What Happens To Catalogs When …

This posting is part 3 of What Is To Become Of Single Title Catalogs – Revisited 2017.

There is a great scene in the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? that speaks to where the catalog industry is today. In case you don’t recall, or have never seen the movie, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy portray a married couple whose 23-year-old daughter wants to marry Sidney Poitier, who plays the role of a black doctor, and who is equally in love with their daughter. This movie was a big deal because interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states when it came out.

The movie takes place during an 8-hour period, as the parents of Sidney Poitier’s character, and Hepburn and Tracy, are all trying to come to grips with the idea. At one point, Spencer Tracy is talking with Beah Richards, the actress playing Poitier’s mother. She is trying to understand why her husband and the character played by Spencer Tracy are both having such a problem with this planned marriage. Tracy’s character is opposed to the marriage, and Sidney Poitier has already stated that unless he approves, there will be no marriage. Poitier’s mother says the following:

What happens to men when they grow old? Why do they forget everything? I believe…those two young people need each other…like they need the air to breathe in. Anybody can see that by just looking at them. But you and my husband might as well be blind men. You can only see that they have a problem. But do you really know what’s happened to them? How they feel about each other? I believe… that men grow old. And when sexual things no longer matter to them, they forget it all. They forget what true passion is. If you ever felt what my son… feels for your daughter, you’ve forgotten everything about it. My husband too. You knew once… but that was a long time ago. Now the two of you don’t know. And the strange thing… for your wife and me…is that you don’t even remember. If you did…how could you do what you are doing?”

When Catalogs Grow Old:

What happens to catalogs when they grow old? Why do they forget? Why do they lose the passion that brought about their being in the first place and made them successful?

The retirement of Mikey Drexler as CEO of J Crew is, as Kevin Hillstrom stated, is the end of an era. He was not only a great retailer, but a greater cataloger. His departure is an opportune time to reflect on what is happening as catalogs grow old.

I can remember going to DMA Catalog Conferences in the 1980s and 1990s, and there were always one or two great catalog “personalities” that gave keynote speeches. They didn’t talk about how they were using retargeting to drive a 2.8% lift in response.   They did not talk about their cloud computing systems. They talked about their passion for the merchandise they were selling, and the passion they had for their customers.

Most important, they talked about how there was always another dragon to slay – their personal quest was to make the catalog a great place to work, a great place for their customers to purchase products, and a successful company (meaning: profitable). The quest was all about slaying the next dragon, and the next, to accomplish all these goals, and have peace in the kingdom.

Today, catalogs seem to have as much interest in their customers as United Airlines does for its passengers. Today, it is about catching the prey, and making them pay. There is no focus on who the customer is and what the customer wants. The co-ops have an algorithm that finds viable names for you to mail. But, do you really know what those prospects value in you? Do you know what those buyers really want from you?

The quest is gone. As Beah Richard’s character says, “You have forgotten what true passion is.” For catalogs, there are still dragons to slay, but most catalogs have given up, leaving someone else to slay them.

The reason the quest is gone has two parts:

First, remember the old saying about buying computers, that “no one will ever fault you for buying IBM?”  It was the safe choice. There is an equivalent in catalogs today. It is to be predictable. It’s always easy to do the predictable. If the predictable doesn’t work, no one is going to question or blame you, because it is what you are supposed to do. If it doesn’t work, it must be the fault of the economy, weather, or Amazon.

Look at these recent catalog covers. They are predictable.

Just looking at three covers from each company you might not think that. But line up a year’s worth of these covers, and you will see that they are not only boring, but have no passion. It is not just the covers either, but the whole tired product assortment and direction of the catalog. The original founders of these titles had passion, but passion is a luxury they can no longer afford, as passion requires you to break the mold and test new things that run the risk of not working.

In the three examples above, it is easy to see my point about passionless catalogs just going through the motions to keep the presses rolling. But be honest – are your catalogs any different? When was the last time you had a customer contact you and say, “Wow, I really love what you are doing with your catalog. I can’t wait for it to come each month”?  Conversely, when was the last time a customer said, “Man, I really hate what you are doing now”? Either response from a customer would show that there was still some interest out there, and that they were at least looking at your catalog, as opposed to their phone. But I’ll bet that if you are honest, it’s been quite a while since you received either one of those types of comments. That what being predictable will get you.

