It’s Just Not There Anymore

by Bill LaPierre on November 27, 2016

If you are a cataloger, be honest with yourself about your own catalog when you read this.

Catalogs pay the bills in the LaPierre house. I live catalogs every day. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, my wife and I receive thousands of catalogs annually. So, I like to think I’m pretty well attuned to what’s happening in catalogs as a professional and a consumer.

I’ve also listed numerous times over the years in this blog all the dangers that are killing catalogs, which I’m not going to list here because frankly, most of you are tired of reading the list since many of the “issues” on the list are things out of your control. But there is one that is within your control, and is something about which I’ve not often written.


Datamann’s fifth annual catalog seminar, which we host for the VT/NH Marketing Group, is coming up on March 30, 2017.  Registration for the event is NOT yet open, but will be soon. I announced back in October that Kevin Hillstrom would be one speaker. My second speaker that day is Frank Oliver: merchant, product developer, dynamic public speaker, and general all around soothsayer. (I’ll provide greater detail on why I asked Frank to be our second speaker at a later date).

I’m writing this posting on Black Friday. I received an email from Frank this morning, with belated Thanksgiving wishes, thanking me again for including him in the 2017 program. He added “Bill, you have taught me smart marketing techniques, logical testing protocols and measurement of incremental improvements.  All incredibly boring stuff, really.  RFM, CRM, CRI, ROI, blah blah blah…  But I think you show a real passion for marketing, i.e. your blog.  You are a classic catalog circulation/list guy transformed to a multi-channel marketing consultant, and you’ve seen it all.”

Since Frank was waxing so poetically, I decided to share an observation with him, hoping to get his reply.

I wrote “Frank, I got up early this morning and started to attack the pile of catalogs that I had hidden from view from yesterday’s Thanksgiving guests.  I had looked through about 30 of them by the time Shari (my wife) got up. I said ‘I have not found one thing I would buy.  I have all the clothes I need. I have all the tools I need.  We don’t need any more tchotchkes, kitchen utensils or Christmas decorations. Tim (our son) is too old for toys. There’s no point in ordering videos when we can watch everything on Netflix or Amazon. I’ll get some smoked bacon from Dakin Farm, but aside from that, none of these catalogs have anything we need or want.’  Frank, if the average catalog is aimed at baby boomers, this has to be playing out elsewhere too”.

Frank rose to the bait. He replied back as only Frank can do: “So, there’s nothing in all those Holiday catalogs for Bill?  Bill has everything he needs, nothing new interests him. Are catalogs missing Baby Boomers, like Bill?  Or does Bill shop differently, maybe buying when he “needs it”, not when you “offer it” in the catalog? The conundrum?  How to sell Bill something that he doesn’t even know he needs yet!  Remember the “Flamingoes” cover that Gardeners Supply did?  Our highest response Holiday catalog! It was “remarkable”, folks never failed to remark about that crazy cover!  Loved it / Hated it … didn’t matter, they remarked about it. Bill, have you seen a remarkable cover lately, which made you smile, peeked your curiosity, and showed you something new & cool?  No?  That might be an issue. “

The “flamingo” cover which Frank mentioned was one created by  Gardener’s Supply around 10 years when he worked there, which showed about 100 pink flamingos stuck in the snow on the front lawn of a house in Vermont. It was impossible for it not to catch your attention, and get you to look inside.

I started looking at armfuls of Holiday 2016 catalogs that I had stacked in my office, and I had to agree with Frank. There were no “remarkable” covers. Moreover, there were no remarkable catalogs.


Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If I was looking for a box of oranges, the Hale Grove’s cover – which looks like it was designed during the Eisenhower administration – might seem remarkable. The same goes for the other covers as well.

Yet, even if catalogs followed my 18 irrefutable and non-negotiable rules of catalog design, they would still be mostly boring. They’d be perfectly executed, but boring. And of course, trying to “create” the magic of the old Flamingo cover at Gardener’s Supply is like trying a purposely create a video that will go viral – it’s not going to happen.

Why? Because the tide has turned. Even for baby boomers for whom catalogs still resonate, catalogs are no longer our primary method of commerce. It is online, or mobile. We can search, we can watch videos, and we can look at products in different colors, from different angles. The catalog is now secondary and even tertiary.

No matter how hard they try, catalogs will rarely ever achieve the creative magic they once had when compared to online shopping.   When you are on Facebook, how often do you see that someone has “liked” a cute video, or a cool recipe, etc.? When was the last time you had someone call you, email you, or contact you via some form of social media about a “really cool catalog”?  Be honest here folks.

For most of you, the magic is gone from your catalog. It’s just not there anymore. It’s not that catalogs have gone bad creatively. It’s that everything else has gotten so much better. In the past, a catalog could always beat an FSI in the Sunday newspaper. Today, can your catalog compete with an easy to navigate, fully functional website with product reviews, videos, and multiple product views? You already know the answer. It’s the difference between watching a TV show form the early 1960s when it was filmed in black and white, and watching the same show later in the 1960s when it was filmed in color. The color version just seems so much more alive.

And yet, you could so easily bring your catalog alive. You could become more daring, especially with new products. You know you are getting the cookies knock out of you by online competitors, what have you got to lose? Why not double or triple your rate of new product introductions? Allow your creative team to make changes to give creative equal strength to the new products.

