Fluff or Reality?

Six months from today, you’ll have a choice – do you want fluff or reality?

On Thursday, April 5, 2018, Datamann will be hosting our sixth annual seminar on catalog growth and survival for the VT/NH Marketing Group.  I’m very proud to say that this has become the largest single-day event for catalogers in the US.

Once again, we will be joined by two of the industry’s leading experts on the future of catalogs and ecommerce – Amy Africa and Kevin Hillstrom. We will give you specific, detailed methods on how to survive and even grow in this tough market.

Here is where you have a choice about fluff or reality.  I saw that one of the co-ops gave a presentation last month at a conference about selling on Amazon. The co-op rep was a co-presenter with a guy that has actually sold products on Amazon for 5+ years, and who could have used the full hour (he could have used a whole day) to discuss all the nuances, tricks and implications of selling on Amazon. But the conference organizers chose to give half the session time to the co-op – possibly because the co-op was a sponsor of the event.

This had me intrigued – since the co-ops are missing out on all the transactions that are migrating to Amazon, what could one – or any – of the co-ops possibly have to offer about the subject? I downloaded a copy of the presentation, and the 21 slides from the co-op were the usual superficial fluff you would expect. The first dozen or so slides described the Amazon shopper’s demographics, as compared against the co-op’s database. No surprises here since probably more than half the US population uses Amazon. The next few slides were about the Amazon customer’s perceptions of retailers and their opinion on free shipping. Guess what – the co-op’s findings are that Amazon customers prefer Free Shipping. (I’ll bet you are kicking yourself now for missing this presentation).

So, what was the final message from the co-op regarding Amazon? It was basically this: Go ahead and sell on Amazon because the Amazon customer is also buying from other sources – like catalogs – at “more than average levels” as indicated by activity found in the co-op’s database.  Of course, nowhere in the presentation does it indicate how that average Amazon shopper’s activity has been trending with non-Amazon sources over the past five years.

And we know why that number was not reported – none of the co-ops want to admit that Amazon is choking off their transactional information, and thus their ability to provide you with viable prospecting models. What else would you expect from one of the co-ops but a presentation that says all is well, and Amazon is not a problem for either you, the mailer, or the co-ops?

I know you are not that naïve. I know you want to be treated with respect. That is why our seminar exists, as an alternative to the few remaining catalog conferences, symposiums, client events, etc., that are vendor sponsored, vendor dominated, full of fluff sessions and hard selling of services to you. Sure, Datamann is the sole sponsor of this event for the VT/NH Marketing Group, and Datamann clients get a few perks from attending. But in six years, I’ve never used the podium to tout Datamann’s services. Nor do I share the attendees list with any other companies that want to set up time with you to discuss retargeting, Facebook ads, or online tracking. If you attend our seminar, you can relax and learn.

I’m honored to have Kevin and Amy join us again. We will not be presenting fluff. The tools, strategies, and tactics we will share are not easy tasks to accomplish. They are hard work. (No, there is no magic mailing list which Kevin is going to reveal to you when he says to adopt low cost/no cost methods of customer acquisition).  We will be discussing the reality of the industry and your survival. Sadly, some of you won’t survive. But you stand a better chance of continuing the fight if you face reality instead of naively embracing fluff.

The 2018 seminar will be held at a new location (for us) – the Event Center of Nashua, New Hampshire, a new conference center combined with a Marriott Courtyard only a few miles over the border in New Hampshire from Massachusetts, and much easier to get to if you are flying into either Boston or Manchester.

More to follow. See you in Nashua in April.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

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Early Fall 2017 Catalog Observations

Optimism:

I began making notes for this Labor Day posting in early August. At the time, I was going to report there has been a turnaround in response – many clients and mailers are reporting they are doing better. June and July were strong. We have one high-end client that is reporting they are 20% up in demand. Several clients are planning modest increases in circulation for holiday.