The second reason that the quest is gone is that most catalog companies rely upon one thing for their continued survival – efficiency. Catalog production follows a very rigid, tight schedule which pervades almost everything a catalog does. Can’t miss a deadline at the printer, can’t risk having the books go out late. Can’t try anything new, can’t risk not making the budgeted goal for the year (even if the goal is 5% less than last year).

The big catalog conglomerates (BluStem/Orchard Brands, Potpourri Group, Cornerstone) keep acquiring more catalog titles because it makes their investment in efficiency even more profitable. But, you never see other catalog companies purchase online-only companies because those types of companies would not fit into their efficiency model – there is no synergy, no gains in productivity. “If their customers are online only, I can’t mail them a catalog, which is not going to help my co-mail pool savings, so why would I want to acquire a company like that?”

That line of thinking makes Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods all the more intriguing. There are multiple dragons in this deal for Jeff Bezos to slay. His quest is just beginning, while many of you feel your quest is nearing twilight.

Can you learn to love selling without a catalog, by using all the tools of ecommerce?  Can you get the passion back? The first thing to do is to stop being so predictable. Then stop worrying about being so efficient.

“You knew once… but that was a long time ago. And the strange thing…is that you don’t even remember. If you did…how could you do what you are doing now?”

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



read more

Spring 2017 Catalog Observations

Don’t Assume:

One of Datamann’s clients did a “free shipping” test this spring. We split their circulation on one mailing down the middle – half received a free shipping offer on the catalog cover, half received no message. The results? NO DIFFERENCE in response.

You can speculate on all kinds of conclusions from these results. But here is what I want you to focus on: I often hear from readers telling me that something I wrote about in this space was just plain wrong, based on that reader’s experience. That’s fine – I don’t mind being challenged, and certainly appreciate being told when I’m wrong. But bear in mind, except in those instances when I offer my opinion, and I always label it as such, I’m citing fact, usually based on something which has happened to at least one or more of our clients.

Two years ago, if someone had told me that a free shipping offer would have zero impact on response on a mid-ticket offer, I probably would have said that couldn’t be. But, as we have seen this spring with all of the store closing announcements, consumer shopping habits are changing. Preconceived notions and long-held beliefs of what works and doesn’t work in cataloging are often no longer valid. Don’t assume you have all the answers, based on your experience. What may seem like an ironclad rule, because it still applies to your customer’s behavior, may not be true elsewhere. Keep an open mind.

Better Paper:

Back in March, I provided my thoughts (click here) on how the USPS’s change in the piece-rate weight threshold from 3.3 to 4.0 ounces may not be as great for catalogers as others thought it was. One outcome I predicted was that mailers would succumb to the siren call of using better paper – and they have!

I don’t maintain a database of which catalogs are mailing on what paper, or even whether their page counts are going up or down. But, as a more than casual observer of the catalogs I receive as a consumer, I have noticed a “significant” number of catalogs switching to higher grade and textured paper.

That doesn’t mean that you should. Maybe you can get a discount on that other cataloger’s old paper that he isn’t using, because he went to a higher grade. But, as evidenced by the shipping test I mentioned above, don’t assume that better paper is indicative of providing you a better response. That’s why we test.

Adding Editorial Pages, B&H

I was a “digital camera” hold out. I had a Canon AE-1 film camera which I bought in 1978 that lasted right up until about 5 years ago, when I switched to using an $80 digital camera from Wal-Mart. But I longed for a digital, full-frame Nikon.  Last year, when I sold my backhoe to my nephew, I used the proceeds to get my dream camera from B&H Photo. If you are unfamiliar with B&H, they are reportedly the largest camera and photographic equipment dealer in the country – and they have a catalog.

The catalog which I receive from them is 330 pages. I noticed a callout on this month’s cover stating “Expanded with Articles”.  They have always had a few pages dedicated to “information” on products, such as how to pick the right lighting, but they expanded that concept this issue with many more pages.

This is NOT a magalog. This is a product dense catalog, with about a dozen spreads offering technical explanations and advice on some of the major product lines. Professional photographers would already know this stuff, but it is great for a novice like me. My only concern is that the information provided is often only cursory in nature, and still not detailed enough to help determine specifically what I need. But this is OK, as it at least gives me an idea of the questions to ask when I go to their website, or when I call their customer service.