Stop playing it safe. Safe is boring. Until you start shaking up the status quo with your products and your creative, you are always going to look like a black and white TV show.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235


2016 Holiday Catalog Observations – Part 3

by Bill LaPierre on November 20, 2016

Lots of people predicted the election results incorrectly, and I called the mail volume wrong. I expected there would be a ton of catalogs in-home during the four day stretch after the election, yet I hardly received any catalogs the entire week of the election. Instead, the stack of catalogs below all arrived at our home last Monday and Tuesday (November 14 and 15). Yes, some are client seeds/decoys, but most were addressed to either me or my wife as consumers.


Is this a concern? Well, most mailers I spoke with reported that orders took a dive right after the election, so maybe it was a good idea not to be in home that week. If your response did not bounce back last week, maybe you need to consider that your catalog was received with a ton of others at your customer’s house. Did that offset those co-mail savings?

However, in general, I’ve heard and seen that results this fall season have been soft, as much as 30% off plan for some mailers, primarily on prospecting.  Please let me know what you’re experiencing with your catalog (all comments will be kept confidential).

National Geographic – Another One Bites the Dust

Yes, it’s true. The National Geographic catalog is no more.  A year ago, the National Geographic Society sold its iconic magazine and other “media assets”, including the catalog, to a partnership owned by Fox News.  A few weeks ago, Fox pulled the plug on the NG catalog. This holiday’s book is the last.


I’m sure there were numerous reasons why the action was taken, and I’m not going to guess at what they were. However, I have to say that as a consumer, I’ve always been disappointed by the NG catalog. When you think about it, over the years, they have reported on every country, state and major US city. They have covered everything. So their catalog could be about anything and everything. Their product mix could have been limitless. Instead, they have had a strange interest in selling lots of binoculars, leather jackets, and photographer’s vests – products I imagine were intended to show their “traveling spirit”.


I’m sure that the folks at NG would disagree, but to me, as a consumer, it seemed that the product assortment changed little over time. Case in point is this sweater I’ve had my eyes on for years. It seems to me that it has always been in the catalog. One would hope it was a good seller, and that is why it is repeated year after year. But, the consumer just keeps seeing the same old stuff.

Moreover, if I were going to buy a leather “bomber” jacket, the NG catalog, which has a bunch of them, is the last place I’d buy one. I’d buy it from an apparel catalog, one that appeared to have some “authority” in men’s clothing.

When I worked at Brookstone, we hired a company that “surveyed” customers as they left our stores in the mall (you’ve all encountered this). The surveyor asked what the customer purchased. “Oh, I bought a travel clock. I’m going on a trip, and  always come to Brookstone when I need a gadget like that”. “Do you need a suitcase?” “Yes, but I’d never buy a suitcase at Brookstone.” “Why not?” “Brookstone is good for gadgets, not something like a suitcase”.    Our merchants used that type of customer feedback to design suitcases that had “gadget-type” features, which appealed to our customers. Suitcase sales soared.

My point is that when you expand product categories, (one of the best ways to drive growth) you must make certain that the new products are not only consistent with your brand, but are consistent with your customer’s expectations of you.

Society 6

I told a mailer last week that every so often we encounter a business that is doing things completely opposite of the way other mailers act. When that happens, you always pause and ask yourself  “Have they discovered something that the rest of us missed?” An example was in my mail box this week, a catalog called Society6, which appears to be yet another attempt at a catalog aimed at breaking every conventional catalog rule. (I could not determine for certain from their website how long Society6 has been around – it appears they are somewhat established – but this is the first time I received their catalog.)


Of course, every so often, someone manages to break every rule, not follow convention, and be successful. You can do that when money is in unlimited supply. But when you need to actually make some money, it’s a good idea to do things that have proven successful in the past.



It has all the usual problems of a catalog designed by someone who knows nothing about creating a response. Microscopic mention of the 20% off and free shipping offer, “celebrity” endorsements from the artists represented on the site, products intentionally shown upside down – you get the picture. But, my biggest concern for this catalog is lack of product, and the products shown are too inexpensive to support this catalog. Most products were under $20, and the most expensive I saw was $31. Low price and low product density are not a winning formula for a profitable catalog. Some of the products are cute, and unique. There just are not enough to make this catalog successful.

Here is the strange thing: Society6 is a website for artists to sell their “art”, which might be on a mug or t-shirt. They have plenty of products online. Why weren’t more in the catalog? There was probably some sort of “juried” selection process as to which products were included in the catalog, as well as how the catalog was designed. Yes, I’m a big believer in not showing every product in your assortment in the book, and using the catalog to drive traffic. However, Society6 does a lousy job of communicating that there are other products online, and gives no reason to go to the website to see them. A classic wasted opportunity.

Who knows, maybe this design and lack of conventional format resonates with their core customer. But, making this catalog a profitable and viable prospecting tool will be tough the way they approach acquiring new catalog customers.

From all the staff at Datamann, have a happy Thanksgiving this week.

thanksgiving-postcardIf 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


Learning From Hunting Catalogs

November 13, 2016

It’s hunting season across much of the country, so let’s look at some hunting catalogs. Although I have not hunted since I was in high school, I receive many hunting catalogs. I have nothing against hunting or people who enjoy it. My problem is that I tend to be very loud in the woