If I Were You

Right after our catalog seminar a few weeks ago, I received a number of emails from attendees thanking me for the event, expressing their enjoyment with the presentations, suggestions for next year, etc. All good stuff and all sincerely appreciated.

(For My UK readers – please see the note at the very end of today’s posting).

One attendee, a vendor, wrote that “I totally get that it is fun to pick on vendors and the bright, shiny objects that we are peddling.  But as a former mailer/digital marketer, I am keenly aware that understanding the advances in technology and what they mean to my business prospects is critical.” He went to say that our seminar in the future could be a “neutral ground” to “educate marketers on what technology makes possible, and teaches (forces?) them to think about how they can leverage the technology advances to grow their businesses”.

A neutral ground? Hmmm…

How would I manage to have a neutral ground if I allowed one vendor to promote their “shiny new objects”, while denying that opportunity to others?  I couldn’t, and I’m not even going to try.

Our catalog seminar each March (you can circle March 29, 2018 on next year’s calendar) is almost a year-long undertaking for me, so I’m glad attendees found it worthwhile. I’m delighted when they take the time to write with suggestions.

But I believe the success of our event lies in not promoting “specific” new technologies or new methods of using old technologies. Rather, it lies in helping traditional catalogers see how they must evolve their business in general to stay competitive. Whether it is thinking less like a cataloger, thinking more like an ecommerce or even mobile marketer, or how to confront the reality of Amazon, our seminar will continue to offer more generic solutions that are timeless, rather than the bright, shiny new object that will be obsolete in a year’s time.

If I Were You

I have not been to the Internet Retailer Conference (IRCE) in a few years, but one of the things I always enjoyed about their conference was that it featured speakers talking about the newest/greatest technology. IRCE made little effort to screen speakers and keep them from giving a pitch for their product.  My feeling on this is that the online technology is changing so quickly, you have to have a forum like IRCE where the latest and greatest is presented, even if the presentations tip too much toward being a sales pitch.

Since there is no way Datamann’s seminar (which we host for the VT/NH Marketing Group) could ever offer the breadth of information on new technologies that are offered in the hundreds of presentations at IRCE, why even try?  At IRCE, let the buyer beware, just as catalogers had to pick our way through the maze of vendors and presentations back in the 1980s at the Catalog Conference.

If I were a catalog mailer today, I would attend the IRCE, with my eyes wide open. I’d look for every cool new idea, and zero in on the ones where the presenter/ vendor offered proven examples of how their technology could help me in the next three to six months.

When you are attending a conference with 15,000 other attendees, it is impossible to digest everything at once. But trust your gut instinct on who seems to have a believable story. Years ago, Ben Perez, my former boss at Millard Group, used to say that “some things just smell like 3 day old fish”. You’ll be able tell which vendors are pushing three day old fish, and which aren’t.

Learn to be skeptical. Here’s an example: at the NEMOA conference in March, the Postmaster General was a no show. She sent one of her trusted deputies in her place. He gave an overview of issues the postal services is dealing with, and the new services being offered. Plus, he provided some interesting statistics, one of which is that although since 2012 mail volume is down, “engagement with mail was up, with an additional 25% of households reporting a strong attachment to mail.” So what does that mean? What is a strong attachment to mail? How do you quantify that? How did they determine that “attachment” was up 25% in the past five years? Learn to be skeptical.

In addition, keep a check on your enthusiasm when you get home. As one person wrote to me before our seminar last month “I wanted you to know that although I will not be attending your conference, it’s (IMHO) the best in the business. I am not attending to allow two other staff  to go. Your other reader is absolutely correct, most conferences are a “vendor cesspool” and I welcome the day a newbie (or seasoned marketer for that matter) returns from the typical national conference with more than unbridled enthusiasm for some new start-up that plans to further squeeze our dwindling profit dollars. “

Finally, to my many subscribers in the UK, if I were you, I’d plan on attending the Direct Commerce Association’s Annual Summit (click here) on June 15 at the Hurlingham Club in London. (Awesome looking venue!).  Kevin Hillstrom will be presenting a new and improved version of the business simulation he presented at our seminar last month, and Amy Africa will be presenting her latest take on “The good, the bad & the downright ugly” of websites. Kevin and Amy together, in London – Wow!

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



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It’s All Crazy Until It Isn’t

If you were there, you know how great last week’s Datamann catalog seminar turned out – by most accounts it was awesome! If you weren’t there, I’m going to share a few key observations.

