In Good Company at The Smithsonian

In early 2015, I reported that I had been asked by Paul Miller, Vice President and Deputy Director for the American Catalog Mailers Association (ACMA) to help with a special project for the Smithsonian Institution regarding an exhibit being installed at the National Postal Museum (which is part of the Smithsonian) in Washington, DC. When The Smithsonian Calls, You Can’t Say No

I’m delighted to report that the exhibit, titled America’s Mailing Industry, opened this week. Although for a variety of reasons, the Smithsonian was unable to use the materials I supplied them on the history of cataloging, the exhibit does start out with catalogs and mail order as the leading industry!!

But more important, five of the ten catalog companies highlighted in the exhibit are Datamann clients!  Congratulations to:

Dakin Farm

Harbor Sweets


Littleton Coin Company

W. Atlee Burpee Company

          Each company’s history, and contribution to the mail order industry is highlighted, including videos and a portrait of each company’s founding family, many of whom are still in charge of the company today.

I also want to congratulate our New England neighbors, L.L.Bean and The Vermont Country Store, for being included in the exhibit.

Finally, in a very personal note, I’m delighted to see that the National Easter Seal Society was included in the exhibit, under non-profit organizations. My father was the President of the Massachusetts Easter Seal Society for 40 years, and it is great to see that organization recognized as being a national leader.

I and the entire staff of Datamann are honored to have been asked by the ACMA to help coordinate this project. We are delighted that Datamann clients represent half of the catalog companies included in the exhibit. Right now, the exhibit is a “virtual” exhibit, residing online. But the National Postal Museum plans to make this a full exhibit in the museum, with historical artifacts to accompany the information displayed on-line. So, in the future, when you are in Washington, DC, visit the museum and check out the display to our industry.


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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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Where Are The Heroes?

I am not a fan of science fiction. The closest I came was watching the old black and white Superman TV show from the 1950s, which was already in syndication when I was growing up in the 1960s. I did not watch Star Wars for the first time until I met my wife in the mid-1990s, almost 15 years after it first came out.

I bring this up because the last thing in the world I would ever consider doing is going to ComicCon – the four day “comics convention” held every July in San Diego. But earlier this spring, I watched the movie Paul, which is about two comic book “fans/nerds” from the UK, who fulfill their lifelong dream of attending ComicCon, and then rent an RV to drive across the American West to visit all the iconic “real-life” locations associated with aliens and sci-fi (Roswell, NM, Area 51).  Long story made short – they meet a real alien along the way, help him to meet up with his mother ship and go home – a 2015 version of “ET”. They write a comic book about their adventure, and the following year, they are “star” presenters at ComicCon.  The movie is a hoot, and worth watching.

So it was fortuitous a few weeks ago when I spotted Rob Salkowitz’s book called “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture”. Partly because of my interest in popular culture, and partly because of the movie Paul, I found the book fascinating. Written in 2012, it is slightly dated, yet provides a detailed description of not only the ComicCon event, but also what is happening in general within the comics industry. The parallels to the catalog industry are everywhere.

First and foremost, ComicCon is no longer just about comic books, which have dropped in circulation tremendously in the past 10 years. There was a time when individual comic books would sell a million copies. Now, a bestseller of a red-hot book (usually tied to a movie release) will only sell 150,000 copies. Over 70 million tickets to the 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight were purchased, but fewer than 70,000 people purchased the July 2008 issue of the comic book Batman: the Dark Knight.

This change came about starting in the 1980s, when most comic publishers discontinued newsstand sales, where unsold copies could be returned to the publisher for a refund. Instead, the publishers began selling to a “direct market” system that shipped comic books exclusively to specialized comic books stores, on a nonreturnable basis. Initially this seemed great for everyone: comic book fans got the convenience of a one-stop shop (kind of like catalogers using co-ops) and publishers had higher margins, no returns, and could charge more for books targeted to hard-core comics fans.