This is what sets B&H apart. Sure, you could use their catalog to find products on Amazon. However, B&H customer service staff are waaaaay beyond being order takers – they are technical experts in photography. I know this reads like a commercial for them, but I AM a satisfied customer, and they have provided me detailed and accurate advice each time I have called them, far beyond anything I can get at the local Peterborough Camera store, or in any product description on Amazon.

In a 330-page catalog, it can only help to provide some product information, which helps sell. It helps differentiate them from the rabble on the web that does not have their expertise. This is another of those things you must do to set your catalog apart. Don’t assume that your customer knows what to do – you have to sell them.

Uline – Keeping the Catalog Industry Alive One Forest at A Time

I received an email in early March from a reader of this blog asking “What’s up with Uline?” He was questioning why he, a consumer, had received a 700-page catalog from them.

I can do better. This past week, I received THREE 730-page catalogs from Uline, addressed to my home address. If you don’t know Uline, it is a catalog of some general office supplies, but mostly every shipping supply product you could imagine.

They mailed all 3 catalogs to one of my decoy names. They are not names on which I have ever made an order, only catalog requests. Uline’s list broker must scour the universe trying to find obscure mailing lists which no one else has used, because I know these particular seed names I have only used in a few places. Plus, there is no way that these would have been caught as duplicates, because of nuances in each address.

I don’t know if they were doing cover tests, although it sure looks that way. But, what bothers me is that Uline mailed 2,190 pages of B2B catalogs to a residential address. Sure, lots of small companies are run from home, but Uline should have used a filter in their merge logic that would only send one catalog to a residential location. If you are a B2B mailer, have you tested this? Do you know the value/ cost of mailing additional catalogs a residential address?

More observations to follow….

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



read more

Catalog Creative In A New World

Let me do something different today – I’m going to offer comments on a catalog that I think is doing an adequate job (that’s as complimentary as I get) from a “creative” perspective, but is certainly not a traditional catalog. I’m also going to check how they are doing against my list of 21 catalog creative rules, and in the process, illustrate why many of those rules don’t apply here.

Let me be clear, it is a catalog from which I would never purchase. It is also not necessarily catalog creative that I like, or that resonates with me – but contains “creative and design elements” that I expect resonates with the catalog’s intended audience.

The catalog is NatureBox, which is a relative new comer mailing since at least 2014, and is from what could best be described as an “online company”. NatureBox is a membership program ($50/year) that you must join, and they ship you snack food, which you have to pay for on top of the yearly membership fee. (Note: they have all kinds of deals/rebates on their website, so please don’t write to me to tell me I have their pricing wrong).  Right off the bat you are spending $50 for the privilege of buying snack food that you could buy at just about any supermarket, and most gas stations.

Not off to a good start

I received these two catalogs earlier this year, one addressed to me, one to one of my seed names.

My first reaction to this company as catalog marketing mavens was not good, since I considered the cover test they were conducting to be a classic example of a test that makes no difference.  What does it prove? How do you act on this in the future if the one on the left does better than the one on the right? I am certain that the creative director at NatureBox could explain in painful detail the difference between these two covers, and how each resonates to a different type of person. But, come on…to the average consumer, there’s no difference here, so stop doing stupid tests like this.

Don’t Tell Me About Your Grass Seed, Tell Me About My Lawn

Oh God, no! Right on page 2 – the most valuable page in the catalog – they have a President’s letter, Actually, it’s worse than that – it’s a letter from Travis, the Director of Sourcing and Innovation. Travis tells us how he likes to “discover and develop new and unique flavors”. The focus of the copy is all about NatureBox and Travis, and nothing about you, the consumer. Plus, there is no mention anywhere in the letter that this is a membership offer – oh, why be so sneaky? If you are going to waste space with a letter, don’t you think that’s the place to tell the consumer the part of about the $50, but then also explain that you get a $50 credit applied towards purchases? That’s kind of basic customer service courtesy. (The only reference to the membership is on page 27 – one lonely line of copy that says “join today – NatureBox is only $5 per month, which is credited towards your purchases”).

Between the cover and page 2, these guys are failing two of my basic rules of catalog creative, which are no dumb cover tests, and no president’s letters.

However, page 3 gets us back track, because they show their eight top snacks. That’s good merchandising – show the best stuff up front, and tell me it is your best stuff.

