Catalog Anxiety

Are you tired of the flood of articles boasting “five tips for beating Amazon this year”? If so, I’ve got a treat for you – something that will actually make a difference.

The past few weeks have been very interesting. At a time of year when most of you are rounding third and heading toward home plate with the end of another exhausting Christmas season, readers (just like you) have been sending me many comments, questions and observations. Mostly questions concerning what to do with their business.  And I sense there is a lot of anxiety out there.

One reader lamented that he just could not figure out how to comply with Kevin Hillstrom’s advice to load up on new buyers in September and October, and get them to make second purchases in November and December (his peak season), because his prospects just don’t purchase his kind of products prior to the peak season.

One reader complained that on Cyber Monday, he received five emails from Plow & Hearth (even calling it insane), but then acknowledged that his company had sent out three emails. Do you really think the consumer is drawing a distinction between companies that send 3 vs 5 emails?

Another reader sought advice on how to handle vendors that would not allow the mailer to sell their products on 3rd party marketplaces like Amazon, but those same vendors were all too happy to have the mailer advertise for them in their catalog, and theoretically drive traffic to Amazon anyway, where that vendor is selling under their own banner.

Another reader, who knows my dislike of the co-ops, shared that he had received mailings from at least five different catalogers using old decoy names of his (five+ years of no purchases, if ever).  He commented “I no longer track where they were initially seeded because I stopped seeing them mailed to years ago, but now I’m alarmed every time one shows up in my mail.”

One reader responded to my posting last week on the importance of new products over fancy ad/branding campaigns with this comment: “I received an email barrage of Black Friday deals, extended deadlines and truly desperate marketing attempts on Cyber Monday.  Your blog hit the nail on the head!  Mailers/ecommerce sites must have unique products, or die. Customers are not stupid, so merchants need to work harder or lose sales.”

To recap those calls and emails:

  • You find it tough to acquire new customers outside of your peak season;
  • You think it is insane that one mailer sent five emails in one day, but you sent three yourself;
  • Your product suppliers are selling their products on Amazon, but don’t allow you to do the same;
  • You have suspected for a while that the co-ops were dying, but now you have proof that they are padding their models with ancient names;
  • You realize that you have to have unique products to survive.

Of all these issues, I see the need for unique products to be the most important. Nothing – I repeat – nothing else can keep the wolves away. If you have unique products (that have quality, and meet your customer’s needs), then it will be almost impossible for anyone to knock you out. When the co-ops finally roll over and disappear, if you have unique products, new customers will still find you (albeit, maybe not with a catalog).

That brings me to the last letter from a reader, which came in last week. I share it with you because it raises an issue lost in today’s online environment, which is that not only do you have to have unique products, but you have to know how to position them, market them and sell them:

“We are looking for someone who can help us with product marketing – specifically, giving a selection of our products a clear identity/brand/name. We sell a lot of innovative and solution centric homewares but, and especially where we buy direct in Asia, we often don’t strengthen the products by marketing them well. We sell them well off the page with good copy and imagery that although maybe could be improved, does the job well.”

The reader then went onto give an example from a competitor’s catalog (which I’m not going to share to protect the innocent), that this reader felt did a great job of positioning the product with a strong product name (a name that enhanced its sale-ability), great benefits, and basically created a total “reason for buying the product from them”. He realized that the vendor supplying the product may have contributed to some of that positioning, but felt that the competitor’s catalog itself had discovered and developed a constant ability to position sometimes mundane products in such a way as to compel the customer to buy one.

Going back to last week’s posting (click here), I don’t believe that fancy ad and branding campaigns alone are enough to drive sales and acquire customers. You have to have the unique products to back that advertising up. However, even unique products still need to be sold.

Whose responsibility is this? Most people would think it is the responsibility of the copywriter and the creative team. I disagree. To me, it is the responsibility of the buyer, the merchant that said “this product is so good, it belongs in the catalog”.

That applies to high-end women’s apparel, or low-end home furnishings. Here’s why – the laws of buying have changed. The giant “marketplaces” (Amazon, Wayfair, Wal-Mart, eBay) carry everything, or at least, everything that is not unique to someone like you. As one reader said, “Customers are not stupid, so merchants need to work harder or lose sales.” That means that not only must you have the unique products, but you need to have the story in mind as to why your “little black dress” is the best one on the market.

