Things That Matter

by Bill LaPierre on 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 anniversary with Datamann and I have to say the time has flown by. I love my job. After having been a client of Datamann for nearly 10 years, and having referred clients here for 15 more years, it was a great move for me to join Datamann in 2011.

I commented to one of our clients the other day that I’d been here 5 years, and his response surprised me. “One of the things that has amazed me about Datamann is that we still have all the same people on our account – including you. At our last vendor, our account team changed weekly.” This is one of those things that matters.

Datamann is not the biggest service bureau in the world. But we do have incredible client loyalty – some clients have been with us for almost 40 years. The same goes for our employees. When I first brought Brookstone to Datamann back in 1989, my two account managers were John Nadeau and Bill Mann, both of whom are still here. Though their roles are different today, both of them still work with clients daily.

We have hardly any overhead.  All our staff perform hands-on work for clients. We have a simple philosophy of providing the latest technologies in a way that is best for our clients. And I owe all of my success at Datamann to the incredible team of people we have working here.

Much has changed in these past five years, within the industry and at Datamann. Here are some of the significant highlights:

  • Of course I’m going to tell you that Datamann has continued to grow, adding new clients and new staff. What else would you expect me to say? We’ve added new services and new technologies. But, we’ve lost some clients too – either because they have gone out of business, ceased mailing a catalog, were purchased by some new corporate giant, etc. The industry has consolidated – you’ve all seen it, you’ve felt the impact and it is no different for us.
  • We’ve also lost one or two clients because they wanted to do the one thing all sports team do when they think they need greener pastures – they changed the coach/manager. Sales were down, response was trending down, so they did the one thing that they could actually control – they changed vendors because someone else promised they had the “secret sauce”. Then they discovered that the other guy did not have anything any different. The secret sauce of social media, or sales attribution, or leveraged synergy was all an illusion, and top of all that – their service stinks. Those are the clients we always gladly welcome back.
  • Datamann now sponsors and hosts, for the VT/NH Marketing Group, the largest single-day seminar for catalogs in the country. March 2017 will be our 5th year hosting this event, which continues to grow each year. Yes, it is an event for our clients, but is also open to all mailers, with the proceeds of registration going to the VT/NH Marketing Group. We expect over 300 mailers in 2017. This is one of those things that matters to the industry, because no other company or organization is filling this need.
  • In five years, I’ve built hundreds of catalog circulation plans, executed an equal number of merges, conducted numerous merchandise analyses and provided a ton of catalog critiques. And along the way, I’ve reminded myself what every consultant already knows, but no mailer wants to believe – almost all catalogs are the same. Yes, response rates are different, the dynamics of merchandise performance are different, but in general, the problems and opportunities are the same for all catalogers. And this goes for our UK and US clients alike.
  • This blog has become the biggest single source of new clients for Datamann. Think about that. We don’t advertise in any of what is left of the trade publications. We don’t exhibit anymore at the Catalog Conference because…well, it disappeared. We don’t have a dedicated sales staff. Instead, new clients find us through the postings I provide each week on what I see happening – both good and bad – in the catalog industry. And if you have been reading this blog a while, you know I can be critical – especially of myself when I make a mistake. I strive to be truthful and that is what catalogers want.
  • And here is a further incentive to become a Datamann client – I don’t usually write brutal assessments in the blog of our clients’ catalogs. I will give those assessments directly to the client – even when they don’t ask for one, but they don’t get broadcast to my thousands of readers.
  • Our industry is not doing well. You know it, and you know the reasons why, so let’s not dwell on the fact. But, man, let’s also not ignore it either. I’m always amused when some pure play or retailer decides to mail a catalog, and the catalog vendor community starts broadcasting the news, underscored with a steady drumbeat of “catalogs are not dead”. They are not dead yet, and the end may not yet be in sight, but you can see the trends, and you know you do have to change.
  • I’m going to close with a comment on change. Much of what I have written about and spoken about publically in my speeches and privately with my clients over the past 5 years is the need to change. You get it. But you want painless solutions on how to suddenly make that change happen. You argue about trivial things that have no impact on your long-term survival. You loved my series of postings earlier this year on the dangers of the co-ops, but how many of you specifically took money out of your co-op prospecting budget and put it into a completely different method of customer acquisition? How many of you instead joined yet another co-op, which is only going to hasten your demise?

