The Board

The Board of Directors. The owner. Upper management.   No matter where you work, you have to deal with one of these three factions, and sometimes all three.

More and more I’m hearing from clients and other catalog mailers that their Board of Directors/owner is questioning the need for a catalog. Most of the requests are reasonable, asking the catalog staff to conduct hold-out tests, reduce circulation by eliminating “unprofitable circulation”, and examine ways to reduce costs, and potentially live without a catalog, or at least, not mail as many.

In several cases, the requests are more draconian. In two instances, the catalog staff has been flat out ordered to cut circulation by 30% or 50%, while still maintaining current sales. In one case, the “Board” has decided to completely eliminate all prospecting with the catalog, and move all new customer acquisition to the web.

What’s driving this?  Many of these people are not trained catalogers, so our first impulse is to dismiss their requests as being uninformed good intentions. I’m also not naïve enough to think that all these owners, board members, and upper management are reading this blog and absorbing my comments about the future of catalogs.

No, they don’t have to read this blog, and they don’t have to be professional catalogers, to know what is happening. They are aware of what is going on around them. They see and read about all the major retailers having problems. They know from their own experiences ordering products online as general consumers, whether with Amazon or some other vehicle. They surmise what is happening even without the specific proof for the individual company on whose board they serve, or which they may own. And they are looking at the future.

One common thread I see is that no matter how professional, diligent and talented the staff are at many of these catalog companies, there is a general assumption among the “Board/owners” that the staff doesn’t know what they are doing, or at least not looking to the future.

Years ago, there was a big management change at Brookstone. Our sales at the time were 80% retail, 20% mail order, but because of the way the company’s accounting was done, the catalog represented 50% of the company profits. This put me, the only “catalog guy” left after all the management changes, in a very visible spot. One day, I was asked to explain to the new upper management team, all of whom were “retailers”, how catalog circulation worked.

This was before PowerPoint, so I remember drawing everything out on the white board in the Board room. In my opinion, the basic concept of how to determine which segments of names that should get mailed hasn’t changed that much in 40 years. I learned circulation planning from Bill Knowles at Potpourri in the mid-1980’s, and still use the same basic principles today.

If you had been an outsider at my presentation that day at Brookstone, you would have thought western civilization was going to end. These “retail” guys were second guessing everything I presented. They told me my basic concept of determining the cost per new customer/order was totally flawed, although none of them had alternatives. They were amazed that we exchanged names with our closest competitors (Are you crazy? You give our best customers to Sharper Image? We’ll put a stop to that!), and that our best house file segments generated less than a 10% response.

You’ve all been in similar situations. You do know what is going on, and you are professionally running the catalog and your website. Sure, you don’t have 100% response rates (who does?), but let’s face it, it’s tough to explain catalog reality to people who are non-catalogers, and who “don’t speak the language”.  Fortunately, in my case, the CFO at Brookstone, who was a hold-over from the prior administration, jumped into the discussion and helped bail me out that day.

I learned many things that day, as well as in many, many similar presentations over the years on how to explain to the Board, the owner or upper management how the catalog works, and why certain things work and others don’t.

One thing I always do is use a current non-catalog example of an industry changing. Today, I point to the auto industry, specifically, The Ford Motor Company. In May, Ford replaced their CEO, in part because the Board felt that the existing CEO was not focused enough on moving the company toward electric and self-driving cars.

But, here is the flip-side to what is happening at Ford. Last week’s 3rd quarter earnings showed a 63% profit increase, which was fueled by sales of F-series pick-up trucks, the best-selling vehicle in America since 1977. It is a reminder that despite all the talk of innovation, driverless cars, and electric vehicles, Detroit is still a truck town. The billions of dollars in revenue generated by truck and SUV sales are what enable research in these other areas. Further, Ford, and the other automakers, can’t just throw a switch and walk away from selling big trucks, which are what consumers in 2017 still want.

The same applies to your catalog. Your customers may be moving more online. Your ability to prospect with your catalog may be dramatically reduced because of declines within the co-ops. There are a whole host of reasons why you need to be looking at alternatives to your catalog. But keep in mind, and make sure your Board/ owner/ upper management are aware that you can’t just flip a switch and close down your catalog, and expect to replace all those sales with more Facebook ads, not in 2018 anyway. It is an evolutionary step which must occur over time to protect existing sales and profit.

If you are in a similar situation with your Board/ owner, and need someone to jump in and help add another voice to the conversation, you can always give me a call, and I’ll be happy to meet with them. This discussion is different at every company – there is no established “argument” for either keeping or not keeping a catalog going. But I can help you establish realistically expectations for changes to the status quo that won’t sacrifice sales and survivability in the long run.

