Lifestyle Creep

by Bill LaPierre on May 25, 2015

Most of you had yesterday off for Memorial Day in the US, and it was a bank holiday in the UK. Summer has started, although catalogs have been in “summer mode” for a few months.

Here is something that baffles me. In apparel catalogs, the right model can make a huge difference in selling a product. If the customer sees themselves embodied in what the model looks like, they aspire to want to buy that piece of apparel. Demographically appropriate models are good for response – that is a pretty well established fact of cataloging.

So why do all the hard goods catalogs go to extreme lengths to make their catalogs devoid of models, or said another way – why are there no people?  This is particularly true of catalogs selling lawn and deck furniture.

When I worked at Brookstone 20 years ago, we always found that models  helped “humanize” a chair, bench or hammock. Our feeling was that the customer could envision themselves relaxing in that hammock when there was a model that fit our customer’s demographic utilizing the product.

Brookstone-Hammock-1989

Brookstone-Chaise-1990

 

But you’d have to look high and low to find a model seated in any outdoor furniture today. Whether it is Improvements, Solutions, Plow & Hearth, Country Casual, Birch Land or LL Bean Home, there are no people using any of the furniture.

Outdoor-Furniture-covers

Catalogs still show models/people coming in and out of screen doors, or kneeling in the garden, although, it is usually a “headless” gardener.   But there are never people in the furniture. The photos always show that someone was just there – but you missed them. There’s always a glass of lemonade, or a salad on the table – but no one around to enjoy them. It’s like a tornado warning siren went off and everyone but the photographer went to the storm cellar.

I know why this has happened – it’s because of “lifestyle creep”. Catalogers  believe their catalog is a “lifestyle” catalog, and that people across the country are looking for the “Improvements” look, or the “Birchlane” look as part of their patio setting.  The sense that every catalog is now a lifestyle catalog has “crept” into our collective consciousness. We no longer sell products – we provide a lifestyle. As a result, we’ve taken our eye off of actually selling the product, because we believe it will sell itself simply by showing it with enough pillows.

Here is an example of this phenomenon, taken to an extreme. The bench below was the cover on the Solutions catalog, and then inside on page 4. But can you tell the main “benefit” of this bench?

Solutions-Bench

The benefit is that it folds up to store, or easily move around (see below). That point was totally lost on me until I went looking for the copy block to see how much it cost, and then saw this benefit.  In a pre-lifestyle-creep era, the Creative Director for this catalog, or the merchant, would have shown the bench in a patio setting, but would also have shown it being effortlessly tucked away by “Joe-homeowner” in the garage or basement.

Solutions-Folding-Bench-v2Granted, most outdoor furniture does not have a specific benefit like this one. But in our effort to romanticize every piece of lawn furniture, and create a “lifestyle” setting, we have failed to remember that “Joe-homeowner” buys products that he/she can envision themselves using.  In my opinion, stark photos of patio furniture devoid of people lack any sense of warmth or passion for the ultimate user of the product. I’ll be focusing more in the weeks ahead on the folly of thinking your catalog is a lifestyle brand.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

This Catalog Cost $0.63 to Produce and Ship to You

by Bill LaPierre on May 10, 2015

I keep reading various accounts in the trade press about the “resurgence of catalogs” based on the fact that several online pure play companies are launching catalogs as a way of acquiring customers. And yes, there is truth to the fact that some pure plays are mailing catalogs. Whether they have the slightest idea of what they are doing, and whether they will successfully and profitability acquire any customers remains to be seen.

I’ve been meaning to write this posting for the past several months, but was having difficulty bringing the story together. There is a reality to the online pure plays that they excel in being innovative online, but that does not necessarily translate to their doing well when it comes to launching catalogs. They think that a test mailing of 20,000 catalogs will give them an accurate read on future potential. They believe that the catalog will grow “organically” like their website did, with thousands – nay, millions – of consumers requesting copies online.

