Still Waiting for the 11th Order

by Bill LaPierre on September 14, 2014

I thought in honor of Pat Connelly from Williams-Sonoma speaking at NEMOA this week, I’d revisit the last time Pat spoke at NEMOA, 20 years ago in 1994.

There are probably only a handful of NEMOA members that remember when Pat Connelly, then Senior VP of Marketing at Williams-Sonoma, spoke at the 1994 Fall NEMOA Conference in Manchester, NH.  His talk was the most memorable one I have heard at any NEMOA conference in the past 25+ years.

Let’s put this into context – 1994 was the height of what can best be described as the “golden days of catalogs”. This was before the internet, before the co-ops, and before all of the industry consolidation. Response rates were high, and competition was minimal.

Pat gave a detailed account of how Williams-Sonoma had tested, at great expense, switching their core Williams-Sonoma catalog from a digest size book to a full size (8×10) book. Pat stated that the management at Sonoma just could not conceptualize how a bigger book could possibly be more productive, more responsive and more profitable than their digest size book. Moreover, they knew that their customers loved the small book, with all that great product crammed in. As Pat described it, “the book was an engineering marvel”. But, they did a head-to-head test on over 1 million books each, controlling for product count and square inches, and the big book won. It was not even close.



That lesson alone – that even marketers as experienced as those at Williams- Sonoma can incorrectly convince themselves of knowing what their customers really want without testing it – was memorable for me, all these years later.

However, the comment that Pat made at the very end of his presentation, almost as a “throw away comment”, is the one which has always stuck with me. After he described the head-to-head test, Pat said “Oh, one more thing, we also built a website to support the catalog. We are still waiting for our 11th order”.  Everyone in the audience laughed, confirming that the internet was just a passing fad.

I am certain that during this week’s upcoming conference, more than one speaker will implore the audience with calls to build out ecommerce sites to support mobile ordering from smartphones, ordering from tablets, as well as traditional ordering from PCs. If they were quick enough to revise their PowerPoints, they’ll even implore you to have an iWatch platform.  And much like 20 years ago, I’m sure I’ll see several members of the audience saying “my customers will never order from a smartphone”.

OK – for many of you, if you built out a platform for smartphones and tablets, it would take you a while to get your 11th order. And, it is doubtful (in my opinion) that any of those orders would be incremental.  But, the change is coming.

The basic problem I see among many NEMOA members is the continued reliance on their “gut feel” about who their customer is, what they want, and how much they are willing to pay. We, as an industry, don’t do enough research either through focus groups, surveys or testing to determine what our customers really do want for merchandise – and how much they are embracing new technologies. We focus too much on which channel someone purchased from, instead of how they shopped, and what they bought. For example, how many of you have tested whether more items per web page is more responsive than fewer images, to PCs vs. tablets? How many of you have done pricing tests of high margin products, to determine if a lower price – not a 10% off offer – drives more overall demand? These are the kinds of catalog strategies that will make a difference in future growth and future catalog survival, not more catalog cover tests.

Stop acting like your customers were an imaginary friend, and find out what they really want.

See you in Connecticut.

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


Another Way of Looking at the Life of Catalogs

by Bill LaPierre on September 7, 2014

If you are under the age of 30, this posting will probably mean nothing to you. If you are over 50, and have been in the business for a while, you probably remember some of this. If you are in between – you’ll learn how we got to where we are today. (If you are one of my UK subscribers, I’m sure there are parallels in British catalogs).

I live in the most nostalgic town in New England.   Dublin, NH only has a handful of businesses – a gas station, a general store, a maple sugar house, a couple greenhouses and a gift shop. But by far, our biggest business in town, and the one that provides the nostalgia, is Yankee Magazine, started in 1939 to document and preserve the New England way of life.

When you think of those long ago tiny space ads generating catalog requests in a magazine, you are thinking of Yankee. It was as famous for its ads as its stories, especially those for country inns and New England-based mail order companies.

