The Baffling Thing About Seed Catalogs

by Bill LaPierre on 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.

Why haven’t seed catalogs changed? I’ve only worked with a few seed mailers over the years, but the sense I had was that these folks are the biggest practitioners of “we’ve always done it that way”.   Let’s take a look at some specific examples.

Here it is the last few days of March, and many of you have already begun planting flowers and even seeds. It may be spring everywhere else in America, but I’m still looking at 2 feet of snow on my lawn and my gardens. (I know – quit complaining – I’m the one who chose to live in the tundra of New Hampshire). Yes, I recognize that some gardeners chase away winter’s cabin fever by planning their gardens early, and hence, their seed orders. But 6 of the 12 catalogs I received this spring arrived  before Christmas.  That’s akin to when I first started in the catalog business thirty years ago and we mailed our first Christmas gift catalog right after the 4th of July.

A seed catalog mailer once explained to me the reason they mailed their books before Christmas was because most “gardening columnists” that wrote for local newspapers always began writing their “seed catalog reviews” in late November, so they had to get the catalogs out early.   OK – so why not just mail 1,000 catalogs to the known newspaper columnists, and mail the rest when the consumer is ready to order? Just as the average consumer has shifted their 4th quarter shopping into the post-Thanksgiving and even mid-December timeframe, I’ll bet the average gardener has shifted their seed and plant purchasing closer to when they will actually use them. Even if they haven’t, a quick look at the map will tell you that mailing me a 98 page catalog on November 12 (Stokes), just doesn’t make sense.

Sure, some commercial growers may order their seeds before the end of the year, but the average home gardener, especially one in the north?  I’m assuming that the co-ops were the source of my name to those other 12 catalogs (Oh! look out, here comes more undeserved co-op bashing), so why can’t the co-ops also tell the mailer when I’m most likely to order seeds? The seed catalog mailer that used that intelligence to time prospect mailings to when I’m actually prone to be buying would have a huge advantage.

It’s the creative look of seed catalogs that makes them look like holdovers from the Eisenhower Administration. First, they almost all look alike. If you hid the name on the cover, and showed these dozen catalogs to the average gardener, I doubt they could tell them apart. Second, they are all in a race to see how many varieties of each seed type they can cram on a spread. Third, every seed/plant is treated the same – heaven forbid that one seed/plant should be given a hero presentation, or be highlighted over another.  Finally, why do they almost all paginate the flower section in alphabetical order? Asters are always first, zinnias always last.

The two spreads below are from the Stokes catalog, but are identical to spreads from a dozen other catalogs. In my opinion, there is absolutely no effort here to sell me as a consumer. This is just SKU barfing at its organic worst.


I know why there is absolutely no effort to sell me as a consumer. There is a merchant/buyer at each of these companies responsible for a genre or two of plants.  Let’s say there’s a guy who is responsible for corn, radishes and peas.  His annual performance is measured by how many total seeds he is able to sell. He does not want to lose any buyers by not having every obscure variety of radish available, even if 80% of radish sales could be accomplished with one or two varieties. He’s terrified that anything less than 30 varieties of radishes would look sub-standard, compared to the other catalogs. So because he is only allotted six pages in the catalog, he has to cram all of his corn, peas and radishes together, and won’t highlight the one or two varieties that could outsell the others three to one – if they were given the space. Thus, everything gets treated the same – leaving me the poor consumer to wonder – which one of these is best for me? How do I decide? You’ve made the selection process so hard, I choose nothing.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that there was one catalog that challenged the status quo. Burpee’s catalog – with most of the spreads guilty of the creative sins mentioned above – at least has about 25% of the spreads designed as the one below, where there was a mix of vegetables and flowers, and which are shown in a way to make me as a consumer respond to the two major motivators for most gardeners.


