Two weeks ago, I wrote about a number of new – and not so new – men’s apparel catalogs. My general question was whether there was room for all these catalogs, especially since most of them were aimed at a very high-end male consumer, and were doing so in a very similar manner.

I heard from two readers the following day, both of whom took the time to question my general line of thinking, and I want to share their comments.

The first reader that commented is a “senior” consultant that has been around long enough to have seen a lot. I have always valued his input. He wrote “This wasn’t one of your better blogs. 9 out of 10 times you are spot on but this time you’re doing the worse thing possible for a merchant—thinking you are the customer rather than acknowledging there are many customers and you have to decide on your target and go for it.”

He was absolutely right – I had interjected my personal product preferences at the beginning of the posting (I think spending $150 for a flannel shirt or $200 for a pair of jeans is simply crazy). In hindsight, I did not need to include my personal product preferences to make my point about these catalogs.

That point was not that these catalogs are trying to appeal to a customer to whom I simply can’t relate, but rather, they are wasting far too much effort on trying to create a “lifestyle” brand. As I said in my posting, my biggest concern about these catalogs is that they are light on products, and long on branding. As the reader who sent me the email stated, “It is a delicate balance of how you distinguish yourself from the crowd. It’s the branding issue balancing with having to make money”.

Ah, yes, making money. Creating and mailing lifestyle catalogs would be so much fun if we didn’t have to make money at the end of the day.

And that brings me to the second email I received that day – this one from the CEO of a very upscale apparel catalog that is also a Datamann client. He wrote (and I’m going to paraphrase a little), “I want to turn your question on its head. Instead of asking your question, which is ‘What are these premium brands doing with catalogs in their marketing mix? Don’t they understand the rules of catalog marketing?’, let me pose my question, which is ‘What is the catalog industry doing to make sure catalogs are in the marketing mix of premium fashion brands?  Can catalogs resonate with a premium fashion customer?’  We hear so much about the demise of catalogs.  But there is a vast apparel industry out there which never uses catalogs – it is called the Fashion Industry.  In their stores you will see that some brands put only two sizes on the racks, most have no more than two colors available for each style.  Is it possible to break all the catalog rules while appealing to a fashion customer?”

In essence, his question boiled down to this: could catalogs be used to build a real “premium” brand. He even commented that he was writing to me while wearing his $200 hipster jeans. But he believes that just “as denim was rescued 10 years ago from a race to the bottom ($30 on Amazon) and the same is now happening in active wear, could this be the time for the ‘premiumisation’ of other catalogs?”

I found it interesting that this CEO thinks there are very few premium brands to begin with. And perhaps he is correct. I consider Neiman Marcus and Horchow as luxury brands, not necessarily “premium”. Premium is selling high-end products that are still, to a degree, indispensable. Luxury is purely discretionary products. I imagine that like most things, “premium” is in the eye of the beholder  – for example I consider the Kenetrek Catalog to be premium as it sells $600 hiking boots that are to dream of (if you value a good pair of hiking boots).

My answer to his specific question is this: it could be done. The consumer is certainly ready for it. And there have been attempts at this in the past.  But here is why it is difficult to accomplish real success trying to use a catalog to create a premium brand.

There is a certain science to creating a catalog, just like building a house. Ignore all the rules, and it does not usually turn out so well. Yes, just about any carpenter can build a house, but can they build a mansion?  Sometimes it works OK. Sometimes you get something that is completely new and novel.  But any time a new product (such as a “premium lifestyle catalog) is billed as the best of all possible worlds, it usually ends up being the worst of all possible worlds instead. A certain type of tablet computer might be advertised as a perfect substitute for both a laptop and a smartphone, for example. But it could turn out to be worse than a laptop at laptop things and worse than a smartphone at smartphone things, leaving pretty much no one satisfied.