Rather Lose The War Than Admit The Mistake

In my presentation, I gave a list of issues, internal and external, that catalogs are suffering. I also gave a list of things which I feel the catalog industry wrongly pursued over the last 20 years, which allowed ecommerce companies to gain the upper hand. Among those pursuits was that as an industry, we became too dependent on the catalog co-op databases.   If you are a steady reader of this blog, you know that I feel the co-ops have been detrimental to our industry – but few of you acknowledged it. You preferred to continue blindly supporting a declining source of names for your customer acquisition purposes, than admit the mistake of that pursuit. Until now.

At the seminar, I had a simple, one question survey asking what two topics attendees wanted addressed for 2018. We had almost 50% participation to the survey (I think that is pretty good, don’t you?).  Guess which option received the least votes?  “Working with catalog co-ops” was in a tie with “PPC/SEO” for dead last, with only two votes each. Five years ago, “working with the co-ops” was number one.

At last, I feel that you understand that your future lies in taking a new path, breaking the mold and going against conventional wisdom. Some of you have been pursuing customer acquisition that did not rely on the co-ops for years, but the majority of the industry did not follow.

Of course, there is one fly in the pudding (old New England term). This is how the people at the seminar ranked the importance of co-ops. It may not match the reality of what they encounter when they return to work on Monday. That’s when they will meet the forces of gridlock within their companies that want to preserve the status quo, and not make any “dramatic” changes. It’s all crazy until it isn’t.

I Don’t Know The Ground Ahead:

Only Kevin Hillstrom could have done this. Kevin designed an incredibly complex, yet simple to understand, business simulation in which all of the attendees took part. Since Kevin will be writing about the exercise in his blog this week, I’m going to defer to his recounting of the experience and the outcomes. I thought it was awesome. The lesson learned: you already have all of the data and metrics you need to make decisions, but your actions are more important than the data.

I also thought the “group dynamics” were great. I’ve never seen a room full of seminar attendees get so involved in a project. It certainly was a bit more stimulating than doing some magic tricks with a piece of newspaper. The photo below is of my team debating our pricing and discounting strategy.

There was one aspect of Kevin’s simulation that was something that many participants probably did not fully appreciate. At the end of each “round” of the simulation, you could see what your competitors had done, and how it worked for them. In real life, you rarely have such transparency into the actions of your competitors.

As General Lee worried on the eve of the battle at Gettysburg, “I do not know the ground ahead”, most mailers today simply don’t have the time or resources to track the activities of their competitors. Some will argue that it is not important, that you have to run your business without the benefit of market research on your competitors. But Kevin’s exercise certainly reinforced that it is easier to take decisive action when you know the ground ahead, and what the competition is likely to do.

Note: Kevin and I exchanged emails on Saturday afternoon, and he is already working on improvements to the simulation based on feedback he received from attendees in Concord! I see a Kevin Hillstrom Business Simulation app in the future.

The Database for Merchandise

Frank Oliver was on. Loud, motivated, animated, funny and dead-on target with his advice. Frank got into the nitty-gritty of merchandise metrics, and the tools he uses to be a great merchant.  Fortunately, the main portion of his presentation echoed one of my key metrics (always good when two speakers agree on something) which was the need to track merchandise performance over time. Frank reinforced that you can’t rely on your ERP system, or mail order processing system for that tracking. Instead, he showed his offline “merchandise database”, of which I’m sure many in the audience were envious.

But it takes time to develop a database as Frank described. Frank shared with me after the seminar that it took him several years to get the data assembled to make that database worthwhile.

A Show of Hands

Every year, I ask for a show of hands on several topics. The results are always telling. I asked how many companies had grown by more than 5% in 2016. I’d say less than 20 of the 160 catalogers attending raised their hands.

About 10 or 12 years ago, I gave a speech at NEMOA, and asked how many people had made a purchase using PayPal, which at the time I used frequently and not just for eBay purchases.  As I recall, only 3 or 4 people raised their hand. I also asked how many people were Prime subscribers on Amazon, and about 5 people (out of several hundred) raised their hand.

Last Thursday, I asked how many were now Amazon Prime subscribers. Almost the entire room raised their hand.

Which brings me to two key comments made about Amazon. During the question period at the end of the day, Kevin stated that he was tired of all the whining about Amazon. He reminded the audience that as marketers and merchants, you get paid to figure out how the deal with the competition, so do your job, and figure out how to beat Amazon.