It is tough – nay, sometimes impossible – to find or develop truly new, “break-through” products. Stop and think – when was the last time your catalog had a truly great “break-through” product, one that rocked the sales chart? In apparel, most of you just play around with new color palettes. In hard goods (like house wares), you slap your name on the product and think “Everyone is going to want one of these now because it has our logo, and is unique to us”.  But that is not breakthrough, nor is it unique – and you know it.

However, making incremental changes to existing products – making them better and different – can be as productive as that once-a-decade breakthrough product. Have a great Christmas stocking to hang by the chimney? Why not add solar powered LED lights that twinkle when the lights are out, so Santa can find it. (OK, so I just found this already exists on Amazon – but you get the idea. You need to innovate, and then sell the innovation).

To stand out, and compete against Amazon – yes, they are probably your biggest competitor no matter what you sell – you still have to sell. If you sell home furnishings, stop showing your products in neutral/sterile home settings that look like North Dakota in March, and which has no appeal at all. If you sell housewares, develop a name for the product beyond what the vendor calls it. It’s not a “comfortable pillow”, it’s “Sleeping Beauty’s Eternal Sleep” pillow. In B2B, it’s not a cart for the surgery room, it’s the “surgeon recommended, most versatile OR cart”.

I have mentioned many times in this blog that I have been driving for more than 40 years, and I’m on my sixth Ford F150. I hate to admit this, but in 1995, I was compelled to buy a new truck simply by an ad I saw in a magazine which featured a new F150 in a shade of green that I had to have. (I’m usually much more practical when it comes to deciding when to replace the current truck). When was the last time that you were so compelled by the imagery you saw in a catalog or on a website, that you bought something which you did not need at the time – that the story behind the product was so strong as to compel you to action? I’m going to bet it does not happen all that often – and that is what we have lost.

Here is the good news – you can compete against everyone out there, including the giant marketplaces. Going back to “old fashioned” direct marketing, that tells a story, sets a tone, creates a compelling argument/ reason / desire for making a purchase is all part of competing. If what you are doing now in terms of how you position product is not working, you must do something different.  Give it a try in 2018.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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This one hits home, mainly because I feel like I’m writing an obituary.

I learned earlier this week that Country Curtains, a long-time stalwart of the catalog industry in New England, is most likely closing by the end of the year. Click here for details from a story in the local news: Berkshire Eagle News.

Country Curtains was my client for many years when I worked for Millard Group. The folks that ran the company back then for the Fitzpatrick family – the founders and owners of the company – always treated me with the greatest respect whenever I visited. They were always so polite and circumspect, and were some of the few clients that always wore a tie and jacket to meetings, which I reciprocated. I appreciated their courtesy.

The company is located in a modern building in a tiny town in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The furnishings inside have a country look and charm, although I must say, the wooden chairs around their conference table must have come from the Salem Witch trials – they were the most uncomfortable things to sit on.

And now they are gone.  The newspaper account reports that they were losing millions over the past few years, and that they could not keep up with online competition. I’m sure that is part of the story, as are many things unique to the management of the company that we will never know about. Two members of their Board of Directors – Peter Rice, founder of Plow & Hearth and Ben Perez, former owner of the Millard Group, were two of my catalog mentors, and were both talented catalogers. I’m sure they found the decision to recommend closing the company a bitter pill to swallow.

From the sounds of it, every venture capital company and catalog conglomerate in the industry has inspected Country Curtains recently as a potential acquisition. But after kicking the tires, no one saw any – or enough – value in the company to acquire it. No amount of postage savings, retargeting, co-op optimization, personal printing, or enhanced branding was going to turn this situation around. That’s a sobering reflection on the state of the catalog industry.

Country Curtains tried several times over the years to shed their “country” look and develop a more modern, fashionable catalog. The first was about 15 years ago with a catalog called Jane, an urbane version of the core catalog. The most recent was Prospect and Vine, which only mailed once a few years ago. Similar to the core catalog, these other titles always stuck to curtains and other “window treatments”, just with a more contemporary look. They dabbled with a few home décor items, but never enough to get their feet wet.

Country as a decorating theme died out years ago. One could argue that Country Curtains was slow to adapt to that decorating change. One could argue that they were slow to adopt the same shipping speed as  3 Day Blinds and other online competitors.

But, as an outsider looking in, I see their biggest problem as having never developed a business beyond curtains. They knew curtains, they stuck with them. Some of the designs and patterns where in the book for years. And as much as the creative team would probably want to argue this point – the catalog never changed creatively. Maybe there is only so much you can do with “window treatments”, just like there is only so much you can do with water bottles in a B2B catalog – but Country Curtains stuck with a design format and product niche too long.