In my opinion, there are two reasons that people garden. It has nothing to do with being green, buying local, or even feeding your family. People garden because of pride and envy – they are proud when they can show off a 30 pound pumpkin and want their neighbors to be envious of their early tomatoes. This spread from Burpee speaks to those two human motivators. In addition, Burpee was the only seed catalog I saw that featured callouts to videos on how to garden (“How to grow Asian Greens – see the video at”).

Until seed companies change the way that merchants and buyers are held accountable for the productivity of the catalog, seed catalogs are going to continue to look like anachronisms from times long ago. And consumers will continue to turn to local home centers where the variety of and choices for radishes is limited to one or two, but it makes the selection process a lot less fearsome.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


An Open Letter to Catalog CEOs in Rural Locations

by Bill LaPierre on 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 reasons, many of these catalog companies chose to locate in small rural locations.

This makes perfect sense. By their very nature, catalog companies do not need to be near large population centers to drive sales. Catalogs drive business remotely, so can locate where they want.

A large majority of catalog entrepreneurs chose to locate their catalogs in “the country”. This was especially true here in New England, with Orvis, Vermont Country Store, Garnet Hill, Littleton Coin, Keepsake Quilting, Brookstone, Country Curtains, LL Bean and many more smaller companies starting in small towns. Even in more recent times, companies such as the original Coldwater Creek chose to locate in rural Idaho in 1983.

In reading the histories of these companies, very few of them intended or expected to grow to the size they are today. In most cases, the founding entrepreneur chose where to live first based on a preference to live in a quiet, bucolic setting, and then had to find a business opportunity that supported their desire to live in the country.   Lands’ End is one of the few examples of a catalog that started in an urban location (Chicago) and moved to a rural location (Dodgeville, WI).

Many of my clients have been in rural locations. In addition to all those previously mentioned, which are clients now or were at one time, I’ve worked with Park Seed (Greenwood, SC), Mason Shoe (Chippewa Falls, WI) and Duluth Trading (Belleville, WI). Even many of Datamann’s UK catalog clients are located in small towns (at least they are less than 75,000 and feel to me like a small English town), including Bingley, Harrogate and Skelmersdale. They certainly are not London. Datamann itself is located in a small Vermont village of 1,600 people.

Except for when I was in college, I have always lived in small towns of less than 5,000 people, and so has my wife.   If you have never experienced small town living, it is difficult to appreciate the “closeness”.  We currently live in a town of 1,200 people, and because our son went through our public school system, and my wife sings in the church choir, we know about half the people in town. The other half we at least recognize when we see them at the “dump/recycling center” on Saturday morning. (Our town has no trash removal service – you have to bring it to what we still call the “dump” once a week). Suffice it to say, that in a small town, especially one with limited services, you depend on each other more so than our urban neighbors.

I have noticed that catalog companies located in rural areas have a similar  sense of internal community as well. This is no illusion. The clients that I have worked with located in urban areas hit the road at 5 PM, and think little of their co-workers until 8 AM the next morning. There is nothing wrong with this, but in a small town, you see your co-workers at your kid’s school, in church, at the store, etc.  Some of you would be “freaked out” by that thought. But when you have lived it all your life, you can’t imagine not having that connection.

Prior to moving to New Hampshire in the late 1980s to work at Brookstone, I lived in a small town, but worked at several mail order companies in the suburbs of Boston. There was little sense of closeness, nor a sense of comradery, at least to the degree I have found at companies in rural locations.

In the late 1980s, Brookstone was very closely associated with Peterborough, NH (population 5,000). It was the town’s second largest employer. The CEOs and many in upper management were involved in the community. You sensed it in the company, too. We fielded several teams in local sports leagues. We had company outings. As the company grew, the town and the surrounding communities grew along with it.

Then we hired a new CEO, and the “culture” changed.

This new CEO was a great retailer from whom I learned a great deal about merchandising, margin, and business. He lived in Boston, and he never embraced Peterborough. He never had any intention of moving there. Shortly after his joining the company, the decision was made to break up the headquarters, moving all of fulfillment to Missouri (our mail order fulfillment had located there five years before, but now retail fulfillment was going as well) and the administrative offices were moving 40 miles east.

