All Stars – Bringing the Best of the Best

by Bill LaPierre on April 19, 2015

Indulge me this shameless plug.   I’m very proud of my wife. She is completing her second year as President of the Vermont/New Hampshire Marketing Group, which hosts its 27th Annual Conference on May 27th – 29th. (Click here for registration information for the conference).

I was President of the same organization 20 years ago, and over the weekend, I compared the lineup of speakers and sessions for the 2015 conference vs 1995, as it shows a great deal about how our industry has evolved, beyond what you might think would be obvious.

I’m not a big fan of “conference themes”, but the 2015 conference’s theme is “All Stars – Bringing the Best of the Best”.  The late Don Libey was our keynote speaker in 1995, and if he were still alive, I’m sure he would have wanted to reprise his role, as he was an “All Star” and was always fantastic to listen to.

But the other sessions from 1995 were fairly typical of the time – circulation planning, how to pick mailing lists, benchmarks for great customer service, marketing ideas on a shoestring, what’s new in fulfillment. It was all catalog focused, because the internet was still in its infancy. Looking through the 1995 brochure, there is not one mention of the internet or ecommerce.

Fast forward 20 years. There is not a single session that is exclusive to catalogs. No sessions on mailing lists or effective call center support. That shift partly reflects the change in composition of the group’s membership, with more on-line pure play companies rather than just traditional catalogs. But it also reflects the changing nature of marketing.

For example, last week it was announced that Frederick’s of Hollywood was closing all its stores. Since they had already discontinued their catalog a year ago, they will reside purely online, and rely on their website for sales. This year’s conference features a special session on video marketing on Wednesday afternoon.  I don’t want this to sound crass, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision how a company like Frederick’s could utilize video to sell their products, and probably better than any catalog could do. Have you made video part of your mix yet?


Twenty years ago the VT/NH Marketing Group was a haven for entrepreneurs starting catalogs. As I’ve mentioned previously, although our combined population between the two states represents just half of one percent of the US population, we have the highest per capita number of mail order and catalog companies in the country. There is still life and a need for catalogs but, catalogs are not where the future is. The future belongs to the hundreds of small ecommerce and now mobile website companies throughout New England and the US. Yes, they are all struggling to be found on the web, and be seen. But those struggles are no different than the struggles that catalogs faced 20 years ago to acquire customers and grow.

This year’s conference features the best in mobile marketing, SEO, re-targeting, and sales attribution. Twenty years ago I would have scoffed at the notion that any of these topics were more important than knowing how to build a good circulation plan. But, even catalog diehards like me can see the changes in customer and consumer behavior impacting sales. Can you get rich on Pinterest? I haven’t seen it happen yet among Datamann’s client base, but if your merchandise mix is right, you should be trying to make it work.

I am NOT concerned that one logical conclusion from looking at this year’s line-up of All Star speakers is that with no focus on catalogs, how will anyone know how to mail catalogs in the future?  That’s a little like worrying in 1925 that with everyone learning how to maintain their model T, who would be left to shoe horses? Besides, it ensures a sense of job security for those of that do know how to do it.

If you want to see the future, and be part of it, I encourage you to register today for this year’s conference. Woodstock Vermont is absolutely lovely in late May. And if you came to Concord NH back in February for our seminar, you won’t run into any snow in May.

I will be there and I hope to see you there as well. Remember the dates: May 27th – 29th. (Click here for registration information for the conference).

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

Dashboard Distraction

by Bill LaPierre on April 12, 2015

One of the things I love about my job at Datamann and this blog, are the many emails I get from blog subscribers, relating quirky things happening at their company.  I sometimes feel like a catalog industry equivalent of “Dear Abby”.

I recently received an email from a client commenting that during last November and December, the CEO of her company was doing an hour-by-hour comparison of orders each day, this year vs. last year, with the premise that what happened at 11 AM on Tuesday Dec. 16 should be comparable to what happened at the same time, 365 days before. And not only comparable, but predictable. As the month of December progressed, and that mailer kept falling further behind their targets, the CEO kept blaming the “plan”. Worse, he wanted to know what everyone was doing to bring in more sales.

In my opinion, this behavior is a by-product of mailers putting way too much attention on dashboards and not enough on simple merchandise performance. If the merchandise isn’t right, no amount of “marketing magic wand waving” is going to change how a season ends, especially with 9 days to go before Christmas.

I was reminded of this when I received the note below from a friend about an ad he had recently received from Google Analytics, touting the fact that with the proper application of their analytics, you could “reinvent your strategy every day.”

Google Ad

“Hi Bill: For some reason – probably jargon cynicism – I thought of you when I saw this. Reinvent your strategy every day? Really? Hmm. I thought strategic initiatives were supposed to last longer than 24 hours. Actually, this points up an issue in this era of data availability. I know you ‘Can’t manage what you can’t measure’ but just because you measure it doesn’t mean you have to manage it. I haven’t bothered to quantify the hours I’ve spent in meetings looking at presentations and data that in the end have a tenuous at best relationship to business success.”

Wow – he’s got a lot of themes packed in that one paragraph that I’m certain many of you can agree with. Measuring things that make no difference to the ultimate growth of the business. Wasting time in endless meetings.  (When do most of you ever get any work done? You are all constantly commenting about the endless meetings you suffer through).

