I’m going to stick with the wit and wisdom of Frank Oliver for another week.
I learned last week that the Solutions catalog (owned by Norm Thompson/Bluestem Brands) is closing down. I emailed Frank and asked him what happened to the “problem solver” catalog market? Frank’s reply – which I will share with you in a minute – is a perfect encapsulation of what is happening today, at least among hard goods catalogs.
Years ago, Solutions was a “tool/gadget” catalog, one of several that have gone away, including Brookstone’s Hard-To-Find-Tools (where Frank and I worked), Leichtung, and Plow & Hearth’s Problem Solvers. But over time, Solutions evolved into more of a home furnishings catalog, and even offered some apparel. There are still some tool/gadget catalogs left, such as Garrett & Wade, Whatever Works, and Improvements. However, Whatever Works and Improvements can hardly be classified as having “fiendishly ingenious” products, which is the description we used to define the ideal product for the old Brookstone Tool catalog. Like most of the other catalogs of this genre, they either drifted into home furnishings (lots of patio pillows), or sex toys (Whatever Works).
Since most of the catalogs of this genre “drifted” away from their original product mission, was there ever a market for “tools/gadgets”? Could it be sustained? I always think of Tile Grout Whitener we carried at Brookstone (basically a bottle of “white out” with a tiny wheel applicator, which we sold for $11.95/bottle and which we purchased at $1.19) as being a product that never went out of demand, always sold in multiple units, had great margins, but was the kind of product that upper management hated simply because it appeared too “low-end”. Was this type of thinking found elsewhere? And what impact does the online world have on these types of catalogs? Don’t people still need gadgets they didn’t know they needed or existed?
I knew Frank would offer his thoughts. But he supplied far more than what I was expecting, which I share with you here:
“Oh Billy, Why do catalogs fail? Here’s where you marketing folks can relax and take credit for about 10-15% of the downfall. We all know that new product drives future sales, right? All CEOs cry for the next “iconic” blockbuster, just like the tile grout whitener.
But what do catalogs really need? More margin dollars? More exclusivity? More affordable price points? More branded items? A new logo design? No, no, no.
Without a small powerful spark, our cars can’t get out of the driveway, no matter how fast they look! What’s the spark for catalogs? What’s the “Solution”?
Problem #1: It’s the merchant. Sadly, most buyers I have met totally lack true passion for product. They don’t personally test or evaluate efficacy, like lemmings they believe the vendor literature. ‘Fiendishly ingenious’ is a discovery process, not a Google search term! We all talk so much about innovation, but I contend that inventing is really tough. Instead merchants must be ingenious, curious and in-tune with their suppliers’ capabilities. Without that, they are just “picking stuff“. Product sourced and presented without passion is just more stuff we don’t need.
Problem #2: Ingenious solutions are now free. Consider any household project or repair; do I go to Garrett Wade to find the solution? Nope, I search YouTube and instantly get a tutorial in graphic detail. The “stars” of the video tell me what to buy at Lowe’s or Walmart to complete the repair. Who needs mail order?
Problem #3: Why do tool/gadget catalogs drift to home furnishings? When passion drifts to “taste” level, merchants spend too much time on color and pattern. So they present uncomfortable Asian furniture in wonderful florals……. A chair is not hard to understand, but LaFuma still has a superior design to relieve lower back pain. And it’s well worth the price if your back feels better at the end of a long day, right? The knock-offs just look like the right design, not the same benefit (but lots more margin!) When we prostitute product, customers fall out of love with us. Garrett Wade survives because they strive to deliver interesting, well made product that has practical benefit. Higher priced, yes. But “curated” and authentic old world sourcing is refreshingly unique in a sea of ‘Made in China’ crap.
So there is certainly room for more “unique solutions” catalogs/on-line products. Having qualified merchants that can deliver that promise is the struggle. How can I passionately sell you a Porsche, if I have never driven one? Customers smell BS and the internet keeps everyone honest.”
Ah yes, customers can smell BS. A succinct explanation from Frank on the internal issues catalogs deal with on the road to catalog survival.
Frank has always been a believer in the principle that there is only one way for catalogs to acquire new customers – you have to offer something new. But he is also a believer in the idea that you have to know the product, you have to have a “passion” for the product. However, Frank is not a bleeding heart merchant who throws the word “passion” around lightly. He doesn’t cite trendy catalogs like Tom’s or Neiman Marcus when saying a buyer has to have passion for the product. To him, passion means having a complete understanding of the use of, need for and practicality of a product. If Frank were an apparel merchant, he would not only know whether a garment was “in fashion”, but would also know whether it would last, how it was made, how it would drape on a person, how it could be accessorized – all things he knew about the hard goods products with which he worked.
But not only must the merchant be passionate for the product, they have to actually be able to find new product that will sell. Being passionate and being successful do not necessarily go hand in hand. That’s were Frank’s engineering mind helped. Frank studied his “gross margin percentile” ranking reports, and watched how certain products were trending. He was constantly thinking of “line extensions” for products that were trending well, or that had reach the end of their life, but which could be replaced by the next generation of that product.
He met with each supplier to get new ideas. However, he rarely relied on “product reps”, largely because they were usually pushing products that benefited themselves, not the catalog, and there was the added cost of the middle man.
Frank’s “passion” took him far afield. I remember him going to the “Shot Show” (The Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Show), even though we did not carry those kinds of products. Frank’s experience had taught him that these kinds of shows would produce products he had never thought of, that could be appropriate for our customers, and there were usually no other competitors lurking about, so Frank could get exclusives.
Here is an example of how the lack of good merchant talent is nothing new. When Frank left Brookstone, we hired a new buyer for the Tool catalog from Sharper Image. Everyone at Brookstone was excited by this “strategic hire”, until we discovered that this new buyer had lived in an apartment his whole life, and never been a homeowner. The National Hardware show – one of Brookstone’s largest sources of new products – was rapidly approaching, and it was decided that I would go to the Hardware show with the new buyer to add a level of “practicality” to what he might consider as successful product selections for a tool catalog aimed at homeowners. Just as we entered McCormack Center, I spotted Bob Villas and Norm Abrams from This Old House (this was when Villas was still associated with the show). The new buyer had no clue as to who either of them were. That’s when I knew we were in trouble! As I recall, several of the products that I found at the show performed better than most of those selected by the new merchant.
The term “passionate merchant” has become overused, and should be banned from catalog lexicon. What we need are successful merchants, who possess passion as well as many other qualities, skills and knowledge of their specific product niche. If you are searching for a buyer for a home fix-it catalog, you might want to ask if he/she has ever had to replace the caulking around a window that the squirrels chewed last winter. If they have no clue what you are talking about, keep looking. Otherwise, you just end up with a merchant that is “picking stuff”.
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by Bill LaPierre
VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics
Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235