But, the copy, which is tiny (can’t be more than 3 point font), never tells how much you get. Do I get a bag of each snack, a box, 2 ounces, 10 ounces – what? Maybe you get the amount of product shown in the photo? That isn’t clear if that is what I get. Further on in the catalog, on the “nuts” page, each sampling of nuts is listed as 8 oz., so their labeling/merchandising is inconsistent.

However, go to their website, and it is a different story. Each product description lists in detail the serving portion.

Below is their center spread – which does no selling. Oddly, it shows 11 icons, which you can use to “shop our catalog using these filters”. But again, these “filter icons” appear sporadically through the catalog, and not on every page or product, so how do you use them to shop the catalog?

Finally – this is their exit spread (below), with again, no selling.

In a 36-page catalog, 12 of the pages, one third of the total catalog, have no selling, and six of the remaining pages are selling a single product, the highest priced of which is $3.79.

Why This Is Not So Bad

As with many things in life, one of the things which you learn as a catalog consultant is that not all rules apply to all catalogs. If this catalog were selling garden tools, this “minimalist/lifestyle” approach would not work. People who buy those types of products want specifics, and are not impressed by lifestyle imagery.

People who are willing to spend $50 just for the privilege of buying snacks are probably equally concerned with those details, but NatureBox recognizes that they cannot “seal the deal” to get you to be a member from the catalog alone. You have to go to the website to do that.

Consequently, this catalog is a 32-page web driver. Its primary purpose is to sell you on the concept of buying healthy snack food, in a convenient way, at seemingly very affordable prices, as almost all the “snacks” are under $4.00. Moreover, these customers are not taking the time to calculate the cost per pound to determine the equivalent cost at Wal-Mart.

As a marketer, the temptation for me would be to gut this catalog of those 12 non-selling pages, get the page count down to 24, and add in a ton of extra products, with longer, more detailed descriptions. That would probably be a huge mistake. The margins on the products in this catalog are probably obscene, which is what allows them to have 1/3 of the catalog not selling anything beyond a warm feeling, and force people to go to the website.

Are there creative changes I would make to this existing book? Yes, I’d stop the cover tests and get rid of Travis’s letter. But other than that, we have to recognize that this is a new world. This is an example of a catalog where the website is MUCH stronger than the catalog, which alone negates many of my “21 catalog creative rules”.

NatureBox is also an example of how an online company maxed out its ability to acquire customers online with PPC, SEO, etc. Search on “healthy snacks by mail” and you’ll discover a host of companies doing the same thing, including Graze, Healthy Surprise, and Urthbox. NatureBox’s catalog is just one more tool to reach different audiences, though sadly was mistargeted at me.

The lesson here – NatureBox’s catalog creative – with all of its drawbacks in a traditional catalog world – probably resonates with their target customer, and reinforces the concept that your website MUST be stronger than your catalog.

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



read more

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Last Chapter

We’re almost done – let’s wrap these rules up today.

In case you missed Part One, Two or Three of my rules, click here:

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 1 (with rules 1 to 6)

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 2 (with rules 7 to 12)

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 3 (with rules 13 to 18)

Rule #19 – Do not change for the sake of change

Constant creative tinkering rarely leads to significant gains in response. Unless your customers are calling or emailing and saying “Hey, I can’t order from this catalog/website”, you will see no meaningful increase in response rate from completely changing the format of your design. In fact, you will probably alter the product density and/or the mix of price points, which will hurt response.

Rule #20 – Don’t be afraid to sell

Over and over I see mailers throw a bunch of similar products on a page, with no thought given to helping the customers determine what is best for them. Don’t assume that your customer has the same love for or knowledge about your products that you have – you have to sell them. You have to rekindle that love for your products with every customer, with every new book.  In creative terms, that means going beyond a simple “hero shot” presentation, and going for the “WOW” presentation. Be bold.

Most B2B catalogs are the worst offenders of this rule. They typically make the assumption that the professional to whom this catalog is aimed (regardless of profession) can immediately tell what every product is for, and which of the 17 versions of the same product shown in the catalog, is ideal for their needs. You do no selling – every product is exactly the same, just thrown on the page. There is no effort to be creative, or sell; you are simply SKU barfing page after page.

