Understanding Premium and Affordable Luxury

by Bill LaPierre on September 28, 2016

Timing is everything.

I almost looked like a genius on Monday. I had a blog posting already to go on why I thought Federica Marchionni, CEO of Lands’ End, was not going to last much longer. But, at the last minute, I decided to substitute my posting on the Marine Layer catalog (click here if you missed it). And then of course, Federica was fired on Monday. Oh, what an opportunity to look like a marketing savant…missed.

However, I did get quite a bit of feedback from readers on Monday about the posting I did offer on Marine Layer. As I’ve said before, I write stuff that is meant to generate a response, and get people thinking.

I heard from the CEO of one of Datamann’s clients. He comments about once a year to my postings. I appreciate his comments because he is detailed in his thoughts and comments, does not hold back criticism, and chides me when he thinks I’m wrong. Most important, he never stops trying to teach me new ways of looking at the catalog industry.

He has a catalog that sells “premium apparel”. The products are high priced. He and I have an on-going argument around the point that I believe his products are too high priced. He constantly argues that I don’t understand the premium buyer.  His comments from his email on Monday night follow in italics.

I love reading your posts.  Also I have noticed Marine Layer in some expensive retail locations and I have not understood the offer.  Although I have not gone in to try to understand.  So I am with you…..

Until you start comparing product prices to Target.  Even with your Filson disclaimer paragraph it is pointless to make the comment that you can buy t-shirt cheaper at Target. Duh, really?!

This just reinforces my opinion that no one in the catalog industry understands ‘premium’ or ‘affordable luxury’”.

He is right of course. Maybe I don’t understand or appreciate the premium market for some consumer goods.  I drive a 10 year old truck. I cannot understand why anyone would spend more than $25,000 for a new car. On the other hand, I spent $2,000 on a Nikon camera (from a catalog!) that some might argue does not take pictures any better than an iPhone.

And my wife, who was the one who made the comment that she could purchase t-shirts similar to the $39 ones in Marine Layer at Target for $8, is really into mountain biking and fitness. She may only spend $8 for a t-shirt, but will pay a premium price for a techno-advanced bike shirt.

“There IS a customer for $60 t–shirts, whatever you think.  It is tough to launch a company with the scale of Lands End or Target, and as a result you cannot get the same price for your products.  But that is not the point.  The point is that there is a customer who WANTS to spend more, not for the reasons that you suggest, but for ‘superior product’.  In almost all consumer goods there is a polarization of customers looking for premium, high quality (that might mean design as much as fabric) product and customers looking for the lowest common denominator.  More often than not it is the same consumer shopping at both ends of the spectrum, sometimes in the same category.”

We all have a special interest where we will pay a premium price. Of course premium to one person may be “sub-standard” to someone else. Just as one can spend $60 for a t-shirt, I’m sure that there are “super premium” t-shirts for $300.

My point on the Marine Layer catalog was simply this: maybe they do have a premium product that is worthy of the price – for whatever reason someone would spend a hefty sum for their products. But they failed to capitalize on that. They failed to tell a story.

Catalogs are an incredibly powerful and evocative tool and should be harnessed to sell premium products through storytelling and brilliant product presentation.  I assume that Marine Layer does not do this as I trust your judgement.  But don’t dismiss the premium market. It is smaller and more elite than the mass market, by definition, but catalogs should work there.”

He is right. Catalogs need to sell by having some reason for being. It might be price, it might be selection. Following the argument of my CEO friend, it could be story-telling.  Where Marine Layer fails – in my opinion – is in doing none of these. The people behind this catalog are still just having fun, and not taking seriously what they are – or should – be trying to do, which is put money in the bank. They certainly are not making any effort to have a viable catalog.

Yes, I understand that this catalog is aimed at the Millennial buyer, which I am not. But Millennials are consumers too, and they need to be sold. That is a lesson that so many of the new catalogs being run by people with no catalog experience learn the hard way.

I had a call last week from a furniture company with an extensive “look-book”. I’m not a big fan of look-books, but in this instance, the company has a $5,000 average order, so it makes sense. The caller wanted help expanding the circulation for the catalog, and wanted my thoughts and help. I explained that with a $5,000 average order, it would be almost impossible to find a list of buyers to which I would mail their catalog, because although those people exist, no company (co-op) could supply them in a manner that would be affordable for her to utilize.

This is one place where my CEO friend and I agree:

“One reason I suspect catalogs don’t work in ‘premium’ is because no one can supply those names.”