Why? In my opinion, since the election, the stock market has just kept climbing. Every month, when your baby boomer customers get their 401K and other retirement account statements, and see that they just made another $2,000, or $6,000 in the past month, suddenly they start thinking that maybe it would be OK to buy that new coat, or new shoes.

Then Harvey hit last week. Although the storm itself will curtail response from the Houston area for at least the next few months, I don’t think the rest of the country stopped long enough to watch what was happening in Texas to cause a significant drop in response to catalogs in the mail. Of course, there’s always another national distraction just waiting to happen – Irma could pose a problem in a few days, as could our friend in North Korea. You just never know.

But there is one tangible impact from Harvey which may become a factor to response. I fueled up my truck last Thursday night at $2.28/gallon.  Two hours later when I drove by the same gas station, the price had jumped to $2.60, and I saw a few places over the weekend at $2.70. But, even with this 15% increase in gas prices, I don’t think it will impact response too much. (Yes, I know my readers in the UK are shaking their heads in disbelief that we might even consider this a problem.)

Assuming that we have no further national distractions this fall – which appears doubtful – I’m feeling pretty good about response rates for this Fall/Holiday season, especially for the higher end offers.

 

Optimism for Whom?

Several times this year, I’ve written postings that paint what I consider a realistic picture of the future of the catalog industry, which as I have pointed out, is not good. The purpose of this blog is to offer some advice, some commentary, some observations and some truths about the catalog industry. You won’t get a realistic view of the industry from what is left of the direct marketing trade publications, because they are dependent on the few remaining advertisers that bother to run ads. You won’t get a realistic view from the few conferences left (except the Datamann catalog seminar in April) because they are dependent on the sponsors that underwrite the conference, and therefore dictate the editorial content. There is a sharp dissonance in what we are told is happening and what is really happening.

And here is why. The vendors in this industry have a responsibility to their shareholders to keep you renting names and printing catalogs. They do not have a responsibility to you as a customer. They will always steer you in the direction most advantageous to their shareholders. The clients that work with me here at Datamann know that is not how I operate.

But the most important goal of this blog is to offer optimism to the catalog industry. That optimism does not necessarily mean optimism for all players in the catalog industry. In some cases, it can be downright pessimistic for some folks in the industry. My goal with this blog is not to bring the catalog industry to its knees – it is to bring it to its senses. If catalogers are to survive, they have to evolve into other types of companies – a combination of ecommerce, mobile and traditional catalogs, as well as develop new methods of selling stuff and acquiring customers of which we have not yet thought about or invented.

But here are three signs that some of you “get it”. You understand that you must change.

#1 – Holdout Panels:

Kevin Hillstrom has for at least the last 10 years been saying the only true way to measure the impact of your catalog is with a “holdout” panel, which measures the response from names not mailed your catalog to determine the amount of sales generated organically, without aid of a catalog. The long-term impact to your profits of knowing this number is huge. But, so is the short-term impact to your sales – and that is why most of you don’t do a holdout test.

Datamann is working with five new catalog launches this fall – all of which have existing websites, and existing customers. Four of the five are doing holdout tests. They are not assuming that the catalog will drive sales – they want to prove the catalog will drive incremental sales. Why aren’t the rest of you doing similar tests?

#2 – No Catalog At All:

I received the six-panel brochure below from Ugly Dog Hunting company last week. There are no products for sale – only photos of hunters with their dogs. This is admittedly a small company from Vermont where Datamann is located.

They announced inside that there would be no catalog this year, just this flyer. And they went on to give a number of reasons why you should check out their website. The trade-off was this: “We know many customers like flipping through the catalog, but by going completely digital, we save a ton of money that keeps the product costs down and flexibility up. It also allows us to offer Free Shipping on orders over $50.”

I know nothing about this company – so this could be the last act of desperate owner. But, giving up a catalog in order to offer free shipping seems like a logical way to be in the arena with Amazon. He may have to send the brochure every year, in order to remind customers he’s still there. But at least he is doing something different – have you tried something similar?

