Holiday Catalog and Ecommerce Observations Part 3

by Bill LaPierre on November 22, 2015

Current Performance:

As we head into the week of Thanksgiving, I’m hearing that results across all categories of mailers – apparel, home furnishings, gifts and hard goods – remain soft. Most mailers are reporting that they are a few points below plan, although a few are reporting that they are very soft.

Unfortunately, most retailers are not reporting any better news, and with inventory piling up as we enter the crucial final four weeks of sales, look for heavy discounting from big retailers, which will further hurt catalog sales.

One consultant I spoke with this week used global warming as an explanation for the softness as, up until this past weekend, exceptionally mild to warm weather nationwide was impacting his client’s apparel sales. That’s a new one that we can add to the litany of reasons as to why catalogs sales might be soft. But here is the important thing – are you keeping track of all the factors that you feel are hurting your sales – beyond not having any exciting merchandise – so you can review them and act on them at your post mortem?

None with One Week to Go

Last Wednesday (Nov. 18) I received 9 slim-Jim catalogs, which tells me some printer must have had a special pool just for that trim size. Several of the catalogs were specialty catalogs, that were direct competitors to one another. The following day, (November 19) I received no catalogs at home. This was one week before Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Plaid Saturday and all the other contrived sales occasions at this time of year.

But contrived or not, you know your customer is going to be shopping a lot in the next 10 days. Further, I expect a deluge of catalogs from Monday to Wednesday (Nov. 23 to 25). As I have pointed out before, this is the result of allowing the printers and their co-mail pools to dictate when our catalogs must be in-home, and the potential impact that will have on response. I’d rather be in home a few days before everyone else, and be the only catalog in the mail box, than arrive on the alleged “optimal” day, and be joined by 20+ other books. Watch your own mailbox over the next three days and draw your own conclusions.

The Price is Right, or Is It?

When I was a kid, we had one of these spinning angels – candle decorations on our dining room table. My mother usually only lit it when my father was not around as the sound it makes is pretty annoying after more than 45 seconds.


I bring this up because I would not consider one of these things to be one of those prized Christmas decoration that becomes a family heirloom. They are cute, they fascinate children under age 7, drive cats crazy, and pretty much wear out their novelty and welcome by the second or third time you use them. Miles Kimball sells theirs for $5.99, which in my opinion is a fair and reasonable price. On the other hand, Vermont Country Store has the same product for $24.95.


The reason this caught my attention was that VT Country Store has this featured on the opening spread of their holiday catalog. It struck me as odd that they would put theirs in such a prominent place, given the price differential. Both come with 4 candles, and the Mile Kimball version even comes with a clown and 3 horses you can substitute for the angels.

So what makes the VT Country Store version that much better that they can charge more than 4 times as much? Apparently nothing.   There is nothing in the copy indicating that theirs is any better (handmade, tempered steel, etc.). Based on the photos, they look identical. I assume they are, and further, probably have similar costs.

I’m less concerned with VT Country Store gouging their customers than I am with Miles Kimball missing an opportunity to increase their margins on this next year. They could increase their price by a dollar or two, still be waaaay more competitive than VCS, and add that margin right to the bottom line. This is the kind of thing that needs review in every post-mortem once the book is done. You do conduct a post mortem on your catalog and web sales, right?

This Should Not Be Happening

When you work for a service bureau like Datamann, one of things you always dread is having a client point out to you that you mailed a duplicate catalog. It’s even worse when one of your competitors points it out to your client.


Thus, I take no enjoyment (well, maybe a little) in pointing out the examples above from Sharper Image.  I received these three catalogs on Saturday Nov. 21. Two of them were addressed identically to me, and the third was addressed to my wife, but her name was misspelled.

OK – accidents happen and Datamann is certainly not to be absolved as we have made a mistake or two in the past too. But some simple checks would have caught these errors. Find out from your service bureau what they do to monitor for duplications like this.

No Greater Love

No greater love hath a man (or woman) to design a catalog that drives response and sales, than one with a mortgage.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a subscriber who happens to be the creative director for his company, with the notice below introducing a new catalog. With all due respect to Datamann’s UK clients, I can always tell that a US catalog is going to be pretentious when they refer to their catalog as a “catalogue”.


Note there is no mention of product or merchandise in the above introductory email. Instead, we’ll “draw inspiration from the pastoral landscape” of Quebec, with its pale light. The opening spread is below. I’ll bet that drove a lot of sales.


You can request one yourself here: Kaufmann Mercantile

I’m not going to bore you with yet another critique of yet another catalog that is only going to survive 18 months at best. But I wanted to share with you the comments from the reader who let me know about it in the first place. When I shared with him last week that I’d finally received a copy of the catalog, and that I gave it 18 months of survival at best, he replied “Agree; I received one, too. As a creative guy, I always want to make a catalog memorable, interesting. But as a guy with a mortgage, not at the expense of the metrics.”  There is a lesson there for all of us.

Think profits, think response, and mail responsibly.

Have a great Thanksgiving.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


When You Have To Spell It Out, You’ve Missed The Point

by Bill LaPierre on November 15, 2015

Sometimes I just can’t let go of observing when a company is pouring money down the drain.

Datamann is working with a catalog client that recently launched their first catalog. They tested over a dozen prospecting lists – mostly from the co-ops – and the response rates were all over 2.2% with a few approaching 4%. Yes, they had a strong introductory offer, but the secret to their success in my opinion was having really strong merchandise. Maybe some of you routinely achieve even higher response rates on your prospect mailings, and that’s great. But for every prospect list to perform better than 2.2%, on a first-time mailing, well, that just doesn’t happen very often.

I’d like to tell you that Datamann, and their list broker (4Cite Marketing), their printer and even the co-ops were all responsible for this strong success. But that would be overstating the role each of us played. The client, along with their consultant, created what I’d call a “down and dirty” book which drove response. It wasn’t pretty, but it drove sales. In meeting with the owner, and reviewing their final creatives for the first book, I made recommendations for some last minute changes. The owner’s response was one of a kind – “Tell me what I need to do to make money and make this work, and I will do it”. My creative suggestions were simply tweaks to a book that was already 95% OK.

I wish I could reveal the client’s identify, but I can’t – for obvious reasons of client confidentiality. But I will say this – there was not one speck of space in this catalog wasted on “branding”, telling a story, announcing why the owner had always wanted to mail a catalog, or announcing this was their first catalog, etc. The products in the catalog were all aimed at sales and driving response. (It’s amazing what a mailer can do when they follow the advice of people that have been doing this for a while).

I bring this up as way of setting the stage for my comments on a new catalog I saw from Rodale, publisher of magazines such as Prevention, Men’s Health and Running. The front cover stated this was the “third issue”. As an aside, why do magazine publishers that launch catalogs always feel that they have to number each issue? Do they think someone is going to collect each one and bind them together into an anthology someday? No, they do it because they think that consumers are sitting by their mail box just waiting for the next “issue” of the catalog.


Rodale’s new catalog had the obligatory President’s Letter on page 2, which explains the catalog’s mission – a complete waste of the most important real estate in the catalog. Worse, there were six pages completely dictated to “branding”, and further explaining the catalog’s mission, which in a 56 page catalog equals 11% of the space not doing anything to drive sales. This included the single page below of the empty Mason jar, and the center spread of the woman overlooking the lake.



And yes, truth be told – the center spread is technically selling. If you look under the woman’s shoes, there are four lines of tiny reverse type listing four items which she is wearing, including the scarf (What scarf? Do you see a scarf?). Now, even those of you that are “creatively” challenged can admit that’s not going to do a thing to sell those products.

In my opinion, when you have to use “editorial” content to explain to your customer what you are attempting to do with your catalog, then you’ve already missed the point of what a catalog does. A catalog sells product by making the consumer see the product and say “Wow, I want that.” You should not have to tell them why you think they should want it.

However, here’s my biggest problem with the catalog. In Rodale’s effort to create a lifestyle catalog of “healthy solutions for a happy life”, they assembled a mish-mash of products.  Collectively, the products have a theme of being good for you and good for the earth, including:

  • $102 organic cotton bra and matching $68 organic cotton panty
  • standard hand-crank apple peeler for $65, which Amazon sells for $12!
  • 68 oz. spray bottle of Organic Youth Serum for $98, (“anti-aging serum contains organic prickly pear seed oil”)
  • “Oversized Cashmere Scarf” for $188, with no information on the size of this “oversized” product, and no information on the cashmere other than it being 100% cashmere. But what kind of cashmere? It makes a difference if you are going to spend $188.