However, in the 1990s, comic books stores eventually began to cater only to comic book nerds, and were not inviting places for women, kids or the occasional casual comics fan. At the same time, publishers discovered that by targeting the hard core comic book fan, they had unwittingly made the subject matter increasingly insular, which further pushed comics out of mainstream. Death seemed eminent. (This is similar to catalogs that continue to only seek products for a small base of existing customers, excluding new product categories and potentially new customers along the way).

ComicCon was one of the reasons that comic book publishers were able to revive themselves, largely by association with Hollywood. They developed new comics solely for female audiences, especially teens. They developed hit movies around popular comic heroes. And much of this “revival” owes itself to ComicCon.

ComicCon is now one of the major ways the comics trade finds new customers (particularly women), and extends the comics genre into other media, especially movies.

I won’t recap the whole book, but one theme that I found particularly interesting was the need for the comics industry to always have heroes, or more specifically, superheroes. Despite the breadth of comic content and styles, American comics are still primarily identified in the public consciousness with superheroes, and the future of comics in popular culture is tied to the future of the superhero.

That got me thinking about heroes in the catalog industry. When I first started in catalogs 30 years ago, there were actual heroes in our industry. You saw them at the DMA’s Catalog Conference. They had their picture in the catalog – or better, they had their name on the cover. They were known not just to the catalog industry, but to the general public as well.

There was Lillian Vernon – the original “kitchen table startup”. There was Pleasant Rowland, founder of American Girl, who built a doll empire that was the antithesis of traditional girl’s dolls like Barbie. In my opinion, her hero status only improved when she sold American Girl to Mattel (makers of Barbie) for $800 million. Leon Gorman led LL Bean from a small hunting supply company he took over upon his grandfather’s death to a $1+ billion business, which truly did drive a number of LL Bean “lifestyles”.

Lillian vernon

There was Chuck Williams, founder of Williams Sonoma, and Gary Comer, founder of Lands’ End, who made customer service a huge priority (Period.). Richard and Jim Cabela were heroes to sportsmen, but also heroes within cataloging and retailing. And working at Brookstone, we were always in awe of Richard Thalheimer, founder of Sharper Image, especially when James Bond used a Sharper Image credit card in A View to Kill. There were even heroes among vendors, like Larry Quadracci, who elevated catalog printing – at the time basically a commodity service – to a special “experience” when printing with Quad.

What set these heroes apart – many of whom are still alive – was not that they were good business managers. What set them apart, at least within the catalog industry, was their fame and ability as merchants. They were innovators in finding, sourcing and presenting products in such a way as to compel customers to respond. They made shopping from their companies an “experience”.  They also had personalities. Some worn them on their sleeves, some were simply low-key Yankees. But those personalities made a name for the person and their companies.

Sadly, in my opinion, there are no such heroes within the catalog industry today. This is partly a reflection of the fact that many catalogs are now part of multi-titled conglomerates where devotion to the business plan and the bottom line outweigh focusing on products or the customer. I’m sure some of these multi-title leaders are far better business managers than the catalog heroes of old. But do they have charisma? Does their individual personality show through in the catalog? Are they heroes to their customers or even their employees? No way.

In answer to the question on the heading of today’s piece, the heroes are all retired. Yes, there are some well-known individuals left within cataloging, but no heroes. Instead, they have been replaced by Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Tony Hsieh (Zappos) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook).

The comics industry managed to revive itself, partly through the influence of ComicCon, and partly through their promotion of superheroes in popular culture. The catalog industry is never going to revive itself to pre-2007 levels, but individual companies could benefit and grow by having “hero” CEOs or merchants. Unlike the comic world however, catalog heroes cannot be “created” by a talented artist. The person has to have the right talent, the right personality, the right product niche, and a great deal of luck. But a few heroes in our industry would be very helpful right about now.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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Smithsonian Catalog History Project – Part 1

If you have no interest in the history of catalogs and mail order in the US, you can skip today’s posting and not get into any trouble. If on the other hand, you would like a quick overview of how our industry got to where we are, read on.