Rule #21 – You must have a sense of urgency

Our greatest threat is not the online world, or Amazon. It is our own retreat into “catalog narcissism”. We believe it when printers and other industry leaders tell us that catalogs are not dead, and that our industry is fine. We listen to the co-ops when they tell us they are growing, yet we instinctively see all those orders flowing to Amazon and wonder how it could be that the co-ops are growing when they are missing all those orders.

The internet has been challenging catalogs for the past 20 years, and certainly has been pushing the catalog industry hard for the past 10 years. But most catalogs have no sense of urgency in making any changes. You still debate cover strategies, and timing tests. Your merchants maintain the same level of lousy productivity per catalog that they did 10 years ago – largely because no one has held them accountable for increasing productivity.

And because you are focused on the things that matter little, most of you have not had the inclination, the wherewithal, or the luxury of time to really look at your business from a strategic perspective. Neither Datamann nor I have all the answers. Few consultants do. But all consultants have an advantage – we get to walk in the door and view your business without all the day-to-day junk that you have to deal with. We can advise you on where to start making changes. But YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE SENSE OF URGENCY.  Stop fooling yourself that you are unique (there is no such thing as a unique catalog), and stop fooling yourself that your customers have any loyalty to you or that they see you as a lifestyle brand. And stop wasting your day dealing with things that have no impact on the future of the business.

The way to fix this is not to simply say, “well, we’ve got a website, we’ve got an email program, and we’ve got a mobile site, and we’re on Facebook, so we have all the bases covered”. I’ve seen most of your mobile sites and they do not make you a mobile marketer – they make you a catalog from which I can order with my phone.

The way to fix this problem is to review the list of factors above that truly have an impact on your catalog’s growth and future, and determine which ones have the biggest impact on your business. (Contact me if you want help). Start there. Then ask yourself these questions to tell if you are thinking like a company that can/wants to grow, as opposed to being simply another catalog caught in a downward spiral:

  • Do you have at least twice the number of products available online for purchase than you do in your catalog?
  • Do you have a program in place to reduce your cost of goods by 20% in order to enable you to increase prospecting to more marginal new customer sources?
  • Do you introduce all new products online first, before they even get included in the catalog?
  • Do you ever keep any of your absolute best products out of the catalog, and make them web-only?
  • Are more than 50% of your incrementally new customers being acquired with no help from a catalog?
  • Have you done a hold-out test to determine the percentage of online demand that comes from existing customer if you stopped mailing them a catalog?
  • Do you spend the same amount of time and attention on updating your website and (separately) your mobile site, as you do on paginating and creating your catalog? (I already know the answer on this one is “No”.)
  • Are you creating separate product specific catalogs/mailers targeted at specific portions of your file?
  • Do you have that sense of urgency?

Repeating what I said at the beginning of this long posting, I’m not a creative person. You would not want me to design your catalog. But, I am convinced that 90% of the catalog creative people in this world could create a really great, innovative, response generating design – if only you would let them. Take the restrictions off – let your creative people spread their wings, and show you what they can do. Let them inspire your customers. As long as they don’t monkey around (too much) with product density, what have you got to lose?

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



read more

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 3

In case you missed Part One and Two of my catalog creative rules, click here:

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 1 (with rules 1 to 6)

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 2 (with rules 7 to 12)

Rule #13 – Branding is what you do to cows

Do not focus on building a catalog brand “creatively”. You build a brand on your merchandise and your customer service. Roy Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, once said that “Branding is what you do when there’s nothing original about your products.”

How many meetings have you sat through at your company where everyone dismissed dismal response rates by saying that at least you are building brand awareness, or that your catalog is becoming a “lifestyle brand” to your customers? That line of thinking is bogus. Customers are not going to buy from your catalog because of your “brand”, especially if that brand is built on a creative house of  cards.

In my opinion, the one thing that motivates your customers to buy is the merchandise. Get that wrong, and it does not matter how well targeted the mailing is, or how many likes you have on your Facebook page, or how strong your perceived brand quality is.   You’ve got to get the product right, and you’ve got to have it priced right – or nothing else matters.

When I hear clients talking about their “brand”, I always think of Roy Disney’s comments, and I ask the client about their products and merchandise. How truly unique is it? What truly sets it apart from others catalogs? What benefit does it truly provide the customer that they can’t get elsewhere? What are the runaway best sellers that are going to drive your business next year which no one else will have?