I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago called “How Do You Change Old School Thinking?” I had three unsubscribes that day – and they were all CEOs. I didn’t name any names in that posting; I didn’t even have any of these three people in mind when I wrote it. But, evidently, they saw me criticizing the way they run their businesses, and their lack of change and decided to take action. They unsubscribed! Good for them. But, I would much rather have had them send me an email or call me and say “Bill, you are wrong, wrong, wrong and here’s why…”.  I answer all emails, and if I feel you have proven me wrong, which does happen, I will gladly publish a mea culpa. This blog is not intended to make Datamann or Bill LaPierre look like we have all the answers. It is meant to further a discussion on the things that matter in this industry.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


Two Catalog Critiques: Not Driving Home The Sale

by Bill LaPierre on 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 usually because the wheels have come off the bus, and they are stuck.

I don’t waste their time. If there are good things to be said about their catalog, I will point those out. Rather, I focus on the things that are broken, and which are hurting response. And, I’m not subtle about it.

I want the client to know where I’m coming from so that there is no misunderstanding when I leave. No one gets confused by trying to look for nuance in “I hate your catalog. I’ve always hated your catalog”.

In doing this for 25+ years, I have also learned the very tough lesson of detaching my own personal taste from that of the target audience of the catalog.

So here is a simple truth – most catalogs do OK from a creative perspective, because they understand that their catalog is supposed to sell stuff, and not be an entertainment piece to the masses, nor is it going to the Library of Congress or Museum of Modern Art. They also understand that although their brand is important, the catalog’s job is to sell. Catalogs suffer in response when they forget that concept.

Neither Blu Dot nor Eye Bobs are a Datamann client, and I know nothing about the two companies beyond what I read on their websites. Blu Dot was founded in 1997 and Eye Bobs in 2001. I don’t know how long each has been mailing a catalog, but this is the first time I’ve seen books from either one. I must also state that I requested the Blu Dot catalog from their website and received Eye Bobs on one of my decoy names, so neither company was trying to target me as a consumer.

That’s a good thing as neither catalog is aimed at me as a consumer. Most of you that know me know that I’m pretty conservative and square.  I’ve been wearing glasses for more than 50 years, and aside from my short-lived John Denver phase, most pairs I’ve owned would be something that Clark Kent would feel comfortable wearing.  As for the furniture in our house, it is all heavy maple or oak pieces made in the 1930s to 1960s, and mostly came from the furniture factories of Gardner, MA – Heywood Wakefield, Conant & Ball, Bent Brothers and Nichols and Stone. I nearly cried earlier this year when I had finally had to throw out my 1981 Zenith floor console TV (in the simulated maple cabinet) for a new flat-screen TV which looks like it belongs on Star Trek.

You get the point – I’m not their target customer.  Moreover, I can’t see ever owning a single item in either catalog – but this where I detach my personal taste from judging the merits of their respective catalogs.

Both catalogs have several things in common. They are both aimed at a pretty “hip” though not necessarily younger customer. They both waste the opening page with editorial content from the owners telling you how great they are (this usually goes away by about the fifth year of mailing the catalog when the owners finally realize all the sales they have lost by not featuring products on page 2). And, although both catalogs do sell “off the page”, I’m sure these catalog’s primary purpose is to be both a retail (each company has stores) and online sales driver.

Let’s start with Blu Dot, and remember, I’m not judging the product but the catalog. It is modern furniture; some of it could be considered minimalist. Much of it looks like what my dentist had in his office in 1965. But I’m sure it has its fans and devotees. To me, the catalog “creative” meshes well with the nature of the product, and the intended audience – meaning that if you would have this stuff in your house, the creative would probably resonate with you.

I love a dense catalog and this has plenty of products, which is good. For the most part, the products are adequately shown (it drives me nuts when a furniture catalog shows an item which is 90% hidden by other items).


There are several products with special features which are demonstrated – great! The copy is minimal, only stating the product name, color and price. The font is microscopic – at least to my tired eyes – and can’t be more that 4 or 5 point.


But as stated, Blu Dot probably is not trying to sell off the page. The catalog is meant to get you into one of their stores (apparently only 9, 3 of which are outside the US), or to their website. OK – fair enough. You don’t need large font for that.

However, in my opinion, the catalog is missing a huge opportunity to sell by understating their website. Blu Dot’s website reveals an interesting fact – the founders of the company are two architects and a sculptor. They design all their company’s products. It goes without saying that they heavily influence the design of the catalog – and there is the one weakness I see.  The catalog is over designed. It is too perfect. Several of the spreads have all the warmth and charm of North Dakota in March.


The catalog does nothing to drive you to their website to see other styles. The additional choices are implied throughout the catalog (where there are additional options, the copy simply states “additional fabrics and colors available”). But, they don’t show you what those additional colors/fabrics/sizes are, or even tell you how to find out.   Come on people, your catalog is meant to capture orders, not turn people away.

There are few hints throughout the book of a human touch, or even a little levity, as in the photos below, but these are rare.