The other comment came from a mailer who pulled me aside, and confidentially told me what his catalog was doing to take advantage of – not fight – Amazon Prime. I’m going to honor his request and not reveal what they are doing, but as he said “Don’t be afraid of Amazon. Embrace it and own the strategy. It is the future!”

I have always been Amazon agnostic. Some of our clients have done well there, others have not. My point on Amazon has always been that the customer activity on Amazon – which we as consumers now almost universally support as Prime members – was not flowing back to the co-ops, and was leading to the co-ops’ decline. I’m thinking that “working with Amazon” is going to be a theme for the 2018 seminar.

Seminar Tidbits:

I’m always taken aback when I’m giving a presentation and someone uses their cellphone to take a picture of one of my slides. And then I realize that I forgot to post the slides ahead of time. So, you will be getting an email from the VT/NH Marketing Group with a link to all three presentations.

One of those taking a picture of one of my slides told me he had taken a shot of this slide, and sent it back to his co-workers that had accompanied him to a recent conference where every speaker had promised that they would in fact, “transform the enterprise with their disruptive technology”.   Sometimes, vendors just don’t know how foolish they sound.

I want to once again thank my two co-presenters, Frank Oliver and Kevin Hillstrom for their hard work and efforts in making the seminar such a success.

Finally, as I write this Saturday afternoon, it is snowing hard at my house in Dublin, NH. We are expecting a foot of new snow by the end of the day. For the 4th year in a row, we beat a snowstorm by one day, and everyone got out of town safely. See you in 2018!

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



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The Most Dangerous Number in Catalogs Is Getting Bigger

So, you got your wish. The US Postal Service is changing the most dangerous number in cataloging – and they are making it bigger.

That number is 3.3, which is now growing to 4.0.

3.3 ounces is the cut-off established by the United States Postal Service many years ago at which standard (bulk / 3rd class) mail can enter the mail at the “piece rate”. So, it doesn’t matter whether you mail a 12 page catalog, or a 64 page catalog, as long as it is under 3.3 ounces, the postage is the same. Go over 3.3 ounces, and you pay the piece rate and a pound rate.

In 2017, the USPS is giving you an incentive to mail more, and that number is moving up to 4.0 ounces, a 21% increase.

I’ve seen several references online that this is a huge opportunity for catalog mailers, as they can now increase the trim size and/or page counts of their catalogs, or print on more expensive, better quality paper, and the postage is FREE. Ah, yes, the siren call of free postage. Think of the possibilities for your catalog circulation.

You can add more pages of products. You can add more branding pages.  You could even leave some pages blank, and it will not cost you anything more in postage.  You’ve been told for years – correctly – that postage is the most expensive part of mailing a catalog, so this is a gift from the postal gods, right?

Well, not so fast. As one of my clients commented to me recently, “Great, I know what you are going to say. Now I can add 12 more pages of incrementally lousy performing merchandise.” (It’s great that clients are starting to pay attention, and know what I’m going to say.)

Here is the problem as I see it:  Most catalogs are run by managers/ directors / owners that have been doing this for a while. It doesn’t matter their age, what matters is when they started in this industry.   Let’s assume that most of them have been working in catalogs since 1992. Back 25 years ago, there was no internet that impacted consumer or B2B catalogs.

But the internet, mobile and social media are not the problems facing catalogs today. The problem is risk and the unknown. Back in 1992, most consumer catalogs had a 92% known source code capture rate. That means that you knew exactly where 92% of your orders and sales originated. You knew which specific mailing, and which specific list caused the order. You could fine tune the mail dates to improve response. You could fine tune the select on a rented list to improve response. When you did those things, you could actually see the impact in your results on the next mailing – but of course, there was a four to six month lag between making those changes, and when you saw the impact.

Everything was measureable. Everything was efficient. Moreover, there was accuracy – there was no guessing, no matchback, and no attribution. You simply knew every facet that was driving your catalog’s success. We long for those days of accuracy. We are averse to moving our businesses into areas where we are taking an unknown risk, and one which we can’t measure with a special metric.

More important, our catalogs revolved around that one number – 3.3, and unfortunately, that number is still with us, and is now growing to 4.0.

Twenty five years ago, 3.3 ounces ruled our lives. We engineered catalogs to maximize the number of pages that we could squeeze in under that threshold. Depending upon your trim size, and paper weight, most catalogers could mail between 56 to 64 pages and manage to be less than 3.3 ounces. We dropped paper weights to add more pages. We worried about the humidity at the printer (really, we did!) the day the book was printed because it might be enough to cause a postal inspector to charge a pound rate penalty.