It is sad to see a great catalog title – one that would easily take a premier spot in a “Catalog of Hall of Fame” – disappear and slip beneath the waves. It is equally sad for the individuals whose jobs are impacted by this move, as well as the local economy. Yet, as someone who weathered the closing of the Brookstone headquarters 24 years ago (has really been that long?) and the loss of 100+ jobs with the relocation of our warehouse 1,500 miles away, everyone that was impacted eventually found new employment.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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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 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


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Why You Stink At Merchandising on the Web

This is a critical issue. Can you sell products online without aid of a catalog?

A few weeks ago, a reader sent me an email with this comment: “As an aside, I am somewhat at odds with you about digital.  So often customers will opt out of our emails or print catalogs with the comment – ‘I know what you carry.  If I want it, I will come to your website when I want it.’  But they don’t truly know what we carry.  In each catalog, 40% of our merchandise was not in our last catalog. Those who think they know what we sell are missing out on serendipitous discoveries.  The internet is great for directed search if you know what you are looking for.  But how do you search for something interesting for your aunt and her new housewarming gift when you have no idea what would really be something you haven’t seen before?”

The reader was referring to my previous comments that we need to make our websites stronger than our catalogs, because catalogs alone just aren’t going to cut it anymore. He echoed a similar comment from another reader who recently wrote “I have yet to meet a cataloger selling to the demographic that most do, that is selling things “nice” to have and not necessary to have, that can sell [a significant amount] of anything that is only on the site and is not shown in the catalog.  We have tried it many times.  The sales are just not material.  We have to promote it in the catalog.”

Both of these comments also tie back to my recent comment that just because something does not work with your catalog, doesn’t mean that it will not work for others.

So, let’s address this in parts.

First, we know it is possible to sell products online without aid of a catalog – just look at Amazon. Their sales of $136 billion are not just people buying stuff that they need – there is some browsing going on. A better example would be They have a catalog (which gets a little better with every issue since I gave them a very critical catalog critique in this space a few years ago) which carries less than 1% of their product assortment. Their catalog is truly meant to get you to the site, where you’ll wander around looking for things for your home.

But both of these companies – and hundreds of other sites – have built their “brand” around being the source for “something”. In Amazon’s case, the “something” is everything.  For, it’s everything for home renovations. So, if you are a savvy consumer, and you get the catalog, you know it is just a sampling of what they have on-line.

But the challenges to this concept I receive are mostly from companies with gift or hard goods catalogs. They fail to realize that what is needed is a different approach to their website, not a different approach to their catalog. They will go to great lengths to be great catalogers – doing everything right from an “A Team” catalog perspective. They have a high percentage of new products. They are taking advantage of every postal discount they can. They are extremely efficient in cranking out each new catalog because they are unencumbered by any need to do anything different. They don’t want to do anything different. They believe their customers want that sense of “serendipitous discoveries”.

But what is really happening? I get so tired of saying this, but your great strategy of being efficient, regardless of the percentage of new products you have, is boring to the customer.

The first reader mentioned above, with the customers who say “I know what you have”, features a new and often very unusual product on the front cover of every catalog. I assume that upper management at this company thinks this is a great strategy as it gets the consumer to look inside, and to always be expecting something different. But the “overall theme” for the covers, and the overall pagination of the book itself is too repetitious – it has not changed, literally, in years. Yes, I understand the products change, but the “look” doesn’t change. They have put their customers to sleep. Their customers tell them they know what is in the catalog because in the customer’s mind, they do know. Of course, they don’t know specifically what is there, but they know this company sells “widgets” (I don’t want to use the actual product category, as I don’t want to identify this reader or catalog).

Further, the cataloger has given their customer NOTHING truly new to catch their attention.  In my opinion, it is a perfect example of catalog narcissism, because although the cataloger believes it changes all the time, the customer/consumer thinks that it never changes.

What does this have to do with selling products online that are not in the catalog? EVERYTHING. Here’s why: I think the problem with most catalogs is that they are lousy web merchants. When they first started selling online, the “web-only” products were the overstocks and lousy products that never sold in the catalog, so they stuck them on the web to clear out the inventory, where they sold no better. Thus, these catalogers have a basic sense that web-only products are dogs.

