Gone Too

I’ve been wanting to write this posting for more than six months, but was waiting for the right occasion – which occurred last week. More on that in a minute.

Do you remember the dot.com meltdown of 1997 to 2001?  During this time, many new online companies were founded and quickly failed, some in spectacular fashion. They spent money like there was no tomorrow, mostly on foolish extravagances.

I see a similar catalog meltdown coming, but with a specific sub-class of catalogs. There are about a dozen catalogs, mostly men’s, and all started since 2007, that are aimed at the urban logger, city-living rural camper, all-around country-loving upscale guy.  These catalogs include Rail Riders, Huckberry, United By Blue, Jonnie-O, along with several others.

The right occasion that occurred last week was the announcement by one of these catalogs – Ibex – that they were going out of business and closing down at the end of the month. I hate to admit this, but Ibex was not only located in Vermont, but located in the same small town as Datamann. However, despite several offers to work with them, they never sought our advice or assistance. They did not subscribe to this blog.

What made Ibex’s departure so predictable was clearly evident from looking at their website. First, they had nothing unique about their products. They were just one more company selling earth-toned wool underwear, sweatshirts and hoodies. Absolutely nothing special about the stuff, except that the company was located in Vermont, where they think pure thoughts while packing your order.

The true tip off to me that these guys would not last was the page on their website that listed the “dogs of Ibex”, and showed photos of all the dogs owned by people that worked there, and who brought said dogs to work. There is a no-so-complex algorithm which I developed that links the propensity for catalogs to go out of business with the number of dogs staff members bring to work.

So, another catalog gone. And we haven’t even gotten to Christmas. Usually the announcements of bankruptcy and business failure wait until after December 31, as catalogs hope that Santa and FedEx will somehow magically deliver a Christmas Miracle of sales at the last minute.

Dogs aside, there are two common traits among these upscale rural-wannabe catalogs. First, is a dearth of products. They usually have one product/page or worse, one per spread. They focus on the lifestyle nature of their product, instead of the virtues of the product as being something you would actually want. Look at the spread below from Huckberry’s Fall catalog and first, find the sweater, then find a reason to buy it.  Why do some companies make this so hard?

Or check out the spread below from United By Blue. There is ONE $12 pin on one page, and eight products on the facing page, with no product description, just product name and price.

Yes, I believe that catalogs don’t have to give lots of product detail in the catalog, and can use their websites to provide that. But this catalog gives you no reason to visit their website. This is another sign of the coming catalog meltdown – you can’t give a whole page to a $12 pin and expect to be around for too long. And yes, I understand that United By Blue has a social mission (you can read about it here), but in my opinion, that makes it all the more important to have an efficient catalog in order to fund that lofty mission.

The second common trait is their inclusion of really stupid hard goods. Almost every one of these catalogs sells an axe or multiple axes. Why is that stupid?

Both of my grandfathers had a “camp”, which in New England in the 1930s to the 1960s meant a little cabin in the woods on a small pond, with an outhouse. The only convenience that both had was electricity. My parents had a camp, as did my wife’s grandparents and parents. My brother inherited my parent’s camp, and my wife and I built our own – a small cabin in the woods. I mention all this to show my “camp” bona fide credentials. Both my wife and I have been going “to camp” for our entire lives. And the last thing in the world that I would buy for my camp is a $135 axe, not when a new chainsaw is only $300. And if you have ever split a cord of oak with an axe, you know there is no romance in it. It is not a transcendental experience. The smart campers get a log splitter.

The merchants for these catalogs live in la-la land. They are not trying to appeal to a camper, or real rural person. They are positioning their catalog to appeal to the wanna-be, whether it is a wanna-be camp goer, or wanna-be exercise hound. The problem with that is that being a wanna-be is always a short-lived fad. There is no loyalty to any wanna-be lifestyle for long.

And that is why these catalogs will fail. They are not selling the customer’s dream – they are selling the catalog owner’s dream. Their coming failure lies in having no truly unique products. They are just another lifestyle catalog selling flannel lined khakis, all going after the same customer, and all prospecting to the same tiny pool of co-op supplied names, including me.