I’m sure that everyone on the photoshoot absolutely loved these photos and the owners are saying “How can you say our catalog lacks warmth? We had a model standing on a table on page 72! That was warm!”

My point is that the book is technically well put together. On the website the link to request a catalog is even labeled “Our Award Winning Catalog”. Blu-Dot-Spread-5

And if you have been reading this blog long enough you know that any catalog which cites that it won an award – in my opinion – is destined for pending failure and doom. Only your mother cares that your catalog won an award, and even she would rather have a font size she could read.

But the catalog does nothing to get me to the website to see the additional styles and color options, and hopefully, close the sale. And in microscopic print at the bottom of each page is a call-out mentioning that I can get frees swatches. Who is going to see that?  Really? Your creative – or lack thereof – is killing you.

My advice to the folks at Blu Dot – yes, you are geniuses at design. But you stink at selling. Lighten up a little and focus on creating a catalog that sells and drives response – you’ll be happy with the results.

Now, for Eye Bobs. According to Google (always a reliable source) 61% of Americans wear glasses. Wow! So there is a huge marketplace for these products. How come there haven’t been more glasses catalogs before? Well, my guess is that most people are like me and feel that you have to get your glasses – no matter how poor the selection – from your local optometrist.

Eye Bobs is not for everyone. The styles have a distinctive look, and would appeal to a certain type of person – probably the type of guy that wears bow-ties, or who was known as “Skippy” in college. (See, I’m not introducing my own personal feelings about the products at all).


Again, the book has a ton of products per spread – which is great.


And I love the way they illustrate how to determine what size head you have. This is clever.


But there is a problem with this book. It was not until I was going over this book closely – really closely – that I realized these are reading glasses, and are not necessarily meant to be “prescription” glasses.  OK – maybe I’m just thick, but I think the average consumer would make the same mistake. Sure, there is a headline on the cover, in ransom note style, that calls these “readers”. And, if I had bothered to read the president’s letter – which I never do – I might have understood these were reading glasses.

There is a tiny callout at the bottom of each page which states the glasses are available in ten different magnifications. But there is no guide to tell me which magnification I need, or what the difference is between 2.0 and 2.75.  This is the heart of the catalog – the reason why people would buy these – and yet it was left out.

And even though there is one – just one – call-out inside the catalog that states that a “qualified optician can replace eyebobs’ reading lenses with your custom prescription” – the point is lost that these are really intended as just reading glasses.

My advice to the folks at Eye Bobs: you were too close to the design of the catalog and waaaay too close to your own story, that you assumed everyone understood the underlying premise of your product.   For people just needing a pair of reading glasses, this catalog is a great resource – with some cute and funky designs. But you fail to communicate that simple point. To someone who has worn glasses for 50+ years, I immediately assumed this was a catalog of frames to which I would have to get my prescription lenses adapted.

The lesson that I’ve tried to communicate about these two catalogs is that you need to step back from your catalog and ask if you are doing enough to sell. In both cases, I believe these catalogs failed to do that. We are in an extremely competitive environment, and yes, there is still a place for catalogs. But don’t squander your opportunity.  Don’t be subtle because you think it enhances your brand to do so. What will enhance your brand is depositing big checks in the bank from increased sales. Clobber you customer over the head with the important messages that will drive response – don’t bury them at the bottom of the page in 4 point font.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

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. […]

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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 […]

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What Happened To Selling?

July 31, 2016

Now that we have arrived at mid-Summer, I imagine many of my subscribers are on vacation/holiday, so I’m going to offer something short and sweet today. I received the short email below from a client, who wanted to share his frustration with me on the difficulty his company encountered recently when trying to break out […]

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The Tyranny of the Creative Merchant

July 24, 2016

At the beginning of July, I tried a little experiment. I wrote two postings on catalog creative, which is a topic I infrequently cover. Open rates increased. Readership went way up. And I acquired a ton of new subscribers (welcome to all of you new readers). Consequently, I’m going to stick with a winning formula […]

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2016 Summer Catalog Observations

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 – […]

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Summer Postcards

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 […]

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Bill’s 8 “Irrefutable” Rules for Catalog Covers

July 4, 2016

I usually don’t write articles that offer tips, like the “five ways to increase email response this holiday”. But since this is a vacation week for many of you, I wanted to do something different. I’m going to address a question about catalog covers posed by a client two weeks ago after my posting on […]

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At Least You Don’t Have These Problems

June 26, 2016

I have some good news about catalogs towards the end of this article – but I’m going to make you read a bit before you get there. It is almost July 1 – halfway through the year. It has been three months since the Datamann seminar at which we gave you a comprehensive list of […]

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