The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

by Bill LaPierre on April 13, 2014

I had more comments from readers last week than I’ve had in a long time regarding an observation I made at the very end of last week’s posting, which was not even related to the main subject last week. I remarked that “If you are still including a President’s Letter in your catalog, you should know there are only two people that read it – the copy writer that wrote it, and the President’s mother. And even she just skims it now.”

Evidently, many of you are still trying to convince someone in upper management or your creative team to ditch the President’s Letter.

How do we get stuck in ruts like this? The common answer is that “we’ve always done it that way”. In many instances, that is the only reason necessary to justify doing ineffective things over and over. Or actually, to ignore something that you know is wrong, and are willing to overlook.

But, I often see another reason we fall into a rut with our catalogs – the willing suspension of disbelief.  This was a concept first developed by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 who postulated that if a writer could inject a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.

A non-catalog example would be Star Trek. How come there is no zero-gravity? Why doesn’t Captain Kirk float around the space ship?  Or in the Die Hard movies, how does Bruce Willis get shot 10 times and only need a band-aid at the end of the movie? We suspend our disbelief because it fits with the narrative.

The same thing happens with our catalogs. We believe it when the Creative Director or an outside consultant tells us that we need to “connect with our customer” and build brand awareness. We give them the first spread, sometimes the second spread, and sadly, sometimes even the third opening spread, to build synergy, set the tone, build the brand, etc. Those spreads are full of great inspirational shots, or letters from the founder/owner (often with their photo). And, there is absolutely NO selling because that would detract from the efforts at customer engagement.

What a bunch of crap! We know deep down that the people telling us this stuff haven’t got a clue about what they are talking about.  But we suspend our disbelief because we think “Well, maybe there’s a chance it will work for us. Maybe we will be that one in 32,000 catalogs for which not featuring products on the opening three spreads will work better for than actually trying to sell something on those three spreads.”

We believe it when merchants tell us that a new product is going to do well, even though we have a gut feeling that the merchant is living in a fantasy world. Or when the merchant tells us that the item can sell for $80, when everyone in the room says they would only pay $28, at most, for the item. The merchant gives us an impassioned rationale on why they thing it will sell, and why it will sell at $80, and slowly we start to suspend our collective disbelief. What we need is for someone to say “Are you smoking crack?”

Let me give you some real world examples. Every year, during the first week of April, I get an LL Bean Home catalog. Every year for as long as I can remember, it has featured an Adirondack chair on the cover. This years’ cover is on the left, last year on the right.


LL Bean must sell a ton of these chairs (although since they are the most uncomfortable chair in the world, they should sell them as something you let guests sit in that you hope won’t stay long). But as a consumer, I look at this cover and say “same old chairs, nothing new here”, and often don’t even bother to look further.

The folks at LL Bean are smart people. I’m sure they have data that proves that response is best to this catalog when they feature the same chair, year after year. But I have to believe that what is happening is “collective willing suspension of disbelief”. No one is asking whether the long term impact is that they are boring their customer to death.

The Adirondack chair on the front cover could be a subjective issue – but this next example is certainly not. Every year, during the first week of February I receive a kids catalog from both LL Bean and Lands’ End. When our son was the age that matched the products in those two catalogs, my wife bought a lot of our son’s clothes from each.


Our son turned 14 this week. He is almost 6 feet tall, and wears a men’s small. We haven’t purchased from either catalog in about 6 years. Moreover, we purchase much of his clothes (men’s small) from each company’s respective main books. You’d think that someone would have noticed that over a course of 14 years, our purchases from these catalogs had peaked and then stopped, followed by a corresponding move by someone in the household to buying men’s small products from the core catalog (which sure isn’t me). Maybe someone at each company could do a simple “customer age progression”.

Instead what I suspect is happening is that in each company, our family’s RFM score looks fantastic, since we are active buyers from each. Thus, someone in the modeling/circulation department is practicing “willing suspension of disbelief” and figuring that maybe we’ll come back to buying from the kid’s catalog again.

We all do things in our organizations that make no sense because we believe in our heart that they are true, even though we know in our head that there is no possible way it could happen.  We believe because someone who seems like they should know what they are talking about told us so. This has always been our catalog growth strategy.

However, listen to your first instinct. Listen to that little voice that is saying “no way is that going to happen”. Stop doing stupid things because you think everyone is going to jump down your throat for suggesting change, or at least, suggesting a catalog strategy that differs from the accepted norm.   Change is good, and change is never ending. But common sense still trumps all.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


We Hardly Knew You

by Bill LaPierre on April 6, 2014

I have a box of catalogs under my desk, and two more boxes in the loft of my garage, labeled “Catalogs No Longer Mailing”.  The historian in me led me to start collecting these books years ago. Even as I sit and look at them today, I can only vaguely recall some of them, and most I don’t recall at all, even though they were all addressed to me.