Here is what I see happen when the premium catalog brand, especially in fashion, has been attempted in the past. Instead of focusing on the product, the “creative types” behind this venture focus on lifestyle.  This is still ok, except, they invariably take their license to “create” and go waaaaay over the top. The “science” of the catalog is gone.  The flip side to this is that anyone that has any catalog experience will want to “play by the rules” in order to create something they “know” will be successful – and then they look like everyone else.

In order to make the premium catalog concept work, you need someone that knows how a catalog works, but who can also truly take off the blinders to create – with merchandise – a premium catalog. They have to have response and profit as their ultimate goal, and constantly on their mind with everything they do. Many have tried doing this with magalogs. But the problem with magalogs is that the editorial content is always second rate.  They might get some leading author to make a contribution, but it is never his/her best effort.   Whether with a magalog or a traditional catalog that has “premiumized”, the hardest part is always carrying this idea into the second and third editions, or even years two and three. The novelty of being a novelty begins to wear off and then in order to drive response again, and satisfy investors, you begin to implement traditional catalog tactics. Within 3 years you look like Lands’ End.

I think the biggest problem is the investors. They want to see results. Initially they will all agree to give management full freedom to experiment, and put one product per spread in one color, with lots of editorial content. But then those investors will hear from their barber or their brother-in-law accountant that they should be seeing immediate/better results. So they put pressure on the catalog’s management to speed up response, and that’s when the “premium” ideas go out and the traditional rules come back.

I read somewhere that Steve Jobs told the Wall Street Journal that he would never advertise in their newspaper because no matter how upscale the reader might be, the paper itself was low-end. It was newsprint.  That’s part of the reason the WSJ introduced their monthly glossy magazine. It’s like a copy of Vogue.   I almost think that is the route a premium catalog has to go. Advertise in a spot like that, because another problem in this whole equation  is that the co-ops just don’t have the ability to target really high-end consumers. They can find loads of JCPenney shoppers. But try to find the CEO in the $200 hipster jeans – they are not so good at that. (Yes, I know, more “co-op bashing” – get over it).

As the CEO who wrote to me concluded “a premium catalog has to be something that moves the soul”. I’m not quite that poetic – I just look for response rates to show that a catalog and business has a pulse. But he is correct that most high-end catalogs today don’t move the soul. When you can accomplish that, you’ll have a strong catalog.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


Your business only grows if you are adding new customers. Who can you trust to help you with that?

I want to invite all the readers of this blog to a special event. Datamann is proud to again be sponsoring a one-day seminar for the Vermont / New Hampshire Marketing Group on Customer Acquisition – The Baseline for Growth of Catalog and Ecommerce Companies on Thursday March 31, 2016 at the Marriott Courtyard / Grappone Conference Center in Concord, NH.

Why is this special?

They’re Back!

Last year, I was fortunate to get two of the brightest and most talented thinkers / writers / speakers in the industry to join me for this event – Amy Africa from Eight by Eight and Kevin Hillstrom from Mine That Data.  They are rock stars in the industry, known for looking into the future of where this industry is going, and the impact the future will have on your business. They put on a great seminar.

And guess what? They agreed to come back again! Amy referred to the combination of Africa, Hillstrom, and LaPierre as the “unholy trinity”. Well, we may be a motley trio, but we will give you an unbiased view of the future of new customer acquisition and growth that you won’t get elsewhere.

Presidential Politics and No Snow:

Unfortunately, last year, I chose to have the seminar during the coldest, snowiest week of a very cold and snowy New Hampshire winter. I had planned to hold the event during the same week in 2016, but New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation Presidential Primary will get in the way. Since the date for the primary is not chosen until almost January 1, all the hotels in the state (there are not that many that can accommodate a crowd) will not make any conference rooms available until after March 1. And because all of the events in the state that usually take place in January and February have to move, we are having our seminar on Thursday March 31.  That puts us well past the blizzard season, and the temperature should be almost spring-like.

Last year we drew over 180 attendees, 80% of whom were mailers. This seminar has become the #1 one-day event in the nation for catalogers and ecommerce companies. You’ve got to be there!