I picked up an August 1966 issue this summer at a flea market, and was struck by the number of catalog companies that advertised in Yankee 48 years ago, that are still in business.  But there were even more that were gone, simply no longer mailing. So, was their demise related to the death of catalogs we read and hear so much about?


Because of my love of history, and the fact that I met many of the entrepreneurs that long ago pioneered New England mail order, I was able to remember almost all the catalog and mail order companies that were advertising in 1966 (although I did have to ask for help from Jim Alexander on a few).

There are about 100 ads throughout the magazine – I did not count them all. Many are from small, truly mom and pop mail order shops usually selling just one item (a handmade purse, an embroidered apron). But there are several dozen from well known (at the time) large mail order catalogs that are no longer mailing.

What caused those catalogs to disappear?

Replaced by Cheaper Alternatives:

Templeton Furniture – the chair and dining room furniture business collapsed in the Gardner/Templeton area of central Massachusetts in the late 1970s, moving first to North Carolina, and now to Vietnam. This had nothing to do with catalogs.



SS Pierce – a chain of specialty food stores in the Boston area that seemed frozen in the 1920s, selling lots of canned salmon. It was where my grandparents ordered food from in the 1960s. It was sold to Seneca Foods in the early 1970s, and got out of the mail order business altogether. Now you can find SS Pierce artifacts on eBay.


Changing Habits:

Yield House – Parts of this business still remain, but the original Yield House catalog is long since gone. The catalog sold do-it-yourself pine furniture kits, the style of which always seemed a little out-of-date. American consumers lost interest in making, staining and sealing their own furniture – unless it came from Ikea.


Totally Out of Style:

Deerskin – this catalog always puzzled me. I couldn’t imagine who would buy this stuff – although I’m sure it looked good on some of you. The “fashions” were aimed at a “hip” version of Ward and June Cleaver, or maybe Ozzie and Harriet. Lots of tan leather jackets, gloves and tweedy hats, long after men stopped wearing hats. Their merchandise just never adjusted to changing styles.


Consolidation and Disappearance:

Jenifer House always had the back cover of Yankee in the 1960s, the only page other than the cover that was in color. The business was founded in the late 1940s by Karl and Marianne Lipsky, originally as a retail store and catalog selling natural fiber textiles and other country items. As Jim Alexander related to me last week, “Karl Lipsky was a neat guy, a real entrepreneur, smart and somewhat in the mold of John McCormick of Paragon, Bill Knowles of The Stitchery and Jack Fitzpatrick of Country Curtains.” Sadly, this title (along with a sister title called J Jill) was one of the first of that generation of very successful catalogs to be sold to a catalog conglomerate – DM Management – in 1988. DM Management kept J Jill alive, but shuttered Jenifer House.


To say that each of these catalogs that went of business, closed down because their styles went out of fashion is a gross simplification. There were obviously management issues, cash flow concerns, and ownership problems in each one. After all, the fact that some of them failed to keep up with changing styles and tastes indicates lack of insightful management. But that is my point – they did not fail because catalogs themselves were facing problems in general, such as constantly increasing paper and postage prices, or competition from retail – all of which have been a constant for the last 50 years. They are gone because they failed to properly management the two huge assets that each had – an existing merchandise assortment and a customer list.

And what leads me to this conclusion?

Mainly, looking at and considering why the catalogs that were in advertising in Yankee 48 years ago – that are still around today – managed to succeed and stay in business. Those titles include Appleseeds, Sturbridge Yankee, Harrington’s of Vermont, Country Curtains and LL Bean. Moreover, though they were not advertisers in Yankee, you can add to that list a few other New England based catalogs that were mailing in 1966 and are still around in 2014, including Orvis, Vermont Country Store, Duncraft, Littleton Coin, and Dakin Farm.

