emails for all kinds of other products from other brands, including the one received this week for Canon cameras. To me, this says one of three things:

  • Like many other catalog companies, they probably have antiquated legacy systems which prevent them from doing any finer segmentation of their emails by product;
  • Or, upper management may not see that as an issue because they probably rationalize that “Hey, we don’t want to miss a sale because someday you might decide to buy a Canon”.
  • Or, they are incredibly unsophisticated, and don’t want to bother with any segmentation, because it is still easier and possibly even profitable, to keep blasting the same email to all customers, for a catalog with thousands of SKUs.

Further, they have failed to send me any “specialty” catalog of just Nikon equipment. My camera has lots of bells and whistles, many of which I’m still learning. They could be sending me a small, targeted 24-page catalog of just the accessories that are right for my camera. I’d look at that!

I don’t need the 330-page encyclopedia, which is quite frankly, pretty intimidating. I need a targeted (dare I even say “curated”) collection of just the products for my camera. I didn’t buy Canon, or Sony, or Hasselblad – so quit sending me the stuff for which I have no use.

Some of you might be thinking that maybe there is not enough margin in doing a specialty book by camera brand alone. I don’t think that is the case, but let’s assume it is – they could at least do a mini-catalog of lenses, or camera cases. It would have to be more productive than sending the 330-page tome once a year.

Why is this a big deal? B&H has an edge at the moment, based on its photographic knowledge, great customer service, reputation and depth of product assortment. But none of that matters, does it?  The reason – there’s someone out there – maybe Amazon, maybe some company that is yet to be heard from – that is going to realize how big B&H is from a sales perspective, and will take them out by using data, targeted advertising with advanced CRM, and a bunch of other sophisticated tools.

And it isn’t just B&H. It is every other catalog company (B2B and B2C alike) that is failing basic catalog marketing by becoming more targeted, more focused. I’m a consumer that is tired of being ignored – I want to be recognized for what I need. Sending me 330 pages of products, only 20 pages of which are applicable to my needs, is no different than going into a retail store and being ignored by the sales staff. You may have a million SKUs, but someone else is going to figure out a way to be more relevant to me. Good intentions are no longer enough.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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A Smile of Wisdom That Explained Why He Was CEO

With Memorial Day, this is a short week for many of you, so I’m going to offer a “feel good” blog posting, which has nothing to do with increasing catalog response rates or fighting Amazon. It has everything to do with your personal leadership abilities. And it has to do with a “life lesson” I learned almost 40 years ago. If you are only interested in reading about catalogs, you can skip this week’s posting and I will not mark you as absent.

Every Saturday, our local newspaper features a profile of a local person with an interesting story to tell. Several weeks ago, they profiled the retired CEO of Friendly’s Ice Cream, who had recently turned 100, and who was now living not far from me at a retirement center in New Hampshire.  He was the 3rd employee of Friendly’s, hired in 1945 to wash dishes at the original Friendly’s restaurant.   When he retired in 1982 as CEO, the chain had grown to 500+ restaurants, stretching from Maine to Ohio, and as far south as Virginia, and was then owned by Hershey Chocolate.

I was stunned to realize this man was still alive. After telling my wife and son about my one encounter with him back in 1981, I decided to write him this letter.  The rest is self-explanatory.

“Dear Mr. Gaudrault,

I was delighted to see the article about you in last Saturday’s Keene Sentinel, and to learn of your good health at age 100.  I’m sure that you do not remember me, as we met only once almost 40 years ago, but I wanted to let you know how much that one meeting impacted my work career over the ensuing years.

In 1981, Friendly’s became a national corporate sponsor of the Easter Seal Society. I was about to graduate with my MBA from Clark University in Worcester, and take on the business world. But Friendly’s wanted someone in the Wilbraham headquarters from Easter Seals, to coordinate the Cones-For-Kids project. My father at the time was President of the Massachusetts Easter Seal Society, and I was hired to fill the role in Wilbraham on behalf of Easter Seals.