We pitied mailers that only had enough merchandise to justify 32 pages. We could not envision a reason why anyone would purposely mail a catalog that did not maximize the number of pages you could squeeze in less than 3.3 ounces, because “the postage is free”.   Response rates were so good, and paper relatively cheap, that we never looked at the incremental paper costs. We just saw free postage.

Now, that mentality is going to take on a whole new dimension, as merchants and creative directors are going to think they can add more pages for free. They will now think in terms of maximizing that 4.0 ounce limit, even though we know we could and should trim pages, and plow some of the paper savings into expanded circulation or even just do more on the web. We won’t do that because we hear FREE postage, and we come running. (Try and find one printer that doesn’t think this is a great idea!)

But what about the other expenses? What about the creative expense (and time) in generating 12 more pages? What about the extra paper expense?  Your cost per catalog is still going to increase, and you will try to cover that extra cost with more marginal product, or worse, “branding” pages which are not selling at all. If you already had 12 page additional pages of truly outstanding products, would you have let the “old” pricing format of piece and pound rate for anything over 3.3 ounces have stopped you from mailing them before?  Probably not. You’re being enticed into adding extra pages of products that are marginal at best, simply because of “free” postage. What does the USPS have to lose? They are coming to your mail box each day anyway. So what if the tray is a little heavier if it encourages catalogers to keep mailing?

My biggest fear is the marketing director or member of upper management that is going to demand that the catalog now print on heavier stock. “No more of that 38lb stuff. Let’s go to 60 lb., with a varnished cover. And a gatefold! The sky’s the limit because the postage is free, and you know, postage is the most expense part mailing a catalog.”

We know we should make our catalogs more of a “web driver” but we won’t. That type of catalog is not appropriate for our customers. Your customers may respond to web drivers in your catalog, but not my customers – they still shop my catalog, page by page.

We love the idea of getting those extra 7/10ths of an ounce of free postage because it can be measured. There is no risk here – we can see that our cost per catalog is going from 52¢ to 55¢ each, because even though the postage is FREE, we have those pesky other costs. But no matter, because we know the old rule of thumb that we heard at a DMA Catalog Conference in 2003 that “if we add 20% more pages, sales will go up 40%. Or maybe it was that they will go up 10%? Oh, it’s been so long since I heard that rule, which way does it go? Sales go up by double the percent of space, or half the amount of space? Who cares, the postage is free.”

This leads to another flaw in our thinking, tied to page counts and postage expenses, which is a mentality that our products have to be in the catalog in order to sell. Consequently, we build merchandise assortments around a mythical number of products that could conveniently fit into a 64 page catalog. We don’t think in terms of having more products on our website, and using the catalog as a vehicle to drive people there to do their shopping. We don’t do this because we never think of our websites as better than our catalogs. Our catalogs are what people want to shop.

As a result, our efforts to sell more products on the website – that are not in the catalog –fail, because we don’t support them adequately online.

4.0 ounces will soon become the most dangerous number in the catalog industry. It causes us to think small, and to be restrictive with our product assortment and consequently, with our ability to acquire new customers. You need to think beyond the benefits of free postage associated with 4.0. Just like the other postage gimmicks that the USPS is offering such as a 2% discount for using QR codes, or a discount for using scented paper, this is not “found” money.  There is a real cost (hard cash) and an opportunity cost associated with making changes to your catalog to pursue a postage savings that comes with other expenses, which you would not otherwise have ordinarily pursued.

If you want help determining how your catalog can survive on a smaller page count, and to use the savings to expand circulation and acquire new customers, contact me.  Don’t automatically submit to the siren songs of the printer mermaids. You have a lot riding on how this plays out.   You still have time to adjust your catalog growth strategies and catalog circulation planning for 2017.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235




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The Content and The Experience

This week is the most nerve-wracking of the year for me. Two hundred catalogers and ecommerce companies are about to descend on Concord, NH for Datamann’s annual catalog seminar, which we are hosting for the VT/NH Marketing Group. I feel personally responsible for how this event goes. I have clients to attend to. I have to watch for people that I have asked to say hello. I have to make sure the two guest speakers have everything they need. Although the board and staff of the VT/NH Marketing Group are there to help, I feel I have the fate of everyone’s enjoyment of this event on my shoulders.