As an added bonus, if you are located within driving distance of my home in New Hampshire, I’ll even come in my Ford F-150.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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Spring 2017 Catalog Observations

Don’t Assume:

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

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

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

Better Paper:

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

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

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

Adding Editorial Pages, B&H

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More observations to follow….

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 2

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

Bill’s 21 Irrefutable Catalog Creative Rules – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rule #12 – Product density is good

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

To be continued – look for Part 3 next week.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

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Are They Really a Web Buyer?

When catalogs first accepted orders over the web, catalogers were mystified as to who these buyers were. I remember going to a conference where the owners of the Music Stand catalog said that whenever they mailed their catalog, web orders increased. People in the audience were literally shaking their heads in disbelief at this revelation.

This was followed by tests by catalogs putting their URL on the front cover, vs. not. Catalogers were afraid that if they encouraged people to order online, it would hurt response. Why? They rationalized that a good catalog shopper would pick up the phone and call in their order right now, but if you encouraged them to order on the web, they would wait until the next time they were sitting at their desk – probably at work – to place their order. This opportunity for procrastination would simply result in too many lost sales, or worse, the customer might have the audacity to search on someone else’s website for the same product.

Of course times have changed.

But there is one stronghold in “old school thinking” to which many of you are holding on to – classifying all buyers that order over the web as being a “web buyer”, and treating them all the same.

Many mailers – and this includes many Datamann clients – segment their database by customers who have mailed or phoned in their order (catalog buyers) from those that have used the internet (web buyers).

But I’ll use myself as an example of a catalog consumer.  I never use my smartphone to shop or browse the internet. I often go to Amazon and eBay when I think of something I want to buy. But even when I’m on my laptop, I rarely “browse” any catalog websites.  I still need a catalog to prompt my attention as a consumer. But, with the exception of the Edward R. Hamilton book catalog, I have not called in or mailed in an order in at least 10 years. I place all my orders with catalog companies online. I still see myself as a classic catalog shopper. But according to most mailers, I’m a web buyer.

Why does this make a difference?

If you are segmenting your file by catalog and web buyers as described above, you have probably found that on a segment by segment, or even name by name basis, the web buyers do not perform as well when mailed a catalog as a similar catalog segment.

But, your matchback – and let’s assume you are doing your matchback fairly and accurately – shows that 70% of your “web buyers” were mailed a catalog within the past 30 days of their online order. Let’s further assume that none of these customers came to your website via PPC, SEO or an affiliate. They simply received your catalog and ordered online.

To me, that makes them a catalog shopper. And if you isolate those names, you will see that they compare very closely in performance when mailed a catalog to the “catalog” names in equal segments.

What should you do?

Let’s not get into a giant discussion of matchback funnels and allocations. Let’s just assume that your matchback process is fair and accurate, and that it is not overstating or understating the impact of the catalog. Therefore, any web buyer that matches a mail file in the matchback process according to your matchback business rules, and clearly has no other online activity associated to it (such as retargeting), should be considered a catalog buyer.

At this point, you can reclassify your database by moving these web buyers into the catalog buyers channel. This will strengthen your circulation planning by combining all of the like performing catalog names together, regardless of which channel their last order occurred. It also isolates the remaining “pure” web buyers – those buyers that found you without aid of a catalog – allowing you to segment and mail them differently in the future.

However, we recommend “flagging” these catalog buyers (or even putting them in their own “channel” on your database) that have previously purchased on the web as their performance, for most mailers, will differ from those that have purely ordered via mail/phone.   You may be able to mail these customers a smaller page catalog, or even flyers in the future, that generate the same profit as mailing them a full size catalog. This becomes part of your catalog circulation testing.

Further, you will probably find that the remaining “pure web buyers” don’t respond to a catalog at all.

The point is that you should segment your customers based on their source (catalog mailing, PPC, SEO), not on the channel in which they order.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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Summer Postcards

This requires a new mindset – one that forces you to change and adapt. If you can’t – or won’t – well…..

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I’ve been receiving a number of new catalogs I’ve never seen before, but the most intriguing pieces of mail that my wife and I have been receiving this summer are postcards and mini-catalogs from various retailers/catalogers.

Are postcards a new concept? Not really – retailers have used them for years to announce special events, like the Annual Tent Sale (free hot dogs and ice cream at Noon, but remember, please don’t park in the road – there is plenty of extra parking behind building number 4 at the far end of the warehouse).

The 2016 crop of postcards is much different. I have received many from pure play websites who are using them to prospect. Yes, prospect with a postcard. They make no effort to show you a huge assortment of products. They don’t have a dot-whack proclaiming “visit our website and see our 300 new products”. They simply showcase a handful of products with the implied understanding that a wider assortment exists on-line. That “.com” that is part of their name is the clue that I need to go to their website to order since there is no phone number or order form attached.