There are few that do stand out, mainly because they were started by people locally in here in New England, and I had a chance to talk with them. Most of those owners had “no clue” what they were doing; they simply wanted to be able to say they were catalogers”. They certainly knew nothing about catalog survival or catalog growth strategies.



I bring this topic up because these old catalogs are a physical reminder of a failed experiment on some entrepreneur’s part. These catalogs came into our homes, and as consumers, we were aware of them – though probably not to the degree the company had hoped or planned. We “catalog professionals” could examine and critique them. Most important, they went on our collective radar screen.

It’s much harder to do today, because the “new catalog launch” market dried up years ago, as everything shifted online.  And as we all know, there are literally millions of online websites of companies selling everything under the sun. When they “die” or cease operation, they just disappear into the ether of the internet. We don’t have the physical reminders of their existence. So, new entrepreneurs coming along keep making the same mistakes.

I was sent a link last week from Datamann’s resident Texan, about a website in Nashville called Made South. It is a “membership” website to which you have to be “invited” to join. (Evidently, their membership screening is not too exclusive, as I requested an invitation, and was sent one immediately. So if a Yankee like me can get on the list, the rest of you should have no trouble either).

But here’s what is unique/different about Made South. If you “join” their program, every three months you’ll be sent a gift box of “stuff” made in one of the southern US states. But you don’t know what it’s going to be. Plus, this surprise box of southern comforts is $47 a pop, or $188 a year. Moreover, the website gives scant details about how the products are selected, whether you can custom tailor your “surprise” products to meet your tastes/needs (you can’t). It doesn’t even give you a hint of the types of rural crafts people in the south from whom they’ll be selecting products.  Boy, you’d have to really like Richard Petty and Boss Hogg to sign up for this with so few facts – this is a real leap of faith.

Ok, I get that they are trying something new. But, just like all those defunct catalogs sitting in my garage that ignored good catalog practices, these guys are violating every rule of internet shopping.  They make it hard to sign up, impossible to learn anything about what you get, and take NO advantage of using links to sites of southern culture and southern crafts to drive further awareness. There is however, the requisite photo of the owner’s family, and a story about how they came up with the idea for this. All cute stuff, but no one cares.

What is important for this site to succeed is merchandise, and they are doing nothing to build the “product romance” part of their business. You can’t rely on a leap of faith to get customers to buy your product – you’ve got to constantly be selling.

About 20 years ago, I was contacted by a family that wanted to start a catalog of products from Vermont. The father even told me about the dream he had which provided the inspiration to launch the business, and which he repeated in his President’s Letter on page 2 of the one book they mailed. I gave them a list of all the reasons why their business was going to fail, and why they should follow my grandfather’s advice on how to double your money “take your money out of your wallet, fold it over, and put back in your wallet”. Instead, they spent a considerable amount of the family’s savings on this boondoggle, which failed.

The web only makes that process so much easier to do. It lowers the cost of entry of being a “merchant” as it eliminates the expense of a catalog that faced so many entrepreneurs in the past. You can get on the web with relative ease, because at least one of your brothers-in-law is a web designer. And hey, if you’re selling on the web, that alone is reason to expect to be a success, right?

Some of you will succeed. Some of you will desire to ignore the advice of consultants who are trying to help you, and suffer the consequences.  But that is the history of retailing.

Note: I don’t usually give creative tips, but here’s one: If you are still including a “President Letter” in your catalog, you should know there are only two people that read it – the copy writer that wrote it, and the President’s mother. And even she just skims it now.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


The Amazon Implosion

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Observations on NEMOA 2014

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How Can Anyone Be Awed by This Insipid Drivel?

March 9, 2014

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Put the Odds In Your Favor

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Amazon is Out To Get You

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Brookstone’s Corkscrew Mentality

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An article in the Wall Street Journal last Friday confirmed what had been rumored for weeks – that Brookstone was close to bankruptcy. Coming out of a disastrous Christmas season of poor sales, Brookstone does not have enough cash to make interest payments on $125 million in debt. This is not first time the company […]

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When Catalogs Try To Look Hip

February 9, 2014

If you know me, you know I’m pretty conservative. At conferences, I’m still one of the few guys in a suit and tie, partly out of respect to my clients, but mostly because I feel that’s the way you ought to dress at such events. I drive a pick-up truck, and enjoy NASCAR. I’m bald, […]

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