Several weeks ago, I announced here that the American Catalog Mailers Association, which is hosting its annual forum in Washington, DC this week, was selected by the Smithsonian Institution to help put together an exhibit on the history of the postal industry. Paul Miller, from the ACMA, contacted me to see if I knew someone that could help coordinate the catalog and mail order portion of the exhibit. I eagerly volunteered. At this week’s ACMA forum, Karen McCormick, the exhibit coordinator for the Smithsonian, is presenting an overview of the project, the work completed to date, and the work remaining.

Below is the first completed phase of the exhibit, a short history of how the industry got started and why. I have been working on this in my free time the last few months, and with Paul’s editorial guidance (it is so helpful that he is a former magazine editor!), we got it approved by the curator at the National Postal Museum – and she’s tough!

100th Anniversary of mail order

The Overview:

“Starting with the country’s first settlers in colonial times, Americans relied on their local general stores, tradesmen such as blacksmiths and cobblers, as well as itinerant peddlers for the majority of goods and wares.

In 1870, 74 percent of the US population still lived in areas defined by the Census Bureau as “rural”. But, as the economy grew in the post-Civil War era, rural consumers wanted more than what local Main Street merchants could supply.

In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward, a dry-goods merchant in Chicago, launched what is considered the first successful catalog company. It was soon followed by the Sears and Roebuck and Burpee Seed catalogs. Although the catalogs were popular with consumers and grew steadily, they faced a major obstacle: by law, the Post Office Department was prohibited from delivering any package weighing more than four pounds. Packages over that weight were delivered by private delivery/express companies.

The majority of Americans remained in rural areas at the start of the 20th century, and they lacked postal delivery. These rural residents had to go to the local post office to get their mail, a trip that could take much of the day to make. The National Grange, an organization dedicated to improving economic and social conditions primarily for rural farmers, began a campaign in the 1870s to bring about free mail delivery to rural locations. John Wanamaker, a leading merchant from Philadelphia, was the Postmaster General from 1889 to 1893. He supported the concept, and saw the logic in having one person deliver mail to 100 farms rather than for 100 people to travel to one post office. Congress opposed the rural delivery idea as being too expensive. However, rural residents continued to pressure their Congressional representatives for help, and in 1896 the Post Office Department began Rural Free Delivery (RFD) at first as an experiment, and in 1902, a nation-wide service. The service, which delivered mail directly to the farmer’s mail box, became immediately popular.

Once rural consumers began to enjoy the luxury of mail delivered almost to their doorstep, they wanted the opportunity to buy goods by mail. So, again, the National Grange began a campaign to ease the weight limits on packages that the Post Office Department could deliver. Opposition to this proposal, which limited the growth of mail order and catalogs, was fierce among private delivery companies, local Main Street merchants, and railway companies. A handful of powerful Members of Congress had financial ties to companies opposing the proposal and the matter stayed mired in Congress for years. Ultimately the proposals’ supporters were victorious and in 1913 the Parcel Post Service began. The maximum package weight the Post Office would deliver started at 11 pounds, growing to 70 pounds by 1931.

The combination of RFD and Parcel Post brought together a massive, and relatively untouched, customer base and the fledgling mail order industry. Within the first six months of Parcel Post, Sears handled five times as many orders as it did the year before; within five years, doubling its revenue.

With these new services from the Post Office Department making it easier for the average American consumer (urban and rural) to shop, more entrepreneurs began to consider mail order as a viable option to reach new customers. Success was not automatic. One company, LL Bean, almost failed as soon as it got started when the first year’s shipment of Maine Hunting Boots in 1912 fell apart after just a few uses. The company offered to replace every defective pair of boots, thus giving birth to customer-pleasing offers – satisfaction guarantees with liberal return policies.

Consumers were not the only ones to benefit from mail order’s early growth. American industry’s rapid growth following World War I – and fueled by innovations such as the Ford Model T – helped drive the growth of the first business and industrial-related catalogs. These catalogs made it easier for small businesses to find and order supplies. The Grainger company’s first catalog mailed in 1928 served a variety of industries with electric motors, gradually increasing to thousands of products for hundreds of industries.

It was not until after World War II that the catalog industry in the United States truly expanded. Americans had more discretionary income, and were now presented with a vast array of tempting consumer products. In addition, mail order companies began to appeal to more than just rural customers. Companies such as Harry and David, Walter Drake, Eddie Bauer, Country Curtains, Vermont Country Store, Williams Sonoma, Lillian Vernon, and Talbots all launched their first catalogs in the decade after the war, selling a variety of hard goods, apparel, gifts and food.

Finding new customers continued to challenge businesses. Catalog companies advertised in magazines and newspapers, but this was often a two-step process, requiring customers to request the catalog, then wait for delivery before being able to purchase products. Once again, the Post Office Department stepped in. This time the innovation was created to speed mail processing. Few at the time saw the myriad of other opportunities it would generate. With the introduction of the ZIP code in 1963, catalog and other direct marketers now were able to develop efficient, computerized mailing lists. This led to the widespread use of catalog and mail order companies renting existing mailing lists, which helped them find new customers.

ZIP codes, along with the introduction of the toll-free 1-800 number, credit cards, and the introduction of women into the workplace (giving them at the same time more income and less time to shop during the day), helped usher in the “golden age” of catalogs in the United States. Well-known catalog brands that began in the 1960s and 70s such as Brookstone, Sharper Image, Lands’ End, Staples, Pottery Barn, J Crew and Victoria’s Secret are as recognized today for their catalogs as for their retail stores.

One of the constants of the mail order industry has been the growing role of the postal system in ensuring delivery of catalogs to consumers’ addresses, enabling Americans to sample millions of products without ever leaving their homes. Today, USPS delivers more than 11 billion catalogs annually while developing new programs (such as National Change of Address system), that give the catalog industry extraordinary reach, while keeping costs down and efficiency up.”


I again want to extend many thanks to Paul Miller at the ACMA, to Karen McCormick at the Smithsonian and the curators at the National Postal Museum for their help on this. Datamann is honored to be playing a part in this project.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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An Open Letter to Catalog CEOs in Rural Locations

In doing my research for the Smithsonian’s exhibit on the history of catalogs for the National Postal Museum, (to read my previous posting on this topic click here), I noticed a common thread among many companies that were started and grew during the post-World War II era into the 1970s. For a variety of different reasons, many of these catalog companies chose to locate in small rural locations.

This makes perfect sense. By their very nature, catalog companies do not need to be near large population centers to drive sales. Catalogs drive business remotely, so can locate where they want.

A large majority of catalog entrepreneurs chose to locate their catalogs in “the country”. This was especially true here in New England, with Orvis, Vermont Country Store, Garnet Hill, Littleton Coin, Keepsake Quilting, Brookstone, Country Curtains, LL Bean and many more smaller companies starting in small towns. Even in more recent times, companies such as the original Coldwater Creek chose to locate in rural Idaho in 1983.

In reading the histories of these companies, very few of them intended or expected to grow to the size they are today. In most cases, the founding entrepreneur chose where to live first based on a preference to live in a quiet, bucolic setting, and then had to find a business opportunity that supported their desire to live in the country.   Lands’ End is one of the few examples of a catalog that started in an urban location (Chicago) and moved to a rural location (Dodgeville, WI).

Many of my clients have been in rural locations. In addition to all those previously mentioned, which are clients now or were at one time, I’ve worked with Park Seed (Greenwood, SC), Mason Shoe (Chippewa Falls, WI) and Duluth Trading (Belleville, WI). Even many of Datamann’s UK catalog clients are located in small towns (at least they are less than 75,000 and feel to me like a small English town), including Bingley, Harrogate and Skelmersdale. They certainly are not London. Datamann itself is located in a small Vermont village of 1,600 people.

Except for when I was in college, I have always lived in small towns of less than 5,000 people, and so has my wife.   If you have never experienced small town living, it is difficult to appreciate the “closeness”.  We currently live in a town of 1,200 people, and because our son went through our public school system, and my wife sings in the church choir, we know about half the people in town. The other half we at least recognize when we see them at the “dump/recycling center” on Saturday morning. (Our town has no trash removal service – you have to bring it to what we still call the “dump” once a week). Suffice it to say, that in a small town, especially one with limited services, you depend on each other more so than our urban neighbors.