#3 – The Strong Webdriver:

OK – You dismissed the above example from Ugly Dog because they are small, and extremely specialized.  You say it won’t work for you. So, let’s look at a mainstream cataloger like Athleta. My wife was reading it this morning and said “every spread in here is a web driver”. She’s been paying attention to what I’ve been saying for 6+ years, which is that your website must be stronger than your catalog, and the catalog must drive customers to your website.

In Athleta’s case, they have big photos which feature the product – and actually show the entire product (which many of you still don’t do) – with minimal copy. They give the SKU number and price, but clearly, they want you to go online to see the full range of sizes, colors and styles.

In the “old days” we would have called this a retail driver – get the consumer interested, and drive them into the store. And of course, Athleta has stores, so the skeptical among you will call this catalog a retail driver as well.

In my opinion, this is different in that it is driving the consumer to the website (with no mention of stores), and goes well beyond simply having their URL at the bottom of the page, which is what most of you think qualifies as a web driver.

Plus, Athleta has the courage to show models of all shapes, sizes and age. They are selling reality.

It’s a new game with a new type of consumers and a new reality. Are you ready to play?

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

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How Much Time Do I Have?

Every new catalog CEO is asking him/herself, “How much time do I have?”

I’ve had a very busy summer and did not have a chance to get caught up on my LinkedIn notifications for about 3 months. I don’t do Twitter – I just don’t get it. I use LinkedIn extensively as a source of new subscribers for this blog and leads for Datamann. I have close to 1,200 LinkedIn contacts, so I get to see a lot of activity within the industry.

I was shocked (shocked!) at what I saw when I sat down one morning last week to clean up 3 months of notifications (job changes, anniversaries, etc.). I could not get over the number of my contacts that have left the catalog industry this summer. And I mean “completely out” – many to non-profits, many to other service industries, some to teaching. It was very eye-opening.

Most of these contacts are mid-level jobs – managers and directors. I’m sure in some instances, their company was doing poorly, and they may have been let go before they found a new job. But many of them I know came from companies that were seemingly doing okay, and they simply opted to get out. I’m sure you can all draw your own conclusions from this revelation.

But since the start of the year, I have learned of a number of CEOs who have left their positions. Since most of these individuals contacted me to let me know they are seeking new opportunities, I’m guessing their departure from their CEO position may not have been voluntary.

Each of the CEOs I know of who have “moved on to explore new opportunities” in the past 8 months were “catalog people”. They knew how catalogs worked. They may not have fit into the culture where they were, or may have made some bad choices, but they at least understood the principles of cataloging. These were not instances of bringing in an industry outsider that said “Hey, just mail the people that are going to respond”.

Let’s face it – it’s tough being the CEO of a catalog company. The pay may be great, but your job security is shaky at best. You take a job with a new company because you want to utilize all your well-earned talents to show the world that you can do this, and you can do it better than the last guy – who did not even last two years.

And then you discover a few things.

  • You work for either an owner or a Board of Directors. They see how the market is taking off this year, at least since the election. They have grown impatient with the lack of growth of sales at your company – and they don’t care about the fact that retail is hurting or that catalogs are trending down. They care about what you have done to change THIS That seems pretty reasonable. That’s what CEOs are supposed to do. The buck stops with you, so you get moving.

 

  • But at times, you feel your hands are tied by unrealistic, and unnecessary expectations. You are under pressure to acquire new customers using social media. Not because it has been proven successful by other catalogs, but because the owner’s brother-in-law read an article in Entrepreneur magazine that said it could be done, and that is the expectation hung on you. This is sort of the equivalent of car manufactures being pressured to develop electric, self-driving cars. It doesn’t matter that no one else has successfully turned a mature catalog serving aging-bohemian baby boomers into a social media powerhouse overnight. But, as unrealistic as it may be, it is the expectation.

