Several weeks ago, I wrote that many of the older catalogs headquartered in New England that were still in existence, have survived as long as they have because they have stayed true to their merchandise direction, while always keeping an eye on making sure they were staying “current” without trying to be “contemporary”. A reader asked “what is wrong with being contemporary?”
There is nothing inherently wrong with it, if that is what your customer wants/expects in your merchandise. But for many of you, going the “contemporary” route is akin to following a short-lived fad. That’s when you lose your merchandise direction and the trust of your customer.
Some of you adapt products every day, without losing the trust of your customers. But some of you struggle with the concept because you constantly walk that line between having enough new products, while maintaining enough existing “winners” so that the book still resonates with your existing customer base. But carrying over “existing” product always carries the risk of making the customer say “there’s nothing new here”. You are so focused on bringing in new products, you fail to examine your existing assortment for products that can be modified/adapted, allowing you to squeeze out several more seasons of sales from those products.
Your customers love new product. For some of you, your customers and prospects also love tried and true “heritage” products, those items that stand the test of time, and become a staple in your catalog. Your skill as a merchant reaches its highest level when you can adapt those heritage products to changing times.
Let me give you a specific example.
This is a picture of my mother in 1948 wearing an LL Bean Maine Guide Shirt that my grandfather bought her directly from LL Bean. It was red and black, and 100% wool. (Sadly, my mother deleted this shirt from her wardrobe sometime in the mid-1970s).
The Maine Guide Shirt, much like the iconic Maine Hunting Boot, is one of those signature products of Bean’s. But it has changed over time. The presentation below from the Fall 1968 catalog, (which was printed in black and white) listed three color options for the shirt.
Here is the same item today. It still has many of the same details as 70 years ago – a button flap over the pockets, long tails in back, and a no-itch collar. It still comes in the classic red and black, but the blue and black was added many years ago (my version from the 1980s is in blue).
But Bean has made changes to the shirt. It is now 85% wool/15% nylon. There is an optional a liner of primaloft insulation. Several years ago, they briefly offered a machine-washable version, which I thought was great – the current one still requires dry cleaning. And in a nod to the American diet, it now also comes in Tall and XXL.
Also, LL Bean acknowledges this shirt is not for everyone. It is obviously on their website, but I have not seen it in their main catalog in years. It has been relegated to the Hunting catalog, where it still resonates with hunters and outdoors enthusiasts.
One of the things that I know is annoying to many of you is when a consultant uses an example from a catalog like LL Bean (and in this case, is an example with which I can personally identify) which has absolutely no relation to your business. And if that is how you feel right now, look deeper at your merchandise assortment. There are always products which you can revive, refresh and adapt to changing styles and tastes. You have a huge sunk cost in finding products in the first place – it is always in your best interest to examine ways to get a few more years out of a product. You may never end up with one that has a 70+ year lifespan, but keep trying.
One last point: when you make minor changes to an existing product, such as adding a new zipper, or pocket, or adding a new color/style, don’t fall into the trap of calling this a “new” product. Your merchants will want to, usually because their salary is based on the amount of new products they introduce. But it isn’t a new product – and calling it so misrepresents the performance of “truly new” products. If you want help in reviewing your merchandise mix and assortment for productivity changes with Datamann’s merchandise analytics, contact me.
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by Bill LaPierre
VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics
Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235