I’m not going to launch another attack on the short-comings of the co-ops. But, the problem with identifying “premium” buyers/prospects for any offer is that a person that may only spend $8 for a t-shirt will get defined as such, even though that same person may spend ten times that amount for a workout top. Yes, I’m sure the co-ops will tell me that the models take this into account. But if that were the case, then why did I get a Marine Layer catalog?

This brings me back to Federica. She tried to bring change to Lands’ End – a company stuck in a snowbank of traditions. I have not been to Dodgeville in more than five years, so it is unfair for me to comment on what the company has been doing, beyond what I have seen in their catalogs. Lands’ End defined middle America. That is who their customer has always been. Federica tried taking that middle class/Lake Wobegonian customer, and move them to the Hamptons. It was NOT going to happen. And I don’t blame her; I blame the Board of Directors that hired her. They bought into her image of creating a premium offer out of Lands’ End, but that is tough to do with customers who are accustomed to buying clothes that are middle of the road. It’s like trying to get someone used to driving a Ford Focus to trade up to a Ferrari.

My CEO friend concluded his email with these thoughts:

“As long as the catalog industry only sings the praises of commodity products which are differentiated solely by the numbers of colors an item comes in and the relatively low prices, it may well continue its downward spiral.”

There are companies that do an exceptional job with selling premium products. But they do so with – for lack of a better term – standard catalog best practices. They build a story around their products and their brand. They do the hard work necessary to sell premium products. That means they don’t treat their customers/prospects with contempt.

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



If You Have This Much Contempt for Catalogs…

by Bill LaPierre on September 25, 2016

If you have this much contempt for catalogs and for your customers, why even bother?

For those of you that have grown tired of me ripping apart yet another poorly conceived start-up, yuppie/millennial-inspired catalog, you can skip today’s posting and still get a passing grade at the end of the semester.

For those of you with the morbid curiosity to see how some catalogs simply blow through money, read on…

I received a catalog this week called Marine Layer, based in San Francisco. I immediately noticed two red flags that tell me these guys won’t last long. First, they number the editions of their catalog, which in my experience is a sure sign of catalog hubris, as if they expect their catalogs to become collectibles (“Oooh, you have a pristine copy of Edition No. 5, that one is rare.”) Second, they just opened a store on Newbury Street in Boston. From my perspective of 50+ years of seeing retailers move in and out of shops on that street, I know that a presence there usually indicates a huge ego on the part of upper management, and out-of-control spending.

Let’s look at the catalog. Look way down in the lower left corner. Do you see that tiny gray circle? It offers 15% off – BUT WHO IS GOING TO SEE IT?


The back cover is even worse. It at least features some of their products, but they are not for sale. The real problem with the back cover is the call-out for free shipping and returns.


Again, who is going to see that? (Or, maybe I should emulate their hipster copywriter and say “Duh, who is going to see that?”) There were six additional similar sized call-outs inside the book for free shipping, spread out over 56 pages, and all in tough-to-read reverse type. There were no additional reminders of the 15% off offer.

To me, this shows the folks at Marine Layer have contempt for their customers. Why bother to have discounts and free shipping offers if you hide them from your customers, and potential customers?  Oh, I know, if you made mention of these offers in a bigger manner – in a manner that someone might actually notice – it will destroy your brand and the curated image you are presenting. And you refuse to make the dotwhack on  the front cover any bigger because it will “look trashy”. Well, when your venture capital dries up because your sales and profits are going nowhere, maybe you’ll wish you had promoted these two offers differently.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that the three most important spreads in the catalog for sales are the opening spread, the back inside cover spread, and the center spread. So how did Marine Layer do with those pages?




That’s right – they did nothing with them. They used them for “lifestyle” and branding shots.  That’s 11% of the available space in the catalog – and the most valuable selling space – completely wasted on non-selling. Sure, there are some people who viewed those pages and said “wow, I can relate to this brand”. But, I’ll bet Marine Layer’s CFO would rather have used those spreads for hard selling instead of soft branding.

But here is the main problem I have with this catalog. The catalog’s primary selling point – or gimmick – is that they have products made with a proprietary material, which according to them, is incredibly soft. They even bound a little six panel brochure into the center of the catalog to explain what makes this fabric so great and unique. (And this bind-in card was not cheap). But they fail to make this story part of their selling throughout the catalog.


This is a mistake that so many catalogs make. You have something unique, and that you love, but you assume that everyone else immediately recognizes it for its uniqueness and that they immediately share your passion for the product. It doesn’t happen that way.


This is the first selling spread (pages 4/5) in the Marine Layer catalog. I showed it to my wife, and covered the price, asking how much she would pay for an “absurdly soft” t-shirt. She said “I can get the same thing at Target for $8”. Marine Layer’s price is $39. Ouch.