 

  • You discover that your merchandise team has no bench strength. There is zero new product development. The buyers look at other catalogs and retailers for inspiration. They consult “color charts” for what is going to be popular this year. You learn there is no innovation in your merchandise. Worse, you discover there are no new products under development in the pipeline. The buyers rely on “manufacturing reps” to show them what to sell. This is no different than finding out that your marketing department just waits for their co-op rep to tell them what to mail.

 

  • Speaking of marketing, they are always on the search for the next “Holy Grail” of optimization, response, conversion, remarketing, etc. They cite tiny incremental gains, but have no clue about how to truly grow the business.

 

  • You have no budget for making technological changes. Your legacy order processing system was installed during the Reagan Administration. Your web platform is impossible to link to other tools. You are trying to complete with Amazon’s one-click, and your website is still asking for source codes.

 

  • You discover that there is a “deep state” in just about every department. Not the nefarious “deep state” that is rumored to exist in government, but a group of employees who resist change. It’s not that they resist you – they like you – but they don’t want to give up the “catalog way” of business. Every discussion revolves around in-home dates and paginations. You are trying to get them to think beyond the catalog, to be a true ecommerce company, but it is tough for you too because you are at heart a “cataloger”.

“How much time do I have?” is the question that most CEOs are constantly asking themselves. First, it is “How much time do I have to turn the ship around?” Then, it becomes “How much time do I have before my time here runs out?”

I don’t have simple answers on how to deal with each of the organizational issues listed above. They are all issues of the times. But if you accept a job as a new CEO, and you encounter many of these conditions, then just know you have to work even faster to turn the ship around, because in 2017, you don’t have much time.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ya Snooze, Ya Lose – The Joys of Dynamic Pricing

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

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

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

 

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

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Mid-Summer 2017 Catalog Observations

It’s the end of July, and you’ve almost finished paginating your Holiday catalog. It’s not going to mail for another two, maybe three months, and there are not many changes you can make to it now.

That’s ok, because it isn’t your catalog which you should be changing. It’s your website that you need to work on.

Beyond The Upsell:

When I worked at Brookstone in the 1990s, we spent a lot of time coming up with just the right products for our “telephone upsell” list. You have to remember, this was before the internet, when 50% of our orders came in over the phone. At the end of the order, the CSR would ask the customer if they wanted to hear our list of daily specials, which always included a quart of maple syrup. We argued endlessly over what was the best way to spiff the CSRs for the upsell effort. We argued whether the “specials” should be good products, or overstocks we were trying to get rid of.

Most of you have adopted a variation of upsells on your website with features such as “Customers who bought this product, also liked these products….”

There is nothing special in the list below from FineArtAmerica.com. They take the basic product I was searching for (a poster of Napoleon Crossing the Alps), and show it to me in a variety of options such as a canvas painting, acrylic print, etc. In 2017, you expect different options like this for a poster/print/photo.

But further down, you can see they offer this image of Napoleon as a shower curtain, pillow, phone case, coffee mug.

Lots of you with gift catalogs spend an inordinate amount of time finding/developing new products with witty sayings, or cute images, like a smiling cat, or a mug that says “You Are An Amazing Woman”. But you squander the opportunity to really drive sales for that product because you think only in terms of ONE option for that product.

I hear many of you that sell products which are “nice to have” complain that you depend on consumers looking through your catalog to “discover” all the great new products you have. The future of catalog/ecommerce is going to belong to the companies who can capitalize on taking a great product, and turning it into 100 different options. Consumers will shop the sites where they know they have the most options. That’s why I love Cafe Press – contrary to what catalogers tell me – that “no one browses a gift website!”, I do browse their site (where else can you get a “Nixon in 2020” t-shirt?).

If you are a gift cataloger, stop thinking so one-dimensionally about your products, and think about how you can turn that great new t-shirt with the Walt Whitman quote into a phone case too.