Unless these catalogs can truly differentiate their products with something unique, something hard-to-find, and something proprietary, they will, one by one, be the victims of a coming catalog meltdown that has nothing to do with Amazon or dying co-ops. It has to do with the “irrational exuberance” that led to their founding, and which will lead to their undoing.

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

blapierre@datamann.com

read more

Engagement

This is a sample size of one – so take these observations with some skepticism.

I wrote in last week’s posting that I had changed my view on “engagement”. Here’s what changed it.

For years, vendors and other media “experts” have been pushing “engagement” as a way to acquire customers.  “You’ve got to be engaged with your customers!”

I always thought that was a bunch of bunk*. I believed that saying you had engagement with your customers was just a fancy way of saying that you stunk at generating orders and sales. It was like proclaiming that an event was successful because it generated tons of PR, but in reality, was a failure because no one showed up.

Hard orders and sales are what I always encourage clients to focus on – and to a VERY LARGE degree, that is what they must always be focused on. To old school mailers with customers prone to placing orders on the phone, nothing beats the feeling of obtaining a 10% response to a catalog mailing.

But over the past few years, I’ve watched the changing shopping habits of my wife Shari. First, let me point out that Shari is ten years younger than me – which at times seems like a huge generational gap, especially when it comes to consumer behavior. Second, she is not as stubborn as I am when it comes to adapting to new technology. Third, about four years ago, Shari got REALLY hooked on mountain biking.

At first, I tried keeping up with her. But I’m more of a “road bike on a paved rail trail” bike rider. I find little enjoyment in weaving through trees and over rocks through the woods the way she does. You go girl!

In addition to the actual riding, she joined several mountain biking clubs/groups in the area of the trails she rides. All of these groups are active on social media. This is where the discussions of trail conditions occurs – not on the group’s own website, but on their Facebook pages. Plus, I have learned that people who are really into mountain biking, love to share their rides. There are numerous apps with which you can “record” your ride, which can then be posted to Facebook, to show that you went over a certain trail, at a certain time, and that it was part of a 14-mile ride that day. It’s the modern-day version of Show & Tell. This is one example of social media engagement. Maybe not the 2 million Facebook followers I mentioned in last week’s blog, but these bikers are just as motivated, just as inspired, and just as “engaged” when it comes to sharing news about their latest ride.

Shari’s fellow mountain bike enthusiasts – who are worldwide, not just in New Hampshire where we live – also share equipment and apparel ideas. She is constantly posting photos of products she has found online to Pinterest and Instagram. She has purchased products from new vendors – some of them very small niche companies – that others have posted to those sites.

The vendors she purchases from are part of this “engaged mountain biker” community. They are not necessarily the biggest “bike” brands. This is how the new, smaller niche players are grabbing attention, grabbing sales and acquiring customers. The biggest brands often stink at engagement. Those bigger brands are satisfied with buying “disruptive” Facebook ads (because it “scales” faster) rather than creating content with which readers will actually take the time to read.

The little guys grab a few percentage points of the big guy’s business each year, and pretty soon, after 5 years, the little guy is on a roll, and the big guy is trending down and can’t figure out how to stop the slide.

Since we live in a tiny town in rural New England, I think many readers of this blog envision that we probably have a hand-crank telephone. Not so. We have a fairly fast DSL connection, and wi-fi throughout the house. My wife uses her phone for these social media interactions about 90% of the time, and only uses her laptop about 10% of the time. She never phones in an order, and except for my stash of Elvis stamps, we have no other stamps in the house with which to mail in an order.  Unless your customer demographic lives in a nursing home, this is the way of the modern consumer, with more emphasis on engagement and use of mobile the younger you go.

As I said, this is a sample size of one. But, you probably know consumers just like Shari, or you are one too. We know lots of households that have given up their land line. We have never had cable TV (not available in our town because you need at least 10 people/mile) so we are not surprised that people are giving up cable and discovering that you can live without it, because they stream Netflix and Hulu when they want to watch TV. Technology changes consumer behavior, and no amount of cries of “print is not dead” is going to erase that new behavior.

Shari will still occasionally look at a catalog. Since we get hundreds of them – including every women’s apparel catalog – she has a huge selection from which to pick coming to our house every week.  But when I’m sorting the mail on the kitchen counter each night and ask “do you want to look at these new Talbots, Lands’ End, Athleta catalogs?”, she often says “no, I can check them out online”, which means with her phone.

I have come to realize that engagement is not just about having a mobile presence. It is about having content that the reader wants and craves. It is also NOT a panacea for low catalog response rates. It will not and cannot be the sole avenue of sales and customer acquisition for your company – but it does work, and must be acknowledged as something that you must play a role in, if it is appropriate for you. I can get engaged with a baking site because I love to bake bread in the winter.  I’d have a hard time getting engaged with a site that sells keyboards, even though I use one daily.

Bear this other thought in mind. You cannot expect “engagement” to just happen. It is hard work. Maintaining this blog on weekly basis is no picnic – but I’m keeping you engaged. It is also something which is difficult to “hire”. You can hire Datamann to build a database, do your merge and matchback, and you can even hire me to do your circ plan. It’s not as easy to find an “agency” that will build you engagement. Five years ago, I never thought I’d be saying this, but in my opinion, companies in the future will be farming out their circ planning to people like me, and hiring “social media engagement” specialists in-house.

What fun times we are in…

*Instead of using the word bunk in the fourth paragraph, I was going to use a different word. But I was reminded of a story about President Harry Truman. In 1948, when Truman was running for re-election, he kept referring to the Republican platform as “manure”. His aides did not think this was dignified for the President to be saying. So, they spoke to Bess, the President’s wife, and asked her to get him to change his terminology. She replied “Boys, it’s taken me 40 years to get him to call it manure.”

 

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

blapierre@datamann.com

 

read more

Impact Of Harvey On Your Catalog

I don’t need to tell you how bad the damage is from Hurricane Harvey in south Texas and now Louisiana. Being 1,800 miles away in New England, I can’t begin to imagine how bad the conditions must be.

However, several clients have asked what, if anything, they should be doing with regards to their upcoming mailings and whether they should suppress mail in that area.

Immediate Impact:

Your printer has probably forwarded you a list of US Post Offices that are closed or are not delivering mail in the immediate Houston area and is already advising you on which ZIP codes to avoid/suppress because your catalogs just won’t get delivered. In past instances during major storms which impacted mail delivery, bulk mail (catalogs) was discarded by the US Postal Service, as they lack the space to store it while they try to re-open post offices.  The USPS has a list of closed post offices (click here) with their status of operations updated daily which your printer is closely following.

But, if you are just in the final stages of completing a merge – either here at Datamann or your own service bureau – that mailing probably won’t be hitting home for at least two to three weeks. In many cases, some of the closed post offices in the flooded area will have re-opened by then. What to do?

I think you should take a hard look at your catalog and ask yourself if the people that have just gone through this horrific disaster are really going to be in a mood in 3 weeks or even 6 weeks to look at your catalog. You may want to suppress all catalogs from the Houston area until at least early October, because there is not going to be a quick “return to normal”. I know Texans are resilient, and they will bounce back, but be reasonable with your expectations as to how important your catalog will be to them right now.

Further Impact:

It was different in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and New York, at which time I felt that most catalogs would suffer a 10% drop in response nationwide for the balance of the holiday season, simply because of the distraction which the news coverage was causing to the average consumer. But that storm hit the first week of November, during most catalog’s peak Christmas catalog delivery.

Harvey hit before Labor Day, and most of you have much smaller Fall circulation in the mail at the moment. So, although response from consumers nationwide is off this week, I don’t expect it will have lingering impact on the rest of the Fall/Holiday season.

Everyone at Datamann extends our heartfelt concerns and prayers to the folks along the Gulf Coast, and we hope for a speedy recovery.

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

blapierre@datamann.com

 

read more

Ted & Muffy – A Sad and Cautionary Catalog Tale

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

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

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

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

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

What? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blapierre@datamann.com

 

read more

The Coming Mobile Tsunami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below are the results of that research:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blapierre@datamann.com

 

read more

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.

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

blapierre@datamann.com

 

read more