One Saturday morning, you and I flew to Toledo, Ohio to attend a “PR” event at a local Friendly. I was terrified of being late, and holding everyone else up, so I left Worcester at almost 4 AM to drive to Westfield for 7 AM, where the Hershey corporate jet was awaiting us.  I was early, but I remember you arrived a few minutes late because you had stopped to buy donuts for the pilots.  I was amazed at that.

I had arranged to have several local children who were receiving services from Easter Seals, attend an ice cream sundae party at the restaurant. The local TV station which hosted the Easter Seal telethon sent over a camera crew and the telethon host to film the party and conduct an interview with you. Everything went well, and while the children were finishing their sundaes, you met with every employee, and talked with some of the customers.

But the part of the day which I have remembered all these years came as we were walking back to the parking lot, to go back to the airport.  A customer was having difficulty seeing around another car as they were attempting to back up. You began to guide the driver on backing up, and you were calling the driver by his first name. I realized it was the cameraman from the TV station.

When we got back into our car, I asked how it was that you remembered the cameraman’s name, as I certainly couldn’t.   You simply smiled at me with a wisdom that explained why you were the CEO.

I knew then that you remembered his name because you had taken the time to learn it the first place. That was the sign of a leader that truly cared about people. Your kindness toward me that day was another sign. I was in awe at being just 23, flying on a corporate jet, and traveling with the CEO.  Your kindness helped put me at ease.

I was recently asked by a junior staff member at my company what was the most memorable business lesson I had experienced, and without pause, I told them of your instructions to a driver in a parking lot in Toledo, and your ability to remember their name.   In my business career, I have tried to develop that same sense of warmth which I saw you display that day.

I’m sure that at age 100, you have many pleasant memories of a long and fulfilling life. But I wanted to let you know how your kindness and business acumen had touched me and guided my career as well.

Thanks again.”


NOTE: Two weeks after I sent my letter, I received a very nice thank you note in the mail from Mr. Gaudrault. The hand writing was a little shaky (hey, will any of us have a steady hand at 100?), but he was sincere in his thanks to me for writing to him.

I leave you with this last thought: My father was the biggest mentor in my business career. I never had the chance to thank him. If there is a person in your life that helped your career – even if it was only a one day lesson – take the time to write a note and say thanks. It will be appreciated.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

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Why You Stink At Merchandising on the Web

This is a critical issue. Can you sell products online without aid of a catalog?

A few weeks ago, a reader sent me an email with this comment: “As an aside, I am somewhat at odds with you about digital.  So often customers will opt out of our emails or print catalogs with the comment – ‘I know what you carry.  If I want it, I will come to your website when I want it.’  But they don’t truly know what we carry.  In each catalog, 40% of our merchandise was not in our last catalog. Those who think they know what we sell are missing out on serendipitous discoveries.  The internet is great for directed search if you know what you are looking for.  But how do you search for something interesting for your aunt and her new housewarming gift when you have no idea what would really be something you haven’t seen before?”

The reader was referring to my previous comments that we need to make our websites stronger than our catalogs, because catalogs alone just aren’t going to cut it anymore. He echoed a similar comment from another reader who recently wrote “I have yet to meet a cataloger selling to the demographic that most do, that is selling things “nice” to have and not necessary to have, that can sell [a significant amount] of anything that is only on the site and is not shown in the catalog.  We have tried it many times.  The sales are just not material.  We have to promote it in the catalog.”

Both of these comments also tie back to my recent comment that just because something does not work with your catalog, doesn’t mean that it will not work for others.

So, let’s address this in parts.

First, we know it is possible to sell products online without aid of a catalog – just look at Amazon. Their sales of $136 billion are not just people buying stuff that they need – there is some browsing going on. A better example would be They have a catalog (which gets a little better with every issue since I gave them a very critical catalog critique in this space a few years ago) which carries less than 1% of their product assortment. Their catalog is truly meant to get you to the site, where you’ll wander around looking for things for your home.

But both of these companies – and hundreds of other sites – have built their “brand” around being the source for “something”. In Amazon’s case, the “something” is everything.  For, it’s everything for home renovations. So, if you are a savvy consumer, and you get the catalog, you know it is just a sampling of what they have on-line.