Not In 100 Years:

Is this good catalog upselling, or foolishness? I spotted the item below in the Garrett Wade catalog, and then checked it out on the website. It’s a standard kerosene lantern. I have similar lanterns that have been in my family for more than 100 years, and which I have used repeatedly every summer for the past 50+ years. In all that time, I have never had to replace a wick.  But, Garrett Wade offers 10 replacement wicks for $5.95. Unless you were living in a bunker, and needed to use this lantern pretty much 24 hours a day, I can’t see why you would ever need so many replacement wicks.

Was this just great upselling on the part of the merchant? ($5.95 for 10 wicks is actually a good deal). Was the merchant hoping that the average person buying a kerosene lamp would not know that they didn’t need that many wicks? Or did the buyer himself not know that?

I’m not going to give Garrett Wade too much grief on this, as they do something that most of you don’t do, which is an absolute missed opportunity for you. Right below the offer for the lamps above, they have a link to a video on how to use the lamp. (Ok, maybe if you don’t know how to use a kerosene lamp, you might think you do need 10 replacement wicks).

The video is 1 minute long, I can tell it was not “professionally” produced, but it shows the product in use, and is actually pretty good! It sits right on the Garrett Wade website, so doesn’t send me off to YouTube to watch. Why aren’t the rest of you producing similar videos to showcase your products? Think about how much time people watch videos on their phones – video enhances the sale. You are too concerned about “getting it right”, or that fact that it will look “homemade”. So what? It helps sell.

My only concern with this particular video is that it fails to do any selling – while the guy is filling the tank, he could be telling the viewer how well built it is, that it won’t rust, it will last 100 years, etc.  Consumers still need to be sold. Don’t squander the opportunity. Always Be Selling!

As My Mother Would Have Said – “What Gall!”

I love my local daily newspaper (The Keene NH Sentinel). But over the 30 years I have been a subscriber, the paper has announced a number of “editorial” changes, which you could tell were only meant to keep the presses rolling. A few years ago, they announced they would no longer devote as much space to national and international news. Then sports reporting was cut back, and of course like all newspapers, there are no longer any classified ads in the back.

The kicker came this week via a letter they sent to all subscribers announcing a price increase coming this fall. The best part was this statement: “Due to the size of our premium Thanksgiving edition, there will be a $1 surcharge for this Premium Edition”.

This “Premium” Thanksgiving issue, which actually comes out the day before because the paper does not print on Thanksgiving, is all ads and FSIs. Sure, there are a few extra articles on alternate ways to cook a turkey, or the joys of a vegan Thanksgiving, but beyond that, it is all ads. So, for the pleasure of getting a ton of print ads for which the newspaper is already being paid, my newspaper is now going to charge me $1 extra. What gall!

But, hold on! Can that concept be applied to your catalog? Most catalogs have always had a vendor co-op program where you charge vendors a token amount for appearing in the catalog. What if you took that concept further and charged the vendor the full cost of appearing in the catalog? What if you paid for the entire catalog this way? I know many of you are thinking “Bill has no idea how hard this would be”, or “that won’t work for apparel catalogs”.

Don’t think in terms of 64 pages. Think in terms of 8 pages. What if you got an eight-page catalog completely paid for by a vendor(s)? You could prospect pretty deep if the marketing cost was $0. And, think about this – just as you are getting hammered by Amazon, many of your vendors are feeling the pain of all the retail store closings. They are looking for new markets, and may very well be receptive to helping you, if you grant them exclusivity, or if you agree to promote a new line which they are testing.

Oh, I know – you can’t do this because it would interrupt the flow of catalogs you already have, and potentially cannibalize sales from your Holiday 2 drop. Stop thinking that way. Think in terms of using a vendor-paid-for mail piece as a way to drive consumers to your website. The more baited hooks you have in the water, the more you will catch.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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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?”

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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