2016 Summer Catalog Observations

by Bill LaPierre on July 17, 2016

Time to look in the mail box to observe and comment on the latest catalog survival and growth trends.

Keep The Card:

The activities on the periphery of the catalog industry have been the first to die. But they are a sign of a slowly tightening knot – caused by changes in consumer behavior – which in the next few years will be even more difficult to ignore as more “core” activities of the catalog industry die off as well.

A client forwarded me an email they received last week from a vendor they had dealt with for many years. The vendor operated several gardening, rural living and outdoor activity “card deck” programs. The specific vendor is unimportant – but they were announcing that the card deck programs were being phased out.

It is with regret that I share the decision that (we) will cease the publication of all of our remaining card packs effective immediately.  We have fought the deterioration of the print advertising battle for quite a few years.  Unfortunately, our current volume could no longer support this business unit.

Many of you probably have no idea what I’m referring to by a card pack or card deck. It is a “deck” of about 50 postcards, mailed in an envelope, to known catalog shoppers, advertising other catalogs. You could request catalogs you saw in the deck that looked appealing by mailing back the appropriate postcard. Years ago you could go to the DMA Catalog Conference and listen to knowledgeable catalog consultants debate whether it was better to use a prepaid postage postcard (higher response) vs. one where the consumer had to apply their own stamp (showed higher commitment on the part of the consumer).


Unless you are a seed catalog (they seem to be the predominate user of these card decks), this is not a big blow to you. It’s like learning that another blacksmith shop has closed. These card programs have not been a significant source of new customers for years for most catalogers, largely because they were a two-step process: requesting the catalog followed by a long wait to receive the catalog. While this was happening, the rest of the catalog world was trying to drive the consumer to their website to order directly and without aid of a requested catalog.  Just like the demise of order form printers, the disappearance of card decks for catalog requests is yet another sign that you have to have alternative methods available for acquiring new customers.

And speaking of seed catalogs

Most seed catalogs are frozen in time – somewhere around 1972. The creative is dated. Every product is usually treated exactly the same: even if corn seeds outsell radish seeds 100 to 1, the seed catalogs still give equal presentation to those radishes. The catalogs mail in December, when the ground is still frozen in half the country. The majority of seed catalogs still show thousands (literally) of different plants, including many that won’t grow in New Hampshire where I live. There is no effort to show an “edited collection” of just their best plants. Seed catalogs assume I want to see the full assortment of 73 different types of cucumbers they all sell.

So it is with that low opinion of most seed catalogs that I had to admire the Stokes catalog this year.  First, the cover is fantastic – focusing on a meal/food – which is after all, the end product of a vegetable garden. (I have always believed that the reason that most people garden is to make their friends and neighbors envious of their efforts.) It has an upscale look to it, and manages to achieve that most important essence of catalog creative to which every Catalog Creative Director is striving these days – it manages to appeal to a younger audience.


The fresh look extends inside the catalog as well, although their idea of an “edited” collection is still way beyond what I need. The carrot spread below is an example of how they just can’t let go and show me a few of the top varieties – no, they still need to show all 14 varieties. This causes the book to run to 80 pages. They need to change their philosophy toward what constitutes a good catalog, and cut the book in half – or more – and prospect with a 24 or 40 page catalog that is still enticing to the causal gardener, and not geared to someone planting the back forty acres.


But We Have to Cover Those Sales

There are some items that follow an extremely predictable sales curve. I’m sure the sales curve for cranberry sauce has a very predictable curve each year, influenced only by the specific date of Thanksgiving. The only other factor is whether changing American culinary habits are replacing cranberry sauce with things like guacamole.

Christmas cards are probably one of those things for which there is also a very predictable sales curve, though I suspect that curve keeps getting pushed further back into the holiday season.

So I was puzzled (as I am every year) by the catalog I received July 1 from National Wildlife Federation promoting their sale on Christmas cards. This was 4 days before the biggest summer holiday, and was received on a day when the temperature was over 90°F in NH.


Yes, I’m sure there is a science to Christmas card purchasing, and the really savvy consumers know that they need to order their cards early to ensure delivery by December 1 (so you have time to addresses them and get them in the mail), and to get the best selection. But that was back in 1960 when you were listening to Mitch Miller.

I can order personalized cards from any number of websites today in mid- December and get them overnight. And they are cheap! Maybe not as inexpensive as these from NWF, but who is kidding who here? Who is thinking about Christmas cards – even with a $7.00/box savings in early July?

It is always dangerous to use Google Trends as a proxy for anything – but the chart below shows the use of “Christmas Cards” as a search term in Google since 2005. You can see the overall trend keeps going down. More important, the “uptick” each year starts in October – not July.



I do not know anyone at NWF – they are not a Datamann client. But I’m betting that this Christmas card sale in July is something they have always done. They have probably even tested it and have “documented proof” that it is vital to the success of their business. But if that’s the case, they are about to be swept away by changes in the way customers purchase. It is certainly a sign that their customers are aging, probably still listening to their Mitch Miller LPs on their Arvin stereo.

I suspect that this is something NWF has simply always done during the summer months, and they have to “anniversary” these card sales each year, although I also suspect that the total sales demand keeps dropping each year. They probably complain that they need more Santa cards. Or more kitten cards. But the real problem is that they are trying to drive demand for a product in July which the average consumer just isn’t thinking about during the dog days of summer.  This is the type of foolish behavior that catalogs have to stop if they intend to survive.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



Summer Postcards

by Bill LaPierre on July 10, 2016

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.



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”.



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.


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.


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



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