And on top of all that, I have to give my presentation, too!

Many of those coming are Datamann clients, but most are not. Catalogers are coming from 25 different states – 19 catalogers from Wisconsin alone! With all due respect to the folks from Duncraft and Company C (two Datamann clients who are headquartered in Concord, NH), all these mailers are not coming to Concord for the natural beauty – not at the end of March.

Most of the attendees are also readers of this blog, and I’m always afraid they are expecting a real “pearl of wisdom” from me in this particular posting, as it sets the stage for what is to come later this week. Oh, the pressure!

Let’s look at what I’m trying to do. The VT/NH Marketing Group is not a national organization. The two states of Vermont and New Hampshire represent less than 1% of the US population.  Datamann is the sole sponsor for this event, and we only have three speakers. We are in Concord, NH (population 42,000), which is not a particularly easy city to get to and aside from being the state capital, is best known as the final resting place of Franklin Pierce (recently ranked 41st in importance out of 43 US presidents).

So, how did we manage to get 200+ attendees at our seminar, more than 75% of them being catalog mailers or ecommerce companies?

The reason is simple – as Kevin Hillstrom said to me, it’s the content and the experience.

Catalogers and ecommerce companies are starved for hard advice. They don’t want three days of platitudes from speakers that are also sponsors, and also vendors.

Yet – that is exactly what I am – speaker, sponsor and vendor.  But I’ve spent the last six months telling you exactly what this seminar was going to be. In all that time, I’ve never promoted Datamann. Most of you are not even sure what Datamann does. I won’t be promoting Datamann at the seminar either. There will be no “seminar discount on a new SQL database”. I have been completely transparent, as has Keven Hillstrom in his blog, describing what we will be presenting and what you will get. We are asking you to work hard and think, damn it!

Success comes in cycles. Mistakes are at the other end of those cycles. In the past few weeks, I have had several very large, well-established catalog companies contact me asking why their sales and response have been trending down and taken a steep drop since the start of 2017.  In each case, the causes have been self-inflicted. One mailer, with a $100 average order, featured a $2,000 product on the cover and opening the spread, as well as cut product density by 10%. What did they expect was going to happen?

Another mailer commented on my recent blog posts about out-of-control creative costs, and stated that their creative director refuses to accept anything less than “perfect photography”, and since there is often not enough in the budget to do new photography to the extent that this director feels meets his high criteria, they constantly reuse old photography. Then they wonder why their sales slide down.

These are tactical mistakes, but they are not limited to “small and new” mailers. They are equally committed by large and mature catalogs.

The bigger issues are the strategic mistakes catalogs make, or the strategic opportunities they allow to slip away. Simple tactics like “hyper-geotargeting” and “personalization in emails” are not going to save a sinking ship. That’s why our content – Kevin’s, Frank’s and my presentation – focuses on the hard choices that you make that have long term implications to the survival of your business. That’s the content.

The experience is perhaps less obvious. One of our attendees this week is coming from California. He emailed me last week telling me that he had attended the eTail West conference earlier this month and that it was a “vendor cesspool”.   I can’t speak to the veracity of that statement, but we’ve all been to seminars and conferences where it seems like the vendors are everywhere. Every speaker tells you that they, and they alone, can “transform the enterprise with a new disruptive technology”.  Yet, not one of them understands the core skills required to mail a catalog.

I purposely put the attention on the attendees at our seminar, not a long list of sponsors. As the sole sponsor, I have no conflicting objectives with which to contend.

I give each speaker as much time as they want to give you more than just a quick overview. As Frank Oliver said, “An hour is never really enough, is it?” We have scheduled plenty of time throughout the day for you to meet, mingle and network with your catalog peers.

If you are coming to Concord this week, enjoy the content and the experience. Please say hello, and let me know what we can do to make next year’s seminar even better.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



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Time For Questions

With just three weeks to go before our catalog seminar in Concord, NH on catalog metrics, I’m happy to announce that we have over 200 registrations, and the conference hotel is sold-out (but there are other hotels nearby).  I keep getting notes and emails from attendees expressing how much they are looking forward to Kevin Hillstrom’s business simulation.

But before Kevin presents his simulation, I’ll be presenting my annual update on the present status of the catalog industry and my take on catalog metrics. Each year, I start out by asking for a show of hands to reveal how many of the companies in attendance grew the prior year by more than 10%, then 5%, then 1%.