Before going further, let me state that I received some comments several weeks ago to my blog posting (Value or Not?) on the Filson catalog, and (in my opinion) the exorbitant prices they charge for their flannel shirts. The comments were equally divided along the lines of “yes, that catalog has lost touch with reality” to “you know Bill, just because you are a cheap Yankee who thinks that $150 is ridiculous for a flannel shirt does not mean that the Filson customer agrees”.

Both opinions are correct. Sometimes a catalog’s prices are seemingly out of touch with reality, and yet they have customers who willing pay those prices. Maybe the customer sees value where the rest of us don’t, maybe the customer just wants to make a “vanity” purchase. Maybe the customer is ignorant of other options.

The point with Marine Layer is that they may actually have a t-shirt worth $39, but they have done nothing to convince me as a consumer and a prospect why it is worth that much. The opening spread did nothing to communicate that point to me. Nor do any of the individual selling pages. And the bind-in, which 99% of the readers of the catalog are going to skip, is buried in the middle of the book. This does not have to be a “technical” explanation about cotton and wood fibers. You can appeal to my vanity. But do some selling!

I understand I’m not their target customer. I understand that companies need to be “innovative” to stand out from the crowd.  But innovation comes from merchandise, from the products you are selling. It does not come from having contempt of your customer and contempt for using a catalog to sell.

I stated earlier that Marine Layer had contempt for their customer by designing a catalog which hides offers, gives no explanation as to what makes their products so unique and is seemingly over-priced. However, they also show contempt for “catalogs” themselves. They probably love their stores. But as a consumer, and catalog professional, I sense that they really don’t like catalogs. They don’t want to employ any of the standard techniques that successful catalogs utilize to drive response. I’m certain that upper management is taking a counter-intuitive  approach, as in “We are special, not like anyone else. So we don’t want to have a catalog like anyone else. We know better than everyone else.”  This is just wasteful.

At some point in the future, this catalog will no longer be treated internally as a fun, whimsical project. At some point, someone is going to be given P&L responsibility for it. They are going to be constantly butting heads with the “brand” police that want to continue producing a catalog that is short on selling, and hence short on sales and profits. They will read this catalog critique and wonder how in the world they can turn this catalog around. It is a tough battle to win.

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



Catalog Consultants are Like Tomatoes

September 18, 2016

Back in 1967, when I was 10, my father took me to my first auction in Rindge, NH. The auctioneer was named Ed Stevens, and if Norman Rockwell had wanted to paint the quintessential taciturn New England auctioneer, he would have picked Ed Stevens.  I was mesmerized. Ed died in 2011 at the age of […]

Read the full article →

In Good Company at The Smithsonian

September 14, 2016

In early 2015, I reported that I had been asked by Paul Miller, Vice President and Deputy Director for the American Catalog Mailers Association (ACMA) to help with a special project for the Smithsonian Institution regarding an exhibit being installed at the National Postal Museum (which is part of the Smithsonian) in Washington, DC. When […]

Read the full article →

No One Follows Through

September 11, 2016

I conducted a merchandise analysis earlier this year for a client on their Holiday 2015 catalogs. Response to their spring and summer books this year was soft. The marketing manager immediately said “We need to do another catalog merchandise analysis.” My response was, “Why? I already gave you all the tools you need to determine […]

Read the full article →

Value or Not?

September 5, 2016

This posting started out being about how to extend the life of a product, but changed in mid-stream, which you will see… Labor Day is over and as my grandfather would say, time to put the storm windows and snow tires back on. So, let’s take a look at a perennial favorite catalog of mine, […]

Read the full article →

Things That Matter

August 28, 2016

OK – summer is almost over.  There’s one more holiday weekend coming up before we get down to the serious business of Fall and Holiday sales, and the Presidential election.  Oh, what a fun 12 weeks lay ahead. So indulge me this chance to go off track a little. This week marks my five year […]

Read the full article →

Two Catalog Critiques: Not Driving Home The Sale

August 21, 2016

Let’s take a look at two catalogs I received this past month – Blu Dot  (modern furniture) and Eye Bobs (quirky eyeglasses). When I critique a catalog for a client, it is not because things are going well, and they want to hear that they won a prize for having a great looking catalog. It is […]

Read the full article →

Are They Really a Web Buyer?

August 14, 2016

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. […]

Read the full article →

How Do You Change Old School Thinking?

August 7, 2016

In 1935, when Harry Truman (33rd President of the US) was first elected to the US Senate, he felt very out of place. His only prior public office had been as a county judge in Missouri. But Senator Hamilton Lewis from Illinois soon relieved him of any feeling of inferiority. “Mr. Truman,” he advised the […]

Read the full article →