But, in the past few years, they have created web merchant positions. They usually assign “web merchandising” to a junior person, and give the person no support, no PPC funds, and would never think of putting new products on the web first. (I’ve had clients tell me they hold all new products to introduce in the catalog, so that the catalog is “special” to the customer.) Worse, due to internal organizational structures, I know that in some companies the catalog merchants can “steal” web-only merchandise, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Consequently, it becomes self-fulling that if you only keep the good stuff in the catalog, no one is going to think of going to your website to see what’s new, or if there is anything else. Old school thinking is killing most catalogs, and most of those old-school practitioners seem unaware that the front of the ship has slipped beneath the waves.

I love having Frank Oliver as a merchandise consultant now, someone I can turn to with just these sorts of questions. Frank of course agrees that catalogers need to see that extra web presentations can “fill out” the line of products, especially if you want to show category authority. A pedal-to-the-metal merchant like Frank sees web-only products as a huge testing lab. Products destined for the catalog always have a formal “vetting” process, which vary by cataloger, but tend to slow the introduction of new products, giving online-only companies an edge at introducing new products. On the web, a merchant like Frank can test 20 new products where as in the catalog he might have only tested 5.  “Yes, for most catalogers, web-only products do not sell in the volumes of on-page items, but there must be a “multiplier”. When I test 20 web-only products and pick the best five to run on-page next season, you start to build a “how much better” factor for on-page exposure. Small bets start to yield large returns in future catalog performance.”

What is the ultimate answer? We know products sell online without a catalog, it works for hundreds of companies. Can it work for “nice to have” products vs. “must have” products? Yes, if the consumer recognizes a reason to go to your website to see that bigger assortment. Think of it this way – your local supermarket puts an FSI is the weekly newspaper – you remember newspapers, right? It advertises what is on sale. Many shoppers plan their trip to the store with these specials in mind. But it is not a comprehensive list of everything in the store. They know when you get there you will browse and you will be influenced by endcap displays and POS merchandising. The FSI is just to get the customer to the store where the “discovery” takes place.

Most of you are never going to create that sense of discovery with your website, or give the customer a reason to go beyond your catalog. So, you are correct, in your case, the product has to be in the catalog to sell.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

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Whose Call Is This – the CEO, Marketing or Merchandise?

Here was the question – “I’m a merchant, battling what our marketers do. In my opinion, catalog marketing optimization has its downsides, namely, blindly going where the response rates lie.  As more money is spent on the catalog, the optimization tactics our marketing department use quickly become our brand face.  Our catalog promotes an outdoor lifestyle, but because of always chasing response, our top sales drivers are more likely to be a turtleneck than a tent.  What can I as the merchant do, because I see this direction as ultimately destroying what originally made our company different?”

This question was from a reader of this blog, which I used in the Q&A portion of our catalog seminar in March. I asked Frank Oliver, our “merchant” at the seminar, to address the question. I had not shared the question with Frank previously.

As a merchant, it would have been easy for him to agree with this question, and put all the blame on marketing, as the reader who posed the question had done. But after a slight pause to consider his response, Frank replied “So, this merchant is complaining that one set of products is selling better than another, and is blaming marketing? This is not a marketing issue. Marketing does not pick what products go in the book. The CEO sets the direction for what products will exemplify the company’s “mission/brand”, and the merchants carry that direction out. Don’t blame marketing for driving response.”

“The optimization tactics our marketing department use quickly become our brand face. I’m a marketer, so I can imagine what tactics the merchant is referring to, namely using the co-ops for prospecting. If marketing instructs the co-ops to provide the most responsive names, and the co-op’s database skews towards an older consumer (let’s say 55+), then this merchant’s logic is that marketing has driven the catalog off its intended course by loading up on customers that don’t belong to the merchant’s vision of the intended customer.

I look at this a little differently. If you didn’t want to go to Chicago, why did you get on the bus bound for Chicago? If you did not want turtlenecks to become the “brand face”, why did you put them in the catalog in the first place? The reader stated that the catalog promotes “an outdoor lifestyle”. If the catalog is doing a decent job of promoting that “lifestyle”, then any product the consumer purchases gives them a connection to that lifestyle. Don’t blame marketing if the products being purchased begin to skew away from an intended or original mission for the company. The products in the catalog or on the website are there because the merchants put them there – and I’ve never met a merchant who did not think that every new product would sell well.

Besides, name a successful catalog or company where the product selection has not evolved over time. Isn’t the purpose of a company to maximize profits for the owners/shareholders? Wouldn’t that dictate that you sell the products that the customer wants, rather the ones which you think they want, or you think they should have? Yes, I know, you are going to point to Apple and quote Steve Jobs who probably said something cool about not selling turtlenecks when you could sell tents. But using this example, if your margins are sound on the turtlenecks, and the customers you acquire on turtlenecks convert to buy other products (like tents) from you, what’s the problem?