Hayneedle-Postcard

Wayfair-Postcard

Both of these examples were more than a simple front and back postcard; they were multi-panel pieces, sealed with printer’s glue – but the average consumer would say these were a postcard.

The ultimate example of a postcard to drive traffic to a website is the one below from Amazon. We are Amazon Prime members, so we obviously know the site. But Amazon wanted to make absolutely certain that my wife knew that Amazon sold “fashion”.

Amazon-Fashion-PC-Front

Amazon-Fashion-PC-Back

My wife has also been receiving many “mini-catalogs”, which I define as being slim-jim in dimension, but having only 4 to 8 pages. Again, these pieces don’t show a huge assortment. But if you are already familiar with the brand, as she is with Cabela’s (below), she just needs a reminder to check out their website, or increasingly, their mobile site.

Cabela's-Mini-Front

I’ve seen these types of postcards perform well for Datamann clients. But in general, I see them mailed to the house file only; both prior catalog buyers and prior internet buyers.

Most of you have already determined that it is pointless to mail your catalog to customers who have purchased your goods on Amazon, as these buyers simply don’t respond. But, you will find it is an increasingly losing battle when you mail your catalog to buyers that came to your site via SEO, PPC, etc., as their response is so much lower than a traditional “catalog” buyer.  These are not catalog buyers. They will not respond like catalog buyers.  In my opinion, these are the buyers to whom you should be sending a postcard reminding them of your existence.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating – most of you are reluctant to do this because:

  • You believe you can “win-over” the web shopper by sending them your catalog;
  • You don’t think your website is as strong as your catalog – and you are probably correct, as many of you still have weak websites;
  • You still have that mentality that the postage for a postcard or mini-catalog is so high, why not send a catalog with, say 24 or even 48 pages.

Sixteen years ago, when my now teenage son was born, I took tons of photographs of him and framed them for hanging in our house. I bought many of the frames from the catalog below, which also has a “.com” as part of its name.  For years, I continued to get monthly catalogs from them, but they slowly diminished in quantity to where I was not receiving any by around 2012.

Picture-Frames-.com-Cover

Then last year, I went online, and bought a new frame for a special photo. And BANG – I started getting a 76 page catalog from them every month. And the ironic thing is – there are not a lot of “new” products in the world of picture frames. I don’t need to keep getting this catalog every month – I don’t think about replacing my existing picture frames with new ones. Plus, they can see from past purchases, I have only purchased a few different styles of frames – so why keep sending me this 76 page catalog? Well, the reason is that I’m sure their RFM segmentation indicates it is still profitable to mail me and the other 2,876 names in my RFM segment. But could it be even more profitable if they mailed me a postcard every other month?

The biggest problem I see with most of you testing a postcard or mini-catalog is inertia. You can’t find the time to create a small postcard, so you mail a 48 page catalog instead.

2016 is half over. Set up a few alternative catalog circulation tests before the year is out to determine how you can reduce your dependence on full catalogs. Segment the known catalog buyers from the known internet buyers and mail them differently. Have some hold out panels too. But test something!

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

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Bill’s 8 “Irrefutable” Rules for Catalog Covers

I usually don’t write articles that offer tips, like the “five ways to increase email response this holiday”. But since this is a vacation week for many of you, I wanted to do something different.

I’m going to address a question about catalog covers posed by a client two weeks ago after my posting on merchandise analysis. Yes, there are a ton of problems facing catalogs – but you still have to drive response as best you can, and so many of you miss the opportunity to do that with your covers.

The client’s question was this: “We’ve been trying to plan and analyze our catalog cover products and the performance impact they have on the entire mailing. Obviously there are other factors involved with a catalog’s success, but we’ve been putting together data to try and draw conclusions on the best cover items for each of our catalogs. Do you have any insights on the best metrics to use to gauge cover item performance?”

Oh, I love it when readers ask me questions like this! I’ve spent 25 years critiquing catalog covers, and I believe that most mailers get it all wrong with covers, largely because they put no effort into them. With many of you racing the clock to get your fall and holiday catalogs completed, here are my eight irrefutable rules for having a responsive cover.