I have noticed that catalog companies located in rural areas have a similar  sense of internal community as well. This is no illusion. The clients that I have worked with located in urban areas hit the road at 5 PM, and think little of their co-workers until 8 AM the next morning. There is nothing wrong with this, but in a small town, you see your co-workers at your kid’s school, in church, at the store, etc.  Some of you would be “freaked out” by that thought. But when you have lived it all your life, you can’t imagine not having that connection.

Prior to moving to New Hampshire in the late 1980s to work at Brookstone, I lived in a small town, but worked at several mail order companies in the suburbs of Boston. There was little sense of closeness, nor a sense of comradery, at least to the degree I have found at companies in rural locations.

In the late 1980s, Brookstone was very closely associated with Peterborough, NH (population 5,000). It was the town’s second largest employer. The CEOs and many in upper management were involved in the community. You sensed it in the company, too. We fielded several teams in local sports leagues. We had company outings. As the company grew, the town and the surrounding communities grew along with it.

Then we hired a new CEO, and the “culture” changed.

This new CEO was a great retailer from whom I learned a great deal about merchandising, margin, and business. He lived in Boston, and he never embraced Peterborough. He never had any intention of moving there. Shortly after his joining the company, the decision was made to break up the headquarters, moving all of fulfillment to Missouri (our mail order fulfillment had located there five years before, but now retail fulfillment was going as well) and the administrative offices were moving 40 miles east.

The reason given was that it would be easier to recruit professional staff if we were closer to Boston, and we were paying our fulfillment staff a premium wage because so many of them had been with the company so long. Hiring new staff in Missouri would eliminate that problem as they would be at a lower pay scale.

You can imagine this did not sit well with the staff who were losing their jobs, or with those keeping their jobs but now facing a long commute. I made the long commute (a little more than an hour each way) for two years before I tired of it found alternate employment, ironically back in Peterborough across the street from the old Brookstone building which sat empty for years.

At the time of the move, the hourly employees that were “let go” represented almost 400 years of accumulated customer service to Brookstone. No value was assigned to that by management. It was simply assumed that the new hires in Missouri could be trained in a matter of weeks and not miss a beat. But of course, that did not happen. Nothing went right in the move to Missouri. It took almost three years (and several new directors at the DC) to get things running smoothly. At the new headquarters, the quaint sense of community was gone. The old company trophy case filled with mementoes of past company-team athletic glories is now a bookcase in my office at home.  It was a huge price to pay for the personal convenience of a few.

I bring all this up because as I work on telling the history of catalogs and mail order for the Smithsonian, I realize that a special thanks needs to be extended to the CEOs – past and present – who have maintained their respective company’s presence in these rural locations.  They have not been swayed by the argument that it would be easier to recruit new talent in more urban locations – they’ve done just fine staying where they are and finding the people for whom the existing company culture resonates. They also recognized that their current location was a large part of their culture, their brand and their merchandise, and that a departure from that community would destroy it all. They also (for the most part) have not been swayed by the argument that locating elsewhere would reduce operating expense. They recognized the long term value of years of accumulated customer service experience outweigh the short term gain of a few dollars per hour wage reduction.


More importantly, they have made a commitment to their community. When Brookstone left Peterborough, it left a huge hole in the community, which is still a void 22 years later. I also believe it was the beginning of the long road of poor performance at Brookstone which culminated in their bankruptcy in 2014. I have written in this space before that the strength of some of the major and most venerable catalog companies lies with the fact that they are still owned by the original founders or founders’ family, such as LL Bean, Country Curtains, Duncraft, Littleton Coin. But, don’t overlook the fact that these companies have also long resided and long supported their local communities. This is part of the heritage of our catalog industry. This will be part of the catalog history and story I tell with the exhibit at the Smithsonian.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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When the Smithsonian Calls, You Can’t Say No

Before I tell you about the Smithsonian, let me give you a quick update on Datamann’s seminar this week.