Last year there were only a few that had grown by more than 5%. There is growth out there, among certain retailers. People are still buying stuff. So why is there such little growth among most catalogs?

Let’s forget about the co-ops for a minute and whether they are good or bad, dying or growing. Let’s just focus on one thing – there is not much prospecting for new customers going on at most catalog companies.   Why?

Before I answer that, let me share with you a brief story.  In the early 1990s while working as the catalog marketing and circulation guy at Brookstone, the company hired a new CEO who had no catalog experience.   The company was in rough shape, but the drain on our financial success was not the catalog, it was the 200+ stores. The new CEO turned his attention on the stores because that was the biggest part (80%) of the company, and because the catalog was making plan.

Then one day, my boss, the VP of Marketing hurt his back and was out for two weeks. During those two weeks, every time someone had a question about the “financials” on the catalog, they came to me. One day the CEO called me into his office to ask why list rental income was down.

This was the income we derived from renting our list to other mailers. In the company I had worked at before Brookstone, we did not actively promote the rental of our file. We exchanged a great deal, but had limited rentals. Upper management at that company had “strategic reasons” for this. So, when I got to Brookstone, I continued this “laissez faire” approach to list rental income.

At Brookstone, it was very unusual for the CEO to be quizzing a manager on a specific line item. However, because this CEO had no mail order experience, I thought he would appreciate an explanation from me on my “strategy” towards list rental income, and the fact that I had no control over list rental income, as it depended on other companies using our list, which was dependent on their circulation plans.

Big mistake. HUGE mistake.

For a guy that knew nothing about catalogs and mail order, he started to ask some pretty probing questions. That’s why he was CEO. He knew that Millard Group, located right across the street from Brookstone in Peterborough, NH, was our list manager. “Put some pressure on those guys over at Millard to proactively sell our list. Do some promotions. Get the word out in the industry that you are ready to deal. Change the price. Do whatever you have to do, but get that income up. YOU control and YOU are responsible for this line item – don’t blame it on other mailers.”

To that CEO’s credit – whose name was Hank Kaminstein – he never raised his voice at me, never uttered a swear word, never spoke to me in a sarcastic or demeaning way. Instead, he taught me the value of taking action.

That is what we are going to focus on in three weeks at the seminar – taking action. You wanted to learn about which catalog and ecommerce metrics you need to know and use to grow your business. You wanted to know how merchandise analysis could help you grow. But in reality, you need to see that metrics really don’t help you if you are unwilling to change, and unwilling to take action.

To answer my original question – there is so little prospecting for new customers because you won’t take action and you don’t want to change the way you acquire customers. Carpet bombing with prospect catalogs with names sourced from the co-ops is not working to the degree it used to, but you are reluctant to try other options. Hopefully by the time you leave our seminar, you will have the ammunition you need to impart that sense of urgency for change at your company.

There are four parts to our seminar – my presentation, Kevin’s business simulation, Frank Oliver’s presentation on merchandise analysis (which he has been hinting will include something on “merchandise warfare”), and our closing Q&A session, which in years past could have lasted twice and long, and we still would not have gotten to all the questions.

So, if you are registered to attend, start thinking about your questions for Kevin, Frank and me. If you send them to me before the seminar, they will get priority at that session. I’ve already had a few submitted, which I will share:

One for Frank – My boss keeps telling me that our merchandise needs to be a “curated collection”.  What did catalog merchants do before they became the equivalent of a museum curator?

One for Kevin – A while back, you asked in your blog if it was better to have 100 potential customers that were “engaged” with the brand, but who had not ordered, or one customer that had placed an order. What is the answer for my company?

If you have not already registered for the seminar, click here to visit the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website.

Registration costs for this all day event:

  • $135 for VT/NH Marketing Group members
  • $200 for non-members
  • Registrations are accepted until March 28, 2017

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



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I Get It, They Don’t

Who in your company “gets it” and who doesn’t? More important, who in your company is never going to “get it” with regards to how their work must evolve to keep pace with the changes our industry is facing?

Years ago, I sat through a day-long meeting for a client that wanted to make a major creative overhaul to their catalog. It was a hard goods catalog (home furnishings and products for around the home), that had a fairly basic design.

The meeting was tedious for me. The “creative” staff, who were overly polite to one another and democratic, listened to everyone’s idea, and did not offer judgment (traits I have been slow to master). They discussed every little nuance of the existing catalog design.