I rarely get satisfactory answers about the product itself. Instead I hear about their lifestyle branding efforts and their “branded, curated collection”.  There never seems to be any concrete merchandise knowledge and direction. That is what is missing in American retailing and catalogs.  We are focused on how we are selling, not what we are selling, because there is nothing “original about our products”.  Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iPod were all original – that’s what made their company so valuable. That is not because of “brand” alone – it is because of product.

Your catalog merchanside has to be original.  Having a black dress with five buttons instead of the four buttons like everyone else does not make your dress exclusive or original. And you are going to lose in the long run to companies that are bringing products to the market that truly are original and exclusive.

Rule #14 – Let The Product Be the Brand

This is similar to, but different from Rule #13. In my opinion, when you have to use “editorial” content to explain to your customer what you are attempting to do with your catalog, then you’ve already missed the point of what a catalog does. A catalog sells product by making the consumer see the product and say “Wow, I want that.” You should not have to tell them why you think they should want it.

Your creative needs to focus on the product, and make the merchandise sell itself.

I believe that catalog creative needs to be inspired, emotional and aspirational, not just “creative”. The best way to put it is to say “don’t bore us to death”.

Rule #15 – Web drivers

This rule is a big deal to me because I believe that one of the ways catalogs will survive in the future is to learn how to use their catalog to drive customers to their websites. Most of you will have to do this as a matter of survival. But I also believe this will ultimately be a better experience for the customer. Your website can, and should, be better than your catalog. You can show the products in multiple positions/uses, you can have video, you can have multiple ways to find product, and you can even steer customers to products that have the best margins (or even the highest inventory). Most important, you can have more products on the web than you can ever afford to have in the catalog.

You get it – the website just offers more opportunity. And yet, I still hear clients say that if the product is not good enough to go in the catalog, why bother to have it on the website? Or, they simply can’t sell a product unless it is in the catalog. You think that way because you don’t think in terms of the website being better than the catalog.

Clients continually ask me which catalogs do a great job of using their catalogs as web drivers – meaning, using their catalog to drive traffic to the website where the customer can have an even larger offering of products than what is in the catalog. By far, the best catalog at accomplishing this is Cabela’s, at least the books which I receive.  Most pages have a call-out to either watch a video online about one of the products, or a call-out to see more of the assortment online. Moreover, it is not done in a rote manner, similar to the way almost every catalog puts their URL on the bottom of the page. The call-outs subtly reinforce, in appropriate places, that Cabela’s has a bigger product assortment on line.

You may not have time this year to add additional products online, and you may not have time (or the resources) to make your website better. But, if you test anything this year, think about the elements you can introduce to drive customers to your website.  That is a worthwhile effort.

Here is a final word of advice – these web driver call-outs are not a creative element of the book. They belong to the Merchandise Department. Someone in merchandise has to be the champion of making certain these call-outs go in the book, and STAY in the book, on an on-going basis. I’ve seen several catalogs which started out strong with web callouts throughout their pages only to see their use fall off after a few months.  When I have inquired of the mailer to determine if they had tested these and determined they did not work, the answer is universally along the lines of “No, the person that was responsible for that left and we keep forgetting to put them back in.”

Rule #16 – Tell a story

This is a new rule, and not one I would have supported years ago. But that was before Amazon, and before this blog.

I receive the most comments from readers when I “tell a story” in this blog, especially when I mention something about my wife and I living in rural New England, such as owning a backhoe. Although I’m sure it bores some of you, most of your fellow readers seem to enjoy when I relate a catalog lesson/parable to a real life situation. That is one of the things that separates this blog from the ones you read that blabber on about “paradigm shifts”.

I like to think I set a high standard with this blog, at least with regard to content. You may not always agree with what I say, sometimes you might think I’m flat out wrong. But you must admit – you know where I’m coming from. I take a stand. That’s what makes it “unique” and difficult for someone else to emulate.

The same is true with your catalog. Most of you are selling “stuff” that at least two or three other competitors are selling. Plus, most of what you sell is also on Amazon. So how do you differentiate yourself? Tell a story, take a stand, and be unique. It will not appeal to everyone – but you can no longer try to appeal to a broad common denominator.

