Seed catalogs are stuck in a time warp. I bought some garden products –including some seeds – last spring from a catalog. In mail order tradition, this led to me receiving almost a dozen seed catalogs this year, and with one minor exception, these catalogs have not changed in appearance or design in 50 years.
Why haven’t seed catalogs changed? I’ve only worked with a few seed mailers over the years, but the sense I had was that these folks are the biggest practitioners of “we’ve always done it that way”. Let’s take a look at some specific examples.
Here it is the last few days of March, and many of you have already begun planting flowers and even seeds. It may be spring everywhere else in America, but I’m still looking at 2 feet of snow on my lawn and my gardens. (I know – quit complaining – I’m the one who chose to live in the tundra of New Hampshire). Yes, I recognize that some gardeners chase away winter’s cabin fever by planning their gardens early, and hence, their seed orders. But 6 of the 12 catalogs I received this spring arrived before Christmas. That’s akin to when I first started in the catalog business thirty years ago and we mailed our first Christmas gift catalog right after the 4th of July.
A seed catalog mailer once explained to me the reason they mailed their books before Christmas was because most “gardening columnists” that wrote for local newspapers always began writing their “seed catalog reviews” in late November, so they had to get the catalogs out early. OK – so why not just mail 1,000 catalogs to the known newspaper columnists, and mail the rest when the consumer is ready to order? Just as the average consumer has shifted their 4th quarter shopping into the post-Thanksgiving and even mid-December timeframe, I’ll bet the average gardener has shifted their seed and plant purchasing closer to when they will actually use them. Even if they haven’t, a quick look at the map will tell you that mailing me a 98 page catalog on November 12 (Stokes), just doesn’t make sense.
Sure, some commercial growers may order their seeds before the end of the year, but the average home gardener, especially one in the north? I’m assuming that the co-ops were the source of my name to those other 12 catalogs (Oh! look out, here comes more undeserved co-op bashing), so why can’t the co-ops also tell the mailer when I’m most likely to order seeds? The seed catalog mailer that used that intelligence to time prospect mailings to when I’m actually prone to be buying would have a huge advantage.
It’s the creative look of seed catalogs that makes them look like holdovers from the Eisenhower Administration. First, they almost all look alike. If you hid the name on the cover, and showed these dozen catalogs to the average gardener, I doubt they could tell them apart. Second, they are all in a race to see how many varieties of each seed type they can cram on a spread. Third, every seed/plant is treated the same – heaven forbid that one seed/plant should be given a hero presentation, or be highlighted over another. Finally, why do they almost all paginate the flower section in alphabetical order? Asters are always first, zinnias always last.
The two spreads below are from the Stokes catalog, but are identical to spreads from a dozen other catalogs. In my opinion, there is absolutely no effort here to sell me as a consumer. This is just SKU barfing at its organic worst.
I know why there is absolutely no effort to sell me as a consumer. There is a merchant/buyer at each of these companies responsible for a genre or two of plants. Let’s say there’s a guy who is responsible for corn, radishes and peas. His annual performance is measured by how many total seeds he is able to sell. He does not want to lose any buyers by not having every obscure variety of radish available, even if 80% of radish sales could be accomplished with one or two varieties. He’s terrified that anything less than 30 varieties of radishes would look sub-standard, compared to the other catalogs. So because he is only allotted six pages in the catalog, he has to cram all of his corn, peas and radishes together, and won’t highlight the one or two varieties that could outsell the others three to one – if they were given the space. Thus, everything gets treated the same – leaving me the poor consumer to wonder – which one of these is best for me? How do I decide? You’ve made the selection process so hard, I choose nothing.
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that there was one catalog that challenged the status quo. Burpee’s catalog – with most of the spreads guilty of the creative sins mentioned above – at least has about 25% of the spreads designed as the one below, where there was a mix of vegetables and flowers, and which are shown in a way to make me as a consumer respond to the two major motivators for most gardeners.
In my opinion, there are two reasons that people garden. It has nothing to do with being green, buying local, or even feeding your family. People garden because of pride and envy – they are proud when they can show off a 30 pound pumpkin and want their neighbors to be envious of their early tomatoes. This spread from Burpee speaks to those two human motivators. In addition, Burpee was the only seed catalog I saw that featured callouts to videos on how to garden (“How to grow Asian Greens – see the video at Burpee.com”).
Until seed companies change the way that merchants and buyers are held accountable for the productivity of the catalog, seed catalogs are going to continue to look like anachronisms from times long ago. And consumers will continue to turn to local home centers where the variety of and choices for radishes is limited to one or two, but it makes the selection process a lot less fearsome.
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by Bill LaPierre
VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics
Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235