But the challenges to this concept I receive are mostly from companies with gift or hard goods catalogs. They fail to realize that what is needed is a different approach to their website, not a different approach to their catalog. They will go to great lengths to be great catalogers – doing everything right from an “A Team” catalog perspective. They have a high percentage of new products. They are taking advantage of every postal discount they can. They are extremely efficient in cranking out each new catalog because they are unencumbered by any need to do anything different. They don’t want to do anything different. They believe their customers want that sense of “serendipitous discoveries”.

But what is really happening? I get so tired of saying this, but your great strategy of being efficient, regardless of the percentage of new products you have, is boring to the customer.

The first reader mentioned above, with the customers who say “I know what you have”, features a new and often very unusual product on the front cover of every catalog. I assume that upper management at this company thinks this is a great strategy as it gets the consumer to look inside, and to always be expecting something different. But the “overall theme” for the covers, and the overall pagination of the book itself is too repetitious – it has not changed, literally, in years. Yes, I understand the products change, but the “look” doesn’t change. They have put their customers to sleep. Their customers tell them they know what is in the catalog because in the customer’s mind, they do know. Of course, they don’t know specifically what is there, but they know this company sells “widgets” (I don’t want to use the actual product category, as I don’t want to identify this reader or catalog).

Further, the cataloger has given their customer NOTHING truly new to catch their attention.  In my opinion, it is a perfect example of catalog narcissism, because although the cataloger believes it changes all the time, the customer/consumer thinks that it never changes.

What does this have to do with selling products online that are not in the catalog? EVERYTHING. Here’s why: I think the problem with most catalogs is that they are lousy web merchants. When they first started selling online, the “web-only” products were the overstocks and lousy products that never sold in the catalog, so they stuck them on the web to clear out the inventory, where they sold no better. Thus, these catalogers have a basic sense that web-only products are dogs.

But, in the past few years, they have created web merchant positions. They usually assign “web merchandising” to a junior person, and give the person no support, no PPC funds, and would never think of putting new products on the web first. (I’ve had clients tell me they hold all new products to introduce in the catalog, so that the catalog is “special” to the customer.) Worse, due to internal organizational structures, I know that in some companies the catalog merchants can “steal” web-only merchandise, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Consequently, it becomes self-fulling that if you only keep the good stuff in the catalog, no one is going to think of going to your website to see what’s new, or if there is anything else. Old school thinking is killing most catalogs, and most of those old-school practitioners seem unaware that the front of the ship has slipped beneath the waves.

I love having Frank Oliver as a merchandise consultant now, someone I can turn to with just these sorts of questions. Frank of course agrees that catalogers need to see that extra web presentations can “fill out” the line of products, especially if you want to show category authority. A pedal-to-the-metal merchant like Frank sees web-only products as a huge testing lab. Products destined for the catalog always have a formal “vetting” process, which vary by cataloger, but tend to slow the introduction of new products, giving online-only companies an edge at introducing new products. On the web, a merchant like Frank can test 20 new products where as in the catalog he might have only tested 5.  “Yes, for most catalogers, web-only products do not sell in the volumes of on-page items, but there must be a “multiplier”. When I test 20 web-only products and pick the best five to run on-page next season, you start to build a “how much better” factor for on-page exposure. Small bets start to yield large returns in future catalog performance.”

What is the ultimate answer? We know products sell online without a catalog, it works for hundreds of companies. Can it work for “nice to have” products vs. “must have” products? Yes, if the consumer recognizes a reason to go to your website to see that bigger assortment. Think of it this way – your local supermarket puts an FSI is the weekly newspaper – you remember newspapers, right? It advertises what is on sale. Many shoppers plan their trip to the store with these specials in mind. But it is not a comprehensive list of everything in the store. They know when you get there you will browse and you will be influenced by endcap displays and POS merchandising. The FSI is just to get the customer to the store where the “discovery” takes place.

Most of you are never going to create that sense of discovery with your website, or give the customer a reason to go beyond your catalog. So, you are correct, in your case, the product has to be in the catalog to sell.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

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