I thanked the mailer for his note, and related the story from the other client about the CEO with the hourly dashboard watch.  To which my friend replied “That sounds a little too close to home.  I get a ton of requests for more granularity because weekly summaries are ‘not actionable’, then we get to the granular data and it becomes ‘too confusing’. I’m working on getting people to understand that data doesn’t drive the business but that strategy drives both the marketing and merchandising to work together”.  That is a perfect summation by a very seasoned marketer of what is wrong in most organizations.

In the past year, Datamann has begun working with several new clients, all of which share a common issue – they have spent the last several years chasing every new shiny object, be it a new sales channel or new web initiative, or new creative design and they all ignored the simple reason why they are in business. The basic strategy everyone seems to ignore is that your job is to identify an audience to whom you sell a specified set of products that meet that audience’s needs, at a price they can afford. That is your strategy. Knowing whether you are having a 4% increase in abandoned carts this week or that your PPC price for your second best keyword just doubled does not change your strategy.

Yes, data is important, and timely data makes a huge difference in responding to short-term opportunities in running the business. But the data and associated analytics must be aimed at supporting an overall merchandise strategy.  Frankly, I’m amazed at how much attention clients put on monitoring Google analytics, and so little attention on basic merchandise performance. Part of the problem stems from the fact that every company has different internal methods of capturing and measuring merchandise data. Different departments within companies even have different and inconsistent methods of capturing merchandise data. I rarely find two merchants within the same company looking at the performance of their personal assortments in the same manner. Moreover, the merchants never look at merchandise performance the same way as inventory planning, which in my opinion is one of the main reasons behind inventory issues.

Many of the readers of this blog are “seasoned” enough to remember that 25 years ago, every catalog company had a huge black board in the call center where the number of mail orders and phone orders were plotted daily. You knew how a catalog drop was doing, and in turn how a season would go, but in general, the black board was like the scoreboard at a ball park. Once the book was in the mail, there was not much you could do change how orders would flow in. That was why getting the initial merchandise and customer benefits strategy was so important.

The black board gave way to the marketing dashboard, which are way more fun. They let you watch order activity at whatever interval you want – weekly, daily even hourly. However, we allowed that constant monitoring of marketing channels to cause us to over-react when we saw response slip. Response was slow, so we added a 20% off email, which lead to promotional banners on the next catalog cover, which lead to conditioning the customer to always expect a “promotional deal”. Marketing tactics replaced merchandise strategies as the guiding principle for catalog growth.

More than once I’ve had clients say that if their company had a more clearly defined and well communicated merchandise strategy, this constant chasing of sales – driven by the constant monitoring of marketing dashboard analytics – probably would not be the activity that consumed so much of management’s time and attention. As my friend who sent me the Google ad wrote in concluding his note “Don’t get me wrong.  I like analytics and analyzing data but without a business focus it can easily become a waste of time.”

Stay focused on merchandise. That is what will make a difference in moving the needle and support your survival.

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


Smithsonian Catalog History Project – Part 1

April 8, 2015

If you have no interest in the history of catalogs and mail order in the US, you can skip today’s posting and not get into any trouble. If on the other hand, you would like a quick overview of how our industry got to where we are, read on. Several weeks ago, I announced here […]

Read the full article →

The Last Ice Dealer in Town

April 5, 2015

I received a very sad email a few weeks back from a subscriber to this blog, and since I have not seen anything about this news in any of the industry trades, I want to mention it here. The subscriber, who had been an employee of B&W Press for 15 years, was writing to say […]

Read the full article →

The Baffling Thing About Seed Catalogs

March 29, 2015

Seed catalogs are stuck in a time warp. I bought some garden products –including some seeds – last spring from a catalog. In mail order tradition, this led to me receiving almost a dozen seed catalogs this year, and with one minor exception, these catalogs have not changed in appearance or design in 50 years. […]

Read the full article →

An Open Letter to Catalog CEOs in Rural Locations

March 22, 2015

In doing my research for the Smithsonian’s exhibit on the history of catalogs for the National Postal Museum, (to read my previous posting on this topic click here), I noticed a common thread among many companies that were started and grew during the post-World War II era into the 1970s. For a variety of different […]

Read the full article →

Observations from Spring NEMOA 2015 – Part 2

March 17, 2015

Here is Part 2 of my observations from NEMOA, which with one exception that I will explain, are not criticisms of NEMOA. They are just observations about our industry that came into alignment during the conference last week. What He Didn’t Say: You either love the way Frank Oliver delivers a speech, or you hate […]

Read the full article →

Observations from Spring NEMOA 2015 – Part 1

March 16, 2015

I want to thank the NEMOA Board of Directors and staff for assembling an impressive conference last week in Boston. Anytime you can get 500 people in and out of a town like Boston in 3 days during late winter, keep them fed and entertained, and do it with what seemed to an outside observer […]

Read the full article →

Will You Do Anything About It?

March 15, 2015

Let’s do something different this week. I usually only write one posting a week, but I’m going to offer several short postings, rather than one long one, with my observations from last week’s NEMOA Spring Conference in Boston. Today, I’m going to focus on my 10 minute Xpress Talk. It seemed like 90% of the […]

Read the full article →

There Is No Renaissance

March 8, 2015

Trust me. This will not be the last article you read on JCPenney’s return to mailing catalogs, but it will offer a view different from what you have been reading on the subject. I’ve read numerous articles and blog postings in the past six weeks regarding the news that JCPenney was re-launching a catalog – […]

Read the full article →