Yes, the snow is finally over.  The roads are clear, and the weather forecast for this Thursday is sunny, with no snow the rest of the week! It will be a little chilly, so dress warmly if you are attending.

We are excited! We have over 170 mailers, many of them Datamann clients, registered for the Who Is Looking Out for Your Interests?  seminar that Datamann is sponsoring for the Vermont / New Hampshire Marketing Group on Thursday at the Marriott Courtyard, Grappone Conference Center in Concord, NH.  If you have not yet registered, click here for the seminar registration page on the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website.

Ok, now for the Smithsonian…

Every so often, you just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

A few weeks ago, Paul Miller, Vice President and Deputy Director for the American Catalog Mailers Association (ACMA) contacted me about a special project. When Paul can’t find the answer to a vexing catalog industry question, he often contacts me. He hit pay dirt this time.

I’ve known Paul for many years. When Paul was editor of ROI magazine, he once covered one of my speeches at a DMA Catalog Conference and described it as “acerbic wit.”   I took that as a compliment.

This past December, the ACMA was contacted by the Smithsonian Institution regarding an exhibit being installed at the National Postal Museum  (which is part of the Smithsonian) in Washington, DC. The National Postal Museum is creating a new exhibit about the USPS and America’s mailing industry – the past, present and future. The Museum will create an onsite exhibit and a dedicated website to explore how the USPS and the mailing industry has impacted — and continues to impact — U.S. communication and commerce channels, and will celebrate industry innovators and pioneers. The Museum selected the ACMA to coordinate the “Catalog and Mail Order” part of the exhibit.

Paul’s initial note to me started with “I know this request is out of left field.” He went onto explain the project, and asked if I would be interested in being the catalog industry’s “quarterback” on the project. He could not have asked a more interested person.

Most of you know I have a love of catalogs. But I also have a love of history, and my MBA is in Museum Administration.   When my fellow MBA colleagues were studying companies in the Wall Street Journal, I was reading the works of Thomas Hoving, Francis Henry Taylor, and Darwin Kelsey (it won’t kill you to look them up).

Paul was delighted I accepted. Moreover, the coordinator of the project from the Smithsonian stated that she had to pinch herself at finding someone that shared both a love of catalogs and history, and that knew museums.

The National Postal Museum is looking for information on the history of catalogs and mail order, the early pioneers and later innovators and leaders in the industry, along with historical artifacts. In addition, they want to include industry research, and observations on the state of the industry, as well as the outlook for the future. Finally, the museum is seeking stories about how the catalog industry has partnered with the Postal Service.

One important aspect of this project is that because the information provided will be on a Smithsonian Institution website, it must be above suspicion. The museum’s guidelines make it clear, especially for the research papers, that information submitted cannot be a sales platform or a promotional piece for any company or product. Information provided must be research in the most basic form of that concept.

RFD Stamp

In addition to Catalogs and Mail Order, the other industries being highlighted in this exhibit are:

  • Direct Mail Marketing, Advertising Agencies & Designers
  • Envelope Manufacturing
  • Equipment Manufacturing
  • Forestry & Paper
  • Fulfillment & Package Services
  • List Brokers, Data Processing & Software
  • Large Transactional Mailers
  • Letter & Mail Shops
  • Logistics
  • Newspapers & Magazines
  • Printing

The project is just getting started, and between preparing for Datamann’s seminar for the VT/NH Marketing Group, getting two presentations ready for next month’s NEMOA, and working on my regular client projects at Datamann, I’m just starting to dig into this.  In the coming months, I will be contacting many of you in the industry for your input, ideas, and even artifacts that you can share with the entire nation.

(Patriotic music starts to swell here). Think about that for a minute. The Smithsonian Institution is creating an exhibit on the contributions of our industry to the nation’s economy, growth, and well-being. This gives all of us a chance to highlight in a positive light, what we do every day in our professions.  I and the entire staff of Datamann (which recently became an ACMA member company) are honored to have been asked by the ACMA to help coordinate this project.  I will keep you informed on the progress. (Patriotic music swells to crescendo, followed by short fireworks display).

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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