Where Are The Heroes?

by Bill LaPierre on July 26, 2015

I am not a fan of science fiction. The closest I came was watching the old black and white Superman TV show from the 1950s, which was already in syndication when I was growing up in the 1960s. I did not watch Star Wars for the first time until I met my wife in the mid-1990s, almost 15 years after it first came out.

I bring this up because the last thing in the world I would ever consider doing is going to ComicCon – the four day “comics convention” held every July in San Diego. But earlier this spring, I watched the movie Paul, which is about two comic book “fans/nerds” from the UK, who fulfill their lifelong dream of attending ComicCon, and then rent an RV to drive across the American West to visit all the iconic “real-life” locations associated with aliens and sci-fi (Roswell, NM, Area 51).  Long story made short – they meet a real alien along the way, help him to meet up with his mother ship and go home – a 2015 version of “ET”. They write a comic book about their adventure, and the following year, they are “star” presenters at ComicCon.  The movie is a hoot, and worth watching.

So it was fortuitous a few weeks ago when I spotted Rob Salkowitz’s book called “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture”. Partly because of my interest in popular culture, and partly because of the movie Paul, I found the book fascinating. Written in 2012, it is slightly dated, yet provides a detailed description of not only the ComicCon event, but also what is happening in general within the comics industry. The parallels to the catalog industry are everywhere.

First and foremost, ComicCon is no longer just about comic books, which have dropped in circulation tremendously in the past 10 years. There was a time when individual comic books would sell a million copies. Now, a bestseller of a red-hot book (usually tied to a movie release) will only sell 150,000 copies. Over 70 million tickets to the 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight were purchased, but fewer than 70,000 people purchased the July 2008 issue of the comic book Batman: the Dark Knight.

This change came about starting in the 1980s, when most comic publishers discontinued newsstand sales, where unsold copies could be returned to the publisher for a refund. Instead, the publishers began selling to a “direct market” system that shipped comic books exclusively to specialized comic books stores, on a nonreturnable basis. Initially this seemed great for everyone: comic book fans got the convenience of a one-stop shop (kind of like catalogers using co-ops) and publishers had higher margins, no returns, and could charge more for books targeted to hard-core comics fans.

However, in the 1990s, comic books stores eventually began to cater only to comic book nerds, and were not inviting places for women, kids or the occasional casual comics fan. At the same time, publishers discovered that by targeting the hard core comic book fan, they had unwittingly made the subject matter increasingly insular, which further pushed comics out of mainstream. Death seemed eminent. (This is similar to catalogs that continue to only seek products for a small base of existing customers, excluding new product categories and potentially new customers along the way).

ComicCon was one of the reasons that comic book publishers were able to revive themselves, largely by association with Hollywood. They developed new comics solely for female audiences, especially teens. They developed hit movies around popular comic heroes. And much of this “revival” owes itself to ComicCon.

ComicCon is now one of the major ways the comics trade finds new customers (particularly women), and extends the comics genre into other media, especially movies.

I won’t recap the whole book, but one theme that I found particularly interesting was the need for the comics industry to always have heroes, or more specifically, superheroes. Despite the breadth of comic content and styles, American comics are still primarily identified in the public consciousness with superheroes, and the future of comics in popular culture is tied to the future of the superhero.

That got me thinking about heroes in the catalog industry. When I first started in catalogs 30 years ago, there were actual heroes in our industry. You saw them at the DMA’s Catalog Conference. They had their picture in the catalog – or better, they had their name on the cover. They were known not just to the catalog industry, but to the general public as well.

There was Lillian Vernon – the original “kitchen table startup”. There was Pleasant Rowland, founder of American Girl, who built a doll empire that was the antithesis of traditional girl’s dolls like Barbie. In my opinion, her hero status only improved when she sold American Girl to Mattel (makers of Barbie) for $800 million. Leon Gorman led LL Bean from a small hunting supply company he took over upon his grandfather’s death to a $1+ billion business, which truly did drive a number of LL Bean “lifestyles”.