Rule # 17 – Make it Relevant to your customer – Appeal to their hopes, fears and aspirations

As many of you know, I’m partially deaf. I found a really LOUD kitchen timer online which I love. The copy online stressed how loud it was, and that you would never burn anything again in the oven for not hearing the timer. That is a huge BENEFIT to me, so I bought it.  At about the same time, I saw the same timer in a King Arthur Flour catalog. The first line of copy was “The timer you’ve always wanted”. That is a throw-away line that does nothing for sales. They have since changed it to “This timer wants to be heard! Adjustable volume setting on this timer is ideal for noisy households or for those that need a bigger more vocal reminder that the cookies are done.” That is focusing on a benefit, and making it relevant.  Do it with every product that you can.

Rule #18 – Don’t Be Timid

There is a meeting going on right now somewhere – in some catalog or ecommerce company – where “upper management” is discussing adding a new product category.  You’ve probably suffered through one of these meetings.  Someone may have brought some hard data to support going off into this new merchandise direction, but often it is simply someone saying “I believe, I feel, I think” that this new category is what your customer wants and will buy. Everyone else in attendance accepts these assumptions, because “well, we know we need to grow, and we can’t do that unless we expand the product offering, and these products seem like a logical extension of our brand, so let’s go for it.”

So you add these new products – and in my experience, they hardly ever succeed. The reason is because although everyone thought they were a great and logical extension of the merchandise line, no one supported them to the degree they needed to be support in the catalog.

First, and this is a merchandise issue, most new product categories are not supported with enough products to make it clear to the consumer that you are a champion of this category. You make a half-hearted effort with six or seven products. This is not going to help them move the needle and get strong growth.

Second, and this is a creative issue, you don’t give these new products prominence. You gave them a small amount of space, buried in the back portion of the book. We do this all the time. We are afraid to support new items because we are afraid of detracting from existing products.

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



read more

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 2

In case you missed Part One of my rules (with rules 1 to 6), click here:

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 1

Rule #7 – Your customer is interested in how much you care about them – they don’t care about you

Your customer does not care about you – they are interested in how much you care about them. I had the privilege early in my career of working with George Duncan, a copy writer who taught me the customer does not want you to tell them about your grass seed, they want you to tell them about their lawn. But what do you do, not just with copy, but with design and photography? You tell the customer how great you are, how great your products are, etc. You fail to focus on what is important to the customer – and whatever that “thing” is, is different catalog to catalog.

  • Promise yourself that you will NEVER, EVER include a President’s letter on the opening spread, or anywhere else. There are only two people that read it – the copywriter and the President’s mother, and even she would rather see some new product.

Rule #8 – “Alex, I’ll take ‘Things That Don’t Matter to Survival’ for $400  please.”

Yes, you must test things. But please stop testing foolish things that make no difference to response. Testing ordering information on page two vs. a welcome letter is not going to move the needle.

In my opinion, the things that you think have a huge impact, and are the things that you debate year-in and year-out – and that you test – really have no long-term impact on your business. My list of “no impact factors” includes:

  • Mail dates
  • Trim sizes
  • Paper quality/paper tests
  • Cover tests (these are such a waste of time!)
  • Marketing offers (discounts, $ off)
  • Pagination tests
  • Choice of models/photographers
  • Circulation (As a marketing guy, it pains me to put “circulation” on the list, but unless you have made an egregious mistake, it is pretty tough to screw up your circ plan. Rarely does someone “mail the wrong customer” either in the short or long term).

On the other hand, in my opinion, the things that have the greatest long-term impact on your business are the things which very few of you ever discuss, test or even change. My list of those factors includes:

  • Page counts
  • Product density
  • Addition/elimination of whole product categories
  • Holdout panels
  • Price testing
  • Frequency of mailing
  • Web-only merchandise

Rule #9 – Tell them you hate it, and move on

There is a problem I know exists in many catalogs. It applies to merchandise and marketing, but primarily to creative. When presented with a catalog or website design that they don’t like, no one is ever willing to say “this stinks, it’s going in the wrong direction, stop now and let’s see something else”. Instead, people offer constructive criticism, hoping that the designer will intuitively know, maybe through osmosis or mind reading, what the other person really wants. The designer doesn’t realize that they are being told that their design “doesn’t work” because no one tells them such in so many words. The sugar-coated comments offered simply avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. And then you are stuck.