Ignore the ridiculous pricing for the exact same products found elsewhere for 1/5 of Rodale’s price. Ignore the amateurish creative mistakes (which should have gone away by the time they got to the third issue). Focus on this – by bouncing all around from a merchandise perspective from daywear, to cosmetics, to housewares, to jewelry, they have failed to position themselves as being a “leader” in anything. Instead they have tried – as many other catalogs before have tried and failed to do – to create a “lifestyle” catalog around a theme that sounds good in principle, but lacks the ability to drive a “response”.

Consumers buy products from catalogs because they envision themselves using them. They want products that meet their needs, and if it is apparel, that will “look good” on them. They may feel good when that purchase also supports a higher goal such as fair trade or organic fabric, but as many other catalogs have discovered over the years, those factors are not compelling enough to sustain a catalog based solely on good deeds and being “socially conscious”.

The Rodale catalog reminds me very much of the catalog which Reader’s Digest launched around 2005 called American Made, in which every product was made in the USA. Again they had a mish-mash of products that were connected only by a common thread of being made in this country. As I recall, it lasted about two years.


The final “odd thing” about the Rodale catalog was the last page, which contain a subscription offer for each of their magazines, none of which was more than $15, and single issues for $3. This final page was totally incongruous to the rest of what they were attempting to do. Doesn’t anyone ever look at how dumb some of this stuff looks?

In the past six weeks, I’ve had a ton of new subscribers to the blog. I can tell that many of you are analysts in marketing and merchandise, and well as marketing and merchanside managers and directors.  You are typically not the ones that come up with ideas for boondoggle like this catalog. But you are responsible for executing those plans. Yes, I have been harsh on this catalog, but no harsher than I have been with other catalogs over the past 20 years, starting with my old “What Were They Thinking” presentations. I have highlighted the faults with this catalog today to illustrate a point to the new generation of catalog and ecommerce employees, which is this: when someone launches a catalog or makes significant changes to an existing catalog that has NO EXPERIENCE in what they are doing – watch out. Because when it fails, you don’t want to be standing near the fan.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

Fall & Holiday Catalog and Ecommerce Observations Part 2

November 8, 2015

Current Performance: October results were a mixed bag for many of our clients. After conferring with Mike Hayden at 4Cite Marketing, in general I’d say response continued to be soft for most mailers, anywhere from 5% to 10% down. There were a few exceptions, notably several hard goods mailers, but apparel continues to be soft, […]

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Datamann Turns 40

November 4, 2015

This fall, Datamann celebrates our 40th anniversary.  I don’t usually write shameless plugs about Datamann, but that is exactly what today’s posting is – a shameless plug for our company and our services. If you have no interest in learning a little about Datamann, who we are, and how we got to where we are, […]

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Synergy, and The Day The Floor Fell From Under Our Feet 10 Years Ago

November 1, 2015

Stay with me here – this posting is not just a funny story about an event that could have had significant consequences, it is a universal story of “customer synergy and new acquisitions that did not turn out well” applicable to all. A reader emailed a few weeks back and asked if I was ever […]

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When Your Catalog Is The Last Vestige of Communism and Marxism

October 25, 2015

When your merchants tell you that every product in the assortment has to be presented in the catalog, and presented in an equal way – do you ever tell them that you are tired of their SKU barfing? A few weeks ago, one of my readers (a B2B cataloger) and I exchanged emails around the […]

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We Are An Industry of Spiffs

October 18, 2015

The most insidious spiffs are the ones that most of you don’t think about. When I joined Brookstone over 25 years ago, I had no retail experience, only catalog experience, and did not understand or know the meaning of a “spiff”.  During my first week there, it was a term I heard all the time. […]

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Fall 2015 Catalog and Ecommerce Observations Part 1

October 11, 2015

The avalanche of Holiday catalogs has begun, so time for some commentary and observations on what catalogers are doing. Current Sales: Based on what I’m hearing from clients and other mailers, response was soft to very soft in September. We do have a few clients that are above plan, but most are not. Above all […]

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Turn The Question Around and Remove Yourself from The Equation

October 4, 2015

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 […]

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Presidential Politics, No Snow, and An Unholy Trinity – Africa, Hillstrom, LaPierre

September 27, 2015

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 – […]

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