Yes, I agree that some marketing tactics can skew the composition of the audience. In the late 1980s when I took over as the marketing guy at Brookstone, I found that our prospecting strategy consisted of always offering a cheap premium (free jackknife or flashlight) with each first-time order. To drive response, the prospecting lists acquired from our rental/exchange partners (this was before the co-ops) were their “sale” buyers. All this strategy did was attract the pond-scum from everyone else’s files that wanted a free jackknife. So, this is not a new concept.

Ten years ago, the concept that the co-ops were skewing the composition of the customer base may not have been as well understood, or as evident, as my Brookstone model. But everyone in cataloging today should understand that the co-ops are skewing the composition of your buyers, certainly toward an older consumer. Can they also be skewed toward a propensity to purchase one type of product over another – certainly.  If a modeler at one of the co-ops knows that by providing you one group of names (turtleneck buyers) over another group (tent byers) that your response rate will be 10% greater, they are going to give you the higher performing names. The result of that might be more turtlenecks sold than tents.

The question becomes not how we got here or who is to blame. The question is whether you can make a course correction now. Ultimately, the companies that carve out a unique position in the market via merchandise will be the ones that survive. That may mean merchants need to prune from the product assortment those products that are commodity in nature and not in keeping with a product strategy that promotes that “uniqueness”. Of course, the CEO, and Board of Directors, must acknowledge that a move like this might mean forgoing short-term gain on the turtlenecks, to ensure long time survival by focusing on tents.

To answer the merchant’s original question as to what he can do, he can make everyone – especially the CEO – aware of the tradeoffs involved with maximizing response versus maintaining a unique identity via merchandise. And if the CEO still wants to take the bus to Chicago, at least you have made everyone aware of the consequences.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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What Makes You So Unique?- Merchandise Haiku

April 1989 – my first day on the job as the new marketing guy for the Brookstone catalogs. I had the usual litany of forms to fill out, obligatory tour of the warehouse, and review of our systems with IT.  Around 3 PM, one of my co-workers said “Oh, by the way, you have a 4 PM meeting in the main conference room. It’s a critique of the Spring catalog, the book that just mailed last week.”

This was new to me. I had come to Brookstone from the Potpourri catalog, which was still family owned, and family controlled. The family may have held critiques of the catalogs that we mailed, but we mere mortals never participated. I never knew what products were going into the catalog until we received samples back from the printer. Further, since the catalogs looked the same issue to issue, year to year, there was little to comment on from a creative perspective.

As I was headed down the hall to my 4 PM meeting, my co-worker yelled out “Oh, and watch out for Frank!” Who was Frank?

Frank turned out to Frank Oliver, who at the time was the merchant/product buyer for the Brookstone Hard-To-Find-Tools catalog.  Frank left Brookstone in the early 1990s to become head of merchandise at Gardener’s Supply, and then head of product development there.

Frank was astounding in that critique meeting, which included the CEO, the VP of Marketing for stores and catalogs (my boss), the catalog art director, and a cast of four or five others. Frank was animated.  Frank was LOUD (and still is). There were no results yet on the book, as it had just mailed, but Frank started to rattle off a list of changes that needed to be made for the next book.  He knew his facts. He was quantifying his opinions and ideas with data! This was back in the era of Lotus 1-2-3, with floppies that held one program each. Where was he getting this stuff?

Over the years, I have come to regard Frank as one of the best merchants I’ve known for one simple reason. He is passionate, yes, passionate about products. (But, then again, have you ever met a merchant of whom you would not say they were passionate about products?)   Yes, he’s great at envisioning fiendishly ingenious new products. Yes, he has some fantastic relationships with product vendors around the world.

But, those reasons are not why I consider him to be one of the best merchants. The simple reason Frank is so good is that he strives to quantify what he is doing. I have met tons of merchants who have no concept of how to quantify their product’s performance, or who don’t consider it part of their job. It’s not that it is “beneath them”, they just don’t know how to do it, or are not very good at it. They strive to excel at finding new products, that correspond with the persona of the catalog’s customer (who is named Colleen), and to discover the right color palate for this coming’s season.

Yes, those merchants do care about how those products perform; after all, their personal compensation depends on it. But they limit their knowledge of that performance to what their IT department can furnish for a “performance report”. These reports are different in every company, but they are rarely designed with the true needs of the merchants in mind.  They are typically designed by someone in IT, and focus on SKU numbers, not sales trends.