So, a bad catalog or website design simply gets reworked a little, and usually becomes even worse. Products that should not even be in the book get prominence on a page. Propping that is completely inappropriate to the products and overall design get emphasized. Product density is either too high or too low.

Remember, it’s hard to miss the message in “I hate it.” Yes, it will stop conversation. It may even ruffle some feathers. But you have merchanside to sell. Don’t allow Creative to hijack your products, or your catalog. Don’t allow a bad catalog design to move forward.  In our overly-sensitive, politically correct world, we could avoid a lot of problems, and increase a lot of sales, by simply being direct and blunt with our comments, without being personal, and moving on.

Rule #10 – The Patagonia Rule – Don’t be a copy cat

Datamann is fortunate to work with many new catalogs. I have two simple litmus test questions that I ask when meeting with these catalog start-ups, to determine how realistic they are about their plans and their expectations for success. Their answers are a good indicator of their chances at long term success.

Question #1 – who are your closest competitors to the catalog you have envisioned starting? More than 80% of the time, they respond “oh, we aren’t going to have any competitors – our product line is truly unique.”  That’s a yellow flag. Regardless of what product category they plan to be in, no matter what products they plan to sell, they will have competitors. As I rattle off a list of potential competitors, they often have no clue these other catalogs existed.  It is the rare exception when a new cataloger knows their competitors, has dissected their position in the market, and understands how to position their new catalog to be different.

Question #2 – what catalogs do you most closely want to emulate?  This is where the red flag typically comes out, because more than 60% of the time I have asked that question, the answer is the same: Patagonia.

No one ever responds with “we want to be like any other catalog that managed to be profitable from day one, and that has 15% EBITA after two years.” No, they just want to “look like” Patagonia. That’s what makes Patagonia the most dangerous catalog in the world.

Patagonia is a beautiful catalog, and they have great product. But, the catalog hopefuls that want to emulate Patagonia do so on the basis of the good deeds they have heard about that Patagonia does, as well as the beautiful catalog. Social consciousness gets their attention, but the look of the catalog is what they really want. They want their catalog to have full page spreads of surfers with no product for sale in sight, and cool half-page lifestyle shots of swimmers alongside some shirts.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a copycat. But here’s the problem – in my opinion, there can only be one Patagonia. It is not so much that they are unique. They simply have a method of selling that works for them. They have built a position in the market that allows them to have full page lifestyle shots that don’t sell anything. It works for them. Most catalogers can’t do that.

And that is why emulating Patagonia – or any catalog – is dangerous for other catalogers, especially start-ups. Every new catalog has to establish its own market position. And it can’t be done based on “creative”.  It has to be based on product. What amazes me is the lack of thought many catalogs spend on the really important questions: how will I get my cost of goods down below 40%? Do my products lend themselves to multiple repurchases over time? How will I affordably acquire customers for this offer in print and on-line? The answers to these questions, and many more, are where success will come from.

Creative directors all think they are creative and innovative. But they are usually attempting to move their catalog into line with someone else’s. You have to have your own selling equation, and your own style. The more unique you can be, in merchandise and creative style, the more memorable you will be.

Rule #11 – Always ask – is it driving response?

We can all be subjective about what we do and don’t like about creative elements  in a catalog, and that is why – in my opinion – the only thing that is truly important is whether those creative elements drive response.  That’s what I look for – are you driving response? I don’t look at things like color palettes, eye flow or branding initiatives. Those are tactical tools of the Creative Department which I take for granted they know how and when to use. What I look for is whether they are using them to drive response.

Remember, you are not selling your dream to your customers – you are selling them their dream. Don’t allow your personal taste to invade the catalog design. Here’s an example: Most upscale hard goods catalogs do their photography in a stark, retro-looking SoHo loft, with unpainted walls. These catalogs are always totally devoid of any sense of warmth, or human touch. The products – usually furniture – are shown in a “neutral” setting, with all the character of a prison cell. Yes, that might appeal to some, but it sure does not appeal to all.  Use some common sense and respond to your own catalog as a consumer would.

Rule #12 – Product density is good

I love a dense catalog – the more products you have, the more you can sell – to a point. You also have to back up and ask yourself if you are too cluttered. There is no magic formula – every catalog is different as to what is the right product density per spread. But in general, when a cataloger asks me to evaluate their catalog because response is soft, almost always the number one reason is that they reduced product density.

To be continued – look for Part 3 next week.

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


read more