Lillian vernon

There was Chuck Williams, founder of Williams Sonoma, and Gary Comer, founder of Lands’ End, who made customer service a huge priority (Period.). Richard and Jim Cabela were heroes to sportsmen, but also heroes within cataloging and retailing. And working at Brookstone, we were always in awe of Richard Thalheimer, founder of Sharper Image, especially when James Bond used a Sharper Image credit card in A View to Kill. There were even heroes among vendors, like Larry Quadracci, who elevated catalog printing – at the time basically a commodity service – to a special “experience” when printing with Quad.

What set these heroes apart – many of whom are still alive – was not that they were good business managers. What set them apart, at least within the catalog industry, was their fame and ability as merchants. They were innovators in finding, sourcing and presenting products in such a way as to compel customers to respond. They made shopping from their companies an “experience”.  They also had personalities. Some worn them on their sleeves, some were simply low-key Yankees. But those personalities made a name for the person and their companies.

Sadly, in my opinion, there are no such heroes within the catalog industry today. This is partly a reflection of the fact that many catalogs are now part of multi-titled conglomerates where devotion to the business plan and the bottom line outweigh focusing on products or the customer. I’m sure some of these multi-title leaders are far better business managers than the catalog heroes of old. But do they have charisma? Does their individual personality show through in the catalog? Are they heroes to their customers or even their employees? No way.

In answer to the question on the heading of today’s piece, the heroes are all retired. Yes, there are some well-known individuals left within cataloging, but no heroes. Instead, they have been replaced by Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Tony Hsieh (Zappos) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook).

The comics industry managed to revive itself, partly through the influence of ComicCon, and partly through their promotion of superheroes in popular culture. The catalog industry is never going to revive itself to pre-2007 levels, but individual companies could benefit and grow by having “hero” CEOs or merchants. Unlike the comic world however, catalog heroes cannot be “created” by a talented artist. The person has to have the right talent, the right personality, the right product niche, and a great deal of luck. But a few heroes in our industry would be very helpful right about now.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

Lifestyle Creep – Part 2

by Bill LaPierre on July 19, 2015

A few weeks back, I wrote about how many hard goods catalogs go to extreme lengths to make their catalogs devoid of models, or said another way – why are there no people? (click here)

I purposely left out one important reason as to why I believe this phenomenon has happened at many companies, just to see how many of my readers raised the issue. A few did.

The reason is that hard goods catalogs view models, usually from agencies, as an expense they can live without. The cost of photography in general is extremely expensive, especially if you are doing location shots (which of course are now a “perceived” requirement for every catalog). Add that expense to the ever increasing cost of print catalogs in general, and catalogs have to find places to cut. So they eliminate the use of models. And their 20 pages of patio furniture or garden equipment, or indoor table settings look absolutely perfect, except that there are no people, and hence no warmth, and no human touch.

In my opinion, these photos look too perfect. They are sterile.  Yes, the photo stylist did a fantastic job of getting every wrinkle out of the seat cushions, and made the glass of ice tea look like it was just poured. The photographer had the lighting absolutely perfect.  All of this is necessary because “we” are not selling patio furniture or table settings. No, Home Depot does that. In our catalog, “we” are selling a “lifestyle environment”. That’s why “we” have to spend a fortune on getting the photo absolutely perfect.

That causes two things to happen. First, there is no money left over for models, because you would have to find the equivalent of a goddess to match the “lifestyle environment” that your photographer just created for you. So you do without models. Second, you spent so much money on the “fixed cost of creative”, there is not enough money left over to distribute the catalog to enough prospects. So, every year, your circulation shrinks a little more. And then your 12-month buyer count shrinks a little more. Your sales and profits shrink a little more.

But, hey – the catalog looks great!

If you have been around this industry long enough, you will remember the days when the creative director pulled one of the photographer’s crew into a photo just to add a “human touch”. Or, you yourself were in a photo. I won’t embarrass my friend Mike Hayden from 4Cite Marketing, by showing a photo of him wearing some absolutely hideous pants in the Orvis catalog about 30 years ago, but many in the industry have similar images in their past.