The head of the Creative Department was doing a good job getting everyone to understand that they had become too comfortable in their work, and that change was needed. They came up with a long list of changes they were going to make, some of which the customer would never notice, some of which were a major departure from the way the book presently looked. All of these creative changes were intended to drive response.

Then it happened.

At the very end of the meeting, the Art Director, the person who would actually be making the changes in the catalog, said “Well, what about the gutter line? Is that staying?”

This catalog had an ultra-thin line that ran up either side of the gutter (the center of the spread where the two pages meet), about a 1/8th inch from the edge of the gutter. It was a design element that someone had inserted years before, for no apparent reason. It was not important.

But the fact that the Art Director still thought she needed to ask permission to do away with this trivial design element showed how little she understood of what had happened that day. It showed either how untalented she was, or how insecure she was in actually making changes.

I bring this up because last week a subscriber to this blog told me that he would not be coming to our seminar in March because he “gets it”. But, he was encouraging his boss and several other members of upper management to attend because “they need your medicine”. “I get it, they don’t”.

The medicine that I have been dispensing in this blog, and that my co-presenters – Kevin Hillstrom and Frank Oliver – will be dispensing on March 30 at Datamann’s seminar is that the catalog industry has fundamentally changed, and you have to change too.

I had another email recently from a company CEO commenting that one of his key staff people – a person that could significantly help bring some much needed change to their company – was not working out as well as they had originally hoped, and that he was a “work in progress”.

Numerous times I’ve had members of upper management at companies tell me that they plan to do some new initiative – launch a new catalog, introduce a new product category – and they tell me that their existing staff is just not up to it. “They can’t think creatively” or “they are not very strategic”. So, upper management brings in someone new, who knows nothing about the company, but who holds the promise of “thinking outside the box”.

In my 30 years of experience, I have found that the existing staff at most companies had the talent, had the initiative and had the strategic view, but those talents were hidden from upper management because management had slapped down those staff members in the past every time the staff had dared raised that hand to propose a change. We are, at times, our own worst enemies.

I will confess that earlier in my career, I was not good at “brainstorming” sessions, as I tended to be the one who would say “That’s a stupid idea”. I like to think I’ve gotten better in that area, although as a consultant, I walk a thin line between not wanting to insult a client vs. not wanting the client to go off on some wild scheme that you know will lead to disappointment and disaster.

But, if that type of “slap down” environment exists within your company – no matter how subtle and nuanced it might be – then your staff probably is NOT going to rise to the occasion and help you evolve. It isn’t that they don’t want to – they just aren’t sure that you really mean it. They suspect that deep down inside, YOU are the one that doesn’t want to change.

Going back to the Art Director with the question on the gutter line, I don’t fault her for asking that question. I knew the players in that meeting. I knew that the Creative Director that was trying so hard to appear magnanimous and open-minded in that meeting would just as quickly tell the Art Director, when everyone else was gone, to design the book the way he instructed.

Here’s an exercise for you: how many established catalog companies, ones that have been around for more than 25 years, can you think of that have re-invented themselves, and turned their business around? It’s probably a pretty short list. It’s tough for any company – regardless of industry – to reinvent themselves.

There really is something to be said for new companies simply because they have less baggage, and new ideas flow more freely. That is just the way of it. That’s why we are not still driving Packards, Ramblers and Pontiacs. Some companies just don’t evolve.

But we can’t all work for new companies, can we? We have to make the changes needed where we are. We need to go beyond discussions about “gutter lines” and focus on the catalog growth strategies that really matter, and that will move the needle. Those are the things we will be discussing on March 30th.

So, if you “get it”, but your boss or your staff don’t, send them to our seminar on March 30.


Our seminar last year sold out a full month before the event, so please plan on registering early. Seating will again be limited.

To register for the seminar, click here to visit the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website.

Registration costs for this all day event:

  • $135 for VT/NH Marketing Group members
  • $200 for non-members
  • Registrations are accepted until March 28, 2017

The Marriott Courtyard/Grappone Conference Center, Concord, NH is located at 70 Constitution Ave in Concord, NH – just north of the intersection of I-89 and I-93. Special room rates of $119 are available for attendees of the seminar for the night of March 29, if you book your room with the Marriott by March 1, 2017. You must mention your attendance at the seminar to receive the special rates, or reserve your room directly at this special link: http://cwp.marriott.com/mhtcn/vtnhmarketinggroup/

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235





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