The reason given was that it would be easier to recruit professional staff if we were closer to Boston, and we were paying our fulfillment staff a premium wage because so many of them had been with the company so long. Hiring new staff in Missouri would eliminate that problem as they would be at a lower pay scale.

You can imagine this did not sit well with the staff who were losing their jobs, or with those keeping their jobs but now facing a long commute. I made the long commute (a little more than an hour each way) for two years before I tired of it found alternate employment, ironically back in Peterborough across the street from the old Brookstone building which sat empty for years.

At the time of the move, the hourly employees that were “let go” represented almost 400 years of accumulated customer service to Brookstone. No value was assigned to that by management. It was simply assumed that the new hires in Missouri could be trained in a matter of weeks and not miss a beat. But of course, that did not happen. Nothing went right in the move to Missouri. It took almost three years (and several new directors at the DC) to get things running smoothly. At the new headquarters, the quaint sense of community was gone. The old company trophy case filled with mementoes of past company-team athletic glories is now a bookcase in my office at home.  It was a huge price to pay for the personal convenience of a few.

I bring all this up because as I work on telling the history of catalogs and mail order for the Smithsonian, I realize that a special thanks needs to be extended to the CEOs – past and present – who have maintained their respective company’s presence in these rural locations.  They have not been swayed by the argument that it would be easier to recruit new talent in more urban locations – they’ve done just fine staying where they are and finding the people for whom the existing company culture resonates. They also recognized that their current location was a large part of their culture, their brand and their merchandise, and that a departure from that community would destroy it all. They also (for the most part) have not been swayed by the argument that locating elsewhere would reduce operating expense. They recognized the long term value of years of accumulated customer service experience outweigh the short term gain of a few dollars per hour wage reduction.


More importantly, they have made a commitment to their community. When Brookstone left Peterborough, it left a huge hole in the community, which is still a void 22 years later. I also believe it was the beginning of the long road of poor performance at Brookstone which culminated in their bankruptcy in 2014. I have written in this space before that the strength of some of the major and most venerable catalog companies lies with the fact that they are still owned by the original founders or founders’ family, such as LL Bean, Country Curtains, Duncraft, Littleton Coin. But, don’t overlook the fact that these companies have also long resided and long supported their local communities. This is part of the heritage of our catalog industry. This will be part of the catalog history and story I tell with the exhibit at the Smithsonian.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 – […]

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Shepherds Change, But Sheep Remain Sheep

March 2, 2015

Last November, I agreed to speak at the upcoming Spring NEMOA Conference in Boston. I’ll be speaking on “Reinventing Your Merchandise To Secure Your Survival”.  It’s a 45 minute session and I’m looking forward to it. But because I agreed to present that session, I was also invited to participate in NEMOA’s Xpress Talks, a […]

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The Highlight Reel

February 22, 2015

We had a break between Amy Africa’s afternoon session and the “question and answer” period at last Thursday’s Datamann seminar in Concord, NH. While I was getting a few things set for the last session, Brenda Royce, the Director of Ecommerce at Garnet Hill came up to me and gave me a big hug and […]

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When the Smithsonian Calls, You Can’t Say No

February 15, 2015

Before I tell you about the Smithsonian, let me give you a quick update on Datamann’s seminar this week. Yes, the snow is finally over.  The roads are clear, and the weather forecast for this Thursday is sunny, with no snow the rest of the week! It will be a little chilly, so dress warmly […]

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Keeping You Committed

February 8, 2015

My father was the president of a non-profit health organization for forty years. Although he dealt with all aspects of running a state-wide health organization and managing a large staff, he always considered his fundamental job was being a fundraiser. (It was from my father that I learned the fundamentals of direct mail). The organization […]

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