  1. Stop treating the cover as an after-thought: I know that in most companies, the decision as to what product goes on the cover is made at the last minute, literally as the print files are due at the printer. Moreover, companies that wait until the last minute usually end up picking cover items simply on the basis of those products for which they have a good photo. They don’t put enough thought or effort into the process, and certainly have no “strategy” to use the cover to drive sales.   The best catalogs I’ve worked with pick the cover items at the time of pagination, and the photographers produce specific “cover” shots of the product/products.
  1. Stop wasting time on meaningless “creative” cover tests: I’ve seen hundreds of cover tests over the years, but they are almost always aimed at testing “creative” treatments on the cover, not product. Not only are these tests a huge waste of everyone’s time, but they almost never result in a difference in response between the two “creative versions”. When I worked at Brookstone, our creative director was absolutely convinced that changing the name of the Brookstone catalog from Hard-To-Find Tools to Brookstone at Home would have a huge impact on response – yet it made no difference. And we spent days arguing, constructing and fine-tuning this!

Brookstone-At-Home-Test

  1. If you are going to test covers, think about the long term: Look at the two covers below from Paragon. They were obviously testing whether a model made a difference to response. I don’t know the outcome of the test, but since I received subsequent Paragon mailings with models on the cover, my guess is that they proved – for their customers – that having a model helped response. Was it worth the test? Probably. Why? Because the result was actionable, and was something that could be repeated.

Paragon-Covers

So often I see elaborate cover tests which produce results that are meaningless, because they can’t be repeated in the future.

  1. Covers should feature and focus on products: That statement seems so obvious, but go back to Rule #1 – most cover products are picked on the basis of those for which you have a good photo. Covers are tough to merchandize, especially when you are mailing monthly. But the products selected should be a seasonally appropriate reflection of what is in the catalog – it is your best chance to get the customer inside the book. The inclination is to always pick “safe” products, those for which you have strong sales records, and which will not pose an inventory problem. However, playing it safe invariably leads to boring covers. I believe that cover items should include a mix of existing and new products, especially those for which you have an exclusive. And no matter what you pick for the current cover, and no matter how well it does, remember that if you are mailing monthly, you have the chance to do it all over again in 30 days.

And let’s be frank, if you are an iconic brand like LL Bean, you can get away with putting a painting of a moose or Christmas tree on the cover. Most of you don’t have that luxury. You are not a lifestyle brand – your catalog exists to sell stuff. So don’t go and get artsy – focus on product!

  1. Put your best products in the hot spots – front and back covers: From a performance standpoint, if you pick the right product, you should see sales of that item be 200% higher than if it were not on the cover, and the other products on the spread where the cover item appears should perform about 20% to 50% higher. Now you see the importance of spending tome on getting your cover products rights, and why you shouldn’t wait until the last minute to think about them.

I’m sure you all have a story like this. My boss at Brookstone was out the day we needed to pick a cover product for the main drop of the Holiday catalog. We had waited to the last minute. The head merchant was gone too. The Creative Director came to me. We had introduced a personalized crock in the summer catalog that was doing very well – so I picked that. It sold great. As a matter of fact, it sold too well. Being a piece of pottery, it needed to be “fired” in a kiln. Being personalized, each one had to be individually made. Plus, the same vendor was selling to Plow & Hearth, Sporty’s and Improvements – all of which had featured the crock in their holiday catalogs as well. It took months to get caught up on manufacturing and shipping these things out to some very annoyed customers. As I recall, I was not allowed to pick cover items after that.

  1. When less is better: Most hard goods mailers routinely test a single product vs. several products on the cover. The thought behind having multiple products is that it shows the depth of your product assortment.  However, most of the testing I’ve seen indicates that a single product cover is always stronger. That then raises the question – how do I pick that right/best single product for the cover? The rule of thumb I use is this – a good cover product  should be seasonally appropriate, should be close to your average order in price (if your AO is $75, the best cover items will be $65 to $85), be visually appealing, and have some unique feature that you can call out on the cover.  I also believe that the cover item should be repeated on the inside front spread (pages 2/3).
  1. Have different covers for House and Prospects: You are missing a huge opportunity if you are not creating separate covers for prospects and your existing customers. The prospect covers should feature existing products which have proven popular with other first time buyers. But don’t make the mistake of using the same product repeatedly because the vast majority of your prospects have received your catalog numerous times before. Existing customers want to see new products – the shiny new object. The cover product to your house file should have a higher price point than the one to the prospect lists – but focus more on having a “compelling” product than one at the “right” price.
  1. Mix it up: My last rule for covers – if you change your cover strategy to be something different from what it is now, don’t allow yourself to fall into a rut. If you decide on doing single product covers – mix it up and every fourth cover, have multiple products. If you decide to always use a model on the cover, every fifth cover should have no model. Don’t become predictable. Make your customer say “Oh, I like this catalog. I wonder what’s new?”

These rules are irrefutable because they have been proven out numerous times, and they are simply common sense. They drive response, and that is what you all need 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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