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