The photo below is me in the 1997 Brookstone Winter Tool catalog, using my Brookstone Snow Roof Rake. My wife snapped the photo in front of our house (probably while she was simultaneously praying I would not fall off the ladder).   I gave the photo to our creative director at the time in case she could use it.

Snow-Roof-Rake-97

The photo ran in the catalog for several years. Aside from changing my coat color from blue to red, the photo did not require any special expense. Granted, this may be an exception.   But why do we obsess over having expensive models? Why can’t we use more office staff, friends or relatives? What you need is orders and new customers, not perfection. This is a catalog. It is not Ansel Adam’s portfolio. It is not going to hang in the Louvre. More than 95% of them will be thrown in the trash the day they are delivered. Get over it.

One of the things I have always liked about Gardener’s Supply is that the models look like gardeners.

GS-2015-Models

 

They may very well be “professional” models, but they look like they know how to actually get their hands dirty. Gardener’s Supply wants its customers to see themselves embodied in what the model looks like, and hence, see themselves using that product in their garden.

Here’s the basic problem – we all see our catalogs as a “lifestyle brand” to which our customers aspire. We don’t see our customers as simply buying our products because they need patio furniture, a garden tool or a hammock. We think that by showing the absolutely perfect – but sterile – photos of these products, we are appealing to our customers. But in my opinion, by leaving out images of real people to whom our customers can relate, we are killing response.

Earlier this year, at the seminar Datamann sponsored for the VT/NH Marketing Group, I asked the how many of the companies in attendance had a greater than 5% increase in sales in the past year. Out of over 170 marketers in attendance, less than five raised their hands. There are ton of reasons why catalogs are not growing. But the next time you are reviewing your declining response rates, ask yourself if you might be a little better off by spending less money on the “perfect” photograph, in some remote location, and instead, get a shot of some “real” people using your product at one of your staff’s homes.  Then ask yourself if the dollars saved on creative could be better used to circulate more catalogs.

I will always favor the argument that good, but not “perfect” creative, circulated to more potential customers, will always lead to a greater catalog growth strategy.

Stop letting “lifestyle creep” kill your response rate and your prospecting. It’s only a catalog.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

blapierre@datamann.com

 

New Launches – They Got “It”

July 12, 2015

This past week, I met with the owners of two new companies who plan to launch catalogs this fall. These are two of several new catalog launches that Datamann is working on for Fall 2015. (A note to other B2B companies – if you are not getting new business like this, maybe you should think […]

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The 8 Hour Window of Vulnerability

July 5, 2015

As most of you are just getting back to work after enjoying a 3-day weekend in celebration of Independence Day, I’m going to take a departure from my usual observations on the catalog industry, and give a brief personal experience from 25 years ago, which relates to what is happening in the catalog world today.  […]

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Use Yah Blinkah – Think Before You Market

June 28, 2015

Sometimes we just make it so hard for customers to buy from us because we don’t have a clue how to sell to them. If you have ever heard me speak at a conference, you’ve probably detected that I have a “slight” New England accent. Actually, it is a “Worcester” accent, which is far worse […]

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What Curated Collection?

June 21, 2015

I received an email last week from a company that said they would be “curating” a chicken BBQ in a few weeks at a special event they were hosting. Come on – get real! How do you “curate” a BBQ? Among the many buzz words promulgated by the trade media and catalog industry experts is […]

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Of the Catalogs, By the Catalogs and For the Catalogs

June 7, 2015

I’m hoping that most of you recognize that I borrowed my headline from The Gettysburg Address.  I thought it was appropriate since much of what I’m writing on today is borrowed. First, do you remember the talk I gave at NEMOA last spring, in which I exposed the catalog co-ops as simply a mass of […]

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Our Industry Is Not Replacing Leaders

May 31, 2015

Today’s posting is a personal note of gratitude and reminiscing, but it is also a commentary on what is happening to our industry. This coming Saturday, June 6 is not only the anniversary of the D-Day landings, but it also marks the end of one of my good friend’s catalog career. Frank Oliver, Senior Product […]

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Lifestyle Creep

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 […]

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This Catalog Cost $0.63 to Produce and Ship to You

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 […]

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