The Strategies of Acquiring New Customers:

I asked both Amy and Kevin to focus on what the average catalog and ecommerce company must do to acquire new customers. This is not going to be a tactical session with five easy tips on working with the co-ops. This will be a day-long strategic discussion of the long range impact of merchandise, competitors, mobile, rising costs, and shrinking universes.

You will get a realistic view of how we got to where we are, and what you’ll need to do to change your company so that it is positioned to competitively and profitably acquire new customers. We will end the day with an open forum, allowing attendees to share their concerns, beliefs and questions on catalog growth and customer acquisition.

Amy, Kevin and I have something in common – we never try to sell you something you don’t need, and we never try to sell you the latest shiny object. We believe in sticking to the basics – whether it is in website functionality, merchandise performance, or analyzing customer behavior. If you read either Amy’s blog  or Kevin’s blog, or this blog, you know that the three of us challenge the status quo.  As one of my readers once said, “I like it when you poke the bear with a sharp stick”. We are the ones looking out for your better interests, and by your continued readership and support, we know you trust us.

Registration details for the event will follow soon. Datamann clients and members of the VT/NH Marketing Group will be getting additional registration information in the next few weeks – but I wanted to let you know about this event early so you could mark your calendar.

The VT/NH Marketing Group has been providing conferences and seminars for catalog and e-commerce companies for 25+ years. Datamann is grateful for this opportunity to continue our sponsorship of this event.  For those of you unfamiliar with the state, Concord is New Hampshire’s state capital, and is only 20 minutes north of the Manchester, NH airport, which is served by all major airlines. We look forward to seeing you March 31th, 2016.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

Is There Enough Room For All These?

September 20, 2015

The price of entry into launching a catalog used to be pretty cheap 20 years ago. As a result, I have several boxes of catalogs in my office labeled “Catalogs No Longer Mailing”.  Most of them failed because they were undercapitalized, but they also had two other things in common – they were either not […]

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Aspirational Revisited

September 17, 2015

I rarely respond in this blog to comments from readers, but I thought this was an exceptionally good opportunity. In Monday’s posting this week which was on making sure your customer knew you were offering a promotional offer (click here), I started out by commenting on the cover below from Eddie Bauer. It had been […]

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Carry The Message Through

September 13, 2015

This is where falling in love with our catalogs gets us into trouble. Pictured below are 3 Eddie Bauer covers I received this past week. The one on the top was sent to my wife, a regular Eddie Bauer shopper. The two below that were prospect catalogs sent to my decoy names. Personally, I think […]

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Late Summer Catalog Observations 2015- Part 2

September 7, 2015

Since this is a short week with Labor Day, I’m going to offer a variety of quick catalog observations. Sales: In conferring with Mike Hayden at 4Cite Marketing last week, many mailers (his clients, our clients, and mailers in general) are reporting that response in August was soft. This is just as most of you […]

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New CEOs That Are Never Satisfied With the Customers They Have

August 30, 2015

Why do so many new catalog CEOs want to become heroes by fixing a problem that doesn’t exist, while ignoring the low hanging fruit problems, which if fixed, could result in immediate profits? I hope you all took the time last week to read this article (Inside Lands’ End’s Quest For A Younger, Cooler Customer) […]

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Late Summer Catalog Observations 2015- Part 1

August 23, 2015

The fall catalogs are starting to pour in, so it is time for some commentary and observations on what catalogers are doing. Brookstone: Here is something you can do at home: go to the Brookstone website and try to request a catalog. Because I worked at Brookstone for nearly ten years, I still love to […]

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The Little Things

August 16, 2015

My father always said that it was the little things that get you. I can hear him saying “You can spend a lot of time getting the big things right, but some little screw up down the line will cost you time, money and a lot of aggravation, and erase all of the other things […]

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Where Are The Heroes?

July 26, 2015

I am not a fan of science fiction. The closest I came was watching the old black and white Superman TV show from the 1950s, which was already in syndication when I was growing up in the 1960s. I did not watch Star Wars for the first time until I met my wife in the […]

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