Are there merchandise metrics that matter? How does a merchant determine the true performance of their products? Again, everyone wants to see different things, and has different methods of evaluating products. Where do you start?

The Task for March 2017:

I gave Frank a challenge when I asked him to speak at our seminar on March 30.  Frank’s had quite a bit of exposure in the past few years, speaking at our first seminar 5 years ago, and a couple of times for NEMOA. He’s been his usually jovial self. He’s offered some great tips, but I told Frank that this time, I needed him to focus on not what the audience wants to hear, but on what they need to hear. Last summer, he agreed that he could do this.

Around January 1, I checked in to see how he was doing with getting ready for his presentation. Here was his response:

“You have given me a formidable challenge.  One that I am wrestling with, in all honesty.  The outline in the agenda you and I agreed upon has flexibility, so that’s fine. Less entertainment and more serious presentation content.  That’s tough. Takes time…

Working on a serious idea that might work. No laughing matter. Need just a bit more noodling to see if it holds for the complete talk. My flight plan:

I will distill all previous merchandising presentations to a concise, “best of breed” fast overview: merchandising key metrics, data management, and performance reporting (Building the Titanic), Merchandising goals – Marketing goals (Ready-Fire-Aim), Demand Conflicts (Attribution Retribution), Multi-channel Merchandising (Drone Warfare) Surviving World War III…….

Too dramatic?  Perhaps, but not so far off.”

I could tell from his response that Frank was going to exceed my expectations. Here’s why: some people get asked to speak at lots of conferences. They often just dust off last year’s speech, update a few slides with this year’s buzz words (social engagement) to sound relevant, and show up at the appointed hour on the designated day. Frank was wrestling with how to develop something new, something that was going to challenge you to think (which is what I ask both he and Kevin Hillstrom to do this year).

Last week, I asked Frank for a few “tidbits” from his presentation that I could weave into this posting. His response was so good, that instead of editing it, I offer it here in its full and original form. I’m not sure what “device” Frank uses to send me his emails, but because of the short sentences, and lack of paragraphs, this struck me as being a form of merchandise analytics Haiku.

“What makes you so unique?’

When a casual conversation drifts to hometowns, I always say I don’t have one!

‘My hometown is nowhere, and my friends are everywhere.’

‘Your Dad must have been a traveling salesman?’

No, career Military. I was a Brat.

Always moving, changing friends & schools every couple years, a drifter’s life, no roots really.

Makes me pretty unique, right?

I really thought so, until I saw the movie “Brats: The Long Journey Home”.

You see, Brats may physically look different, but our story & character is exactly the same in so many respects.

We are socially comfortable (aka Out-going), fiercely loyal (aka Keep America Strong & Protected), and refuse to give up (aka Excellent Survivor instincts).

Brats will tell a stranger their life story over a beer, but fail to share feelings of sadness or grief with their own family.

Brats are “invisible” and everywhere.  5% of our population are Brats. Millions of us!

Your catalog customers are really like a diverse group of Brats. Like it or not.


So spend less time trying to figure out what your Brats “look like” and more time enhancing their lives with meaningful product they will respond to!

When was the last time you immediately improved a new product based on negative Power Reviews?

When was the last time you surveyed buyers of a long time “best seller” to find out how it really works or how it could be sold effectively for other purposes?

When was the last time you spoke to a real customer about a real product that you sell?

When was the last time you had an “email relationship” with a customer that lead to introducing a great new product?

Merchants need fewer customer profiles and more good product intelligence!

Going to trade shows and asking suppliers “What’s selling” is NOT what should guide your new product strategy.

Merchants need to use their internet web tools to the fullest extent, because their customers are invisible & EVERYWHERE!

New rules apply; we are always moving, changing relationships and forced to survive in a more challenging market.

I would contend, therefore, that Military Brats make excellent merchants, they are personable, loyal, and very used to adapting to constant change!

They also don’t mind traveling…….they have friends everywhere, some they have yet to meet.”


Yes, as Frank stated, new rules apply. We must make changes to survive. If you are trying to determine how to grow by improving not just merchandise performance, but merchandise development, you need to be at the Datamann seminar on March 30th in Concord NH.

There is still time to register, but I recommend that you do it soon. Our registration is running 20% ahead of last year’s numbers.  Our host hotel is full, but there are still plenty of other hotels in the Concord, NH area.

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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