Moreover, since they are not catalog shoppers themselves, they have no clue as to what a consumer using a catalog is looking for. Thus, they look at existing catalogs and rationalize that we have it all wrong, and they decide to “innovate” with the catalog.

Part of the reason that I’ve held off on writing this posting is that Datamann is working with several  of these start-ups, and contrary to what many of you must think, I am concerned with client retention here at Datamann. So it was fortuitous that last Saturday, I got a gift from the catalog gods. It was a start-up catalog called Everlane, addressed to my wife. Many of you have heard me critique catalogs for the past 20 years, so you know I don’t say this lightly – this has to be one of the worst catalogs I have ever seen.

They obviously sought no help from the catalog community in designing the book, because no catalog professional or consultant would have assented to this final product. Among the many faux pas:

  • A total waste of the opening spread, the most important real estate in the whole catalog. There is an index on page 2 (why would you have an index in a 52 page catalog with minimal products?), and page 3 features the obligatory letter from management that every new launch feels compelled to include, telling “Their Story”, including their devotion to Radical Transparency. Oh, spare me.
  • The overuse of white type throughout the catalog (see below left), even on light gray and cream colored backgrounds, which is impossible to read. Freshmen design students don’t even make this mistake.Everlane-copy-and-Model
  • The most “dour” looking model (see above) I’ve ever seen, who never smiles. She’s supposed to make me feeling like buying?
  • Eight (8!) pages with no product, but instead featuring profiles of “original” artists from New York. How does this space pay for itself with response?  Yeah, I know, it’s not supposed to. Sales are overrated. Live for the experience.Everlane---artists-spread
  • An additional nine (9!!) pages of editorial, including the previously mentioned opening spread, with no products, no selling. That’s 32% of the catalog not selling anything. (Oh, it would be so cool to know what management estimated the response rate to this catalog was going to be!)
  • The inside back cover exit spread, with one page listing three links to their website with a total of ten words of explanation (see below), and the other page offering an explanation of their “minimalist approach to design”, along with some spools of thread. Minimalist indeed.Everlane-back-inside-spread
  • A callout on the back cover – and nowhere else in the catalog – offering $10 off orders of $50 or more. If you had asked the designer, you would have been told it was sacrilege to have put this offer on the front cover, where it might have actually had some impact. Let’s hope they don’t spend a lot of time analyzing the impact of that promotional offer.

The most comical aspect of the catalog is the back cover, reproduced below, that tells you that the catalog cost $0.63. At the very bottom, in what is probably 4 point type, is the comment “At Everlane we’re committed to Radical Transparency. That means showing you all of our costs and processes.”

Everlane-back-cover

What were they thinking? Which do you think is more important to driving sales – telling me how much the catalog cost, or actually showing me some product that I might want to buy?  Arrogance and ignorance are not secret ingredients for driving response, nor are they a long term strategy for catalog success.

It gets worse inside the catalog. Look at this men’s spread, selling a pocket t-shirt, which is not even shown (it’s under the sweater). Everlane sells it for $15, but their sense of “Radical Transparency” drives them to tell you that it traditionally sells for $45. I guess that is what they mean when they say they show you all their costs.

Everlane-Men's-tshirts

I’m sure there are probably a few guys in New York and California that would spend $45 for t-shirt, but there aren’t any here in New Hampshire. We’d go to Hanes.com, where their best men’s pocket t-shirt is $7, and available in a dozen colors, not four.

OSJL Yoga pants sign

How is what Everlane doing any different than what our local discount store does with the sign in the window (above) offering yoga pants for $11.99, “compare at $30-$36”? There is no difference. And there is no “Radical Transparency” at Everlane, because they are NOT telling me what they paid for the garment. Sure, on the website, they show me a ton of pictures of the factory in Los Angeles where they are made, but that is hardly radical transparency. And if they are so concerned about telling the truth and getting the facts out in the open – according to the web site, the t-shirt only comes in two colors (not four like the catalog states), and the home page states there is free shipping on my first order – which the catalog did not say.  Where’s the transparency here??