LL-Bean-1966-AdWith the exception of Appleseeds and Sturbridge Yankee, all of the companies I just listed have one significant fact in common – they are still owned by the same family that owned them 50 years ago. Heck, LL Bean is celebrating its 102nd year, and has only had three presidents. Stable ownership counts for a lot.


Sure, each one of these companies has gone “off-course” a little in the past fifty years with regards to merchandise. LL Bean had the Freeport Studio catalog and Country Curtains had Jane, both short lived attempts to go after a different, younger customer. But in general, they have stayed the course, and followed the same merchandise direction, while always keeping an eye on making sure they were staying “current” without trying to be “contemporary”. That was their key to catalog survival – not channel chasing.

But much like Jim Alexander said of Karl Lipsky, the leaders of these companies have been “neat” people, smart and good entrepreneurs. I have personally known many of them, and haven’t found any smug, arrogant know-it-alls among the bunch. That also says a lot. They have not been trying to chase the latest new marketing fad, or buy “customer engagement” by throwing money down the latest CRM hole. They built customer loyalty on the strength of their product, and on the belief that staying true to that product was what was important to their customers.

And in case you are wondering, Yankee is still a good and viable place to advertise, especially if you are reaching out to an older demographic (although I’m sure the folks at Yankee will shudder at the mention of “older”).

If you are not already signed up for emails from this blog, click here.

by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


B2B’s Inefficient Ride

September 1, 2014

Earlier this summer I wrote about how much I like and admire the Ben Meadows catalog, as both a catalog professional, and as a consumer (even though the catalog is primarily a B2B catalog). There are some great B2B catalogs, and I will refer to more of them in the future. But there are also […]

Read the full article →

Organic Firewood

August 24, 2014

I’ve always wanted to play a joke on my small home town here in New Hampshire, testing the reaction I would get to an advertisement in the local newspaper for “organic firewood”, selling for twice the rate of a regular cord of wood. Would my “back-to-nature, buy local, grass-fed only” loving neighbors think that organic […]

Read the full article →

Tell Them You Hate It and Move On

August 17, 2014

As you are coming down the home stretch preparing your final Holiday catalogs, and approving those final designs, keep this story in mind. There’s a controversy growing in Washington DC that you may have missed. Here’s the short story – in 1999, Congress created the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, to locate, design and fund the creation […]

Read the full article →

Holiday Jitters – Time to Reassess?

August 10, 2014

It doesn’t take much of a change to the stock market to get clients calling and asking what this means for Holiday response. And that is exactly what has happened over the past 10 days. The Dow Average has dropped 4% since July 16 (when it hit an all-time record high), and now catalogers are […]

Read the full article →

What Are You Selling? A Question for Merchandise Analytics

August 3, 2014

I critiqued one of my client’s catalogs this week, which had a spread that screamed “cooking with kids” and showed all kinds of cooking utensils being used by a mother and her kids. But here’s the kicker – it was an apparel spread. The cloths were for sale, but not the utensils. That got me […]

Read the full article →

There Are No Bad Products, Only Bad Prices

July 27, 2014

A few weeks ago, I took Terry’s Village to task (click here) for doing a sale catalog which had full copy blocks for individual items that had been marked down from $7 to $4. Worse, there were full copy blocks for every item in the catalog. That is the old-school approach to a sale catalog, […]

Read the full article →

We Are Focusing Too Much Time and Energy on Page One

July 20, 2014

Where have you heard this before: “We are not moving with enough urgency!”? I’m not going to bore you with the details of how many newspapers I read – suffice it to say, I subscribe to and read several papers daily, including the Wall Street Journal. As such, I was delighted several years ago when […]

Read the full article →

Summer Catalog Observations 2014 – Part 2

July 13, 2014

Cupcakes and Yoga Pants Every 4th of July, my wife and I climb a small mountain near our home, which we had to delay a day this year because of Hurricane Arthur’s rain in New Hampshire. Although this mountain is in a fairly rural part of the state, it is a popular climb. While we […]

Read the full article →