OK, I’m not their target customer. But neither is my wife. When I showed it to her, she said she’d never wear any of these styles, the few that were actually in the catalog. So they did a lousy job of targeting the offer as well.

I have been merciless on this catalog for good reason. I don’t want any of you regular readers to start trying to emulate this catalog. Everlane might be able to survive online. But they will never make it as a catalog with this format. Of course, I’m sure they don’t see themselves as being a catalog – they probably call themselves a magalog. But in my 30+ years in the catalog industry, I’ve never seen anyone sustain a business with this “minimalist design, editorial rich” format. It doesn’t work. It sucks cash like an industrial shop vac. The venture capitalists or investors behind this venture – none of whom I’m sure know anything about catalogs either – all probably loved the book when they received one in the mail, and showed it to their friends. But the hammer will fall when they realize it did nothing to drive sales, and only chewed up a ton of cash and other resources.

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you know I love webdriver catalogs, which this catalog fails at that too. This catalog gives absolutely no reason from a product perspective, to visit the Everlane website. Nothing that says – “hey, if you like what you see here, we have 500 more products on-line”.  No, that would be too overt. That would be “selling”. The creative director behind this catalog wants you to decide to visit the Everlane website not to buy anything, but “to share the experience”.

I know how to fix my lawnmower, and do a few other mechanical things around the house. But that does not qualify me to do my own dental work. Just because a company might excel at launching an innovative website does not mean that they know how to extend that success to a catalog. If you are a pure play contemplating starting a catalog – talk to some of us that have done this for a while. You may not agree with us, but we will probably save you a ton of money.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

The Red Flags are Waving

May 3, 2015

The red flags are waving, and I don’t think this is going to end well. A friend forwarded me a Lands’ End email last week with the subject line “Lands’ End would love your opinion”.  My friend and I used to work on the Lands’ End account in a prior company, having both spent many […]

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A Catalog Apollo Program

April 26, 2015

My father was a very logical and practical person. He always thought it was foolish that every little town in New England had its own police and fire departments. When you think about it, why should each town incur the fixed and variable expense of maintaining these expensive departments?   We have a regional high school […]

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All Stars – Bringing the Best of the Best

April 19, 2015

Indulge me this shameless plug.   I’m very proud of my wife. She is completing her second year as President of the Vermont/New Hampshire Marketing Group, which hosts its 27th Annual Conference on May 27th – 29th. (Click here for registration information for the conference). I was President of the same organization 20 years ago, and […]

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Dashboard Distraction

April 12, 2015

One of the things I love about my job at Datamann and this blog, are the many emails I get from blog subscribers, relating quirky things happening at their company.  I sometimes feel like a catalog industry equivalent of “Dear Abby”. I recently received an email from a client commenting that during last November and […]

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Smithsonian Catalog History Project – Part 1

April 8, 2015

If you have no interest in the history of catalogs and mail order in the US, you can skip today’s posting and not get into any trouble. If on the other hand, you would like a quick overview of how our industry got to where we are, read on. Several weeks ago, I announced here […]

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The Last Ice Dealer in Town

April 5, 2015

I received a very sad email a few weeks back from a subscriber to this blog, and since I have not seen anything about this news in any of the industry trades, I want to mention it here. The subscriber, who had been an employee of B&W Press for 15 years, was writing to say […]

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The Baffling Thing About Seed Catalogs

March 29, 2015

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. […]

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An Open Letter to Catalog CEOs in Rural Locations

March 22, 2015

In doing my research for the Smithsonian’s exhibit on the history of catalogs for the National Postal Museum, (to read my previous posting on this topic click here), I noticed a common thread among many companies that were started and grew during the post-World War II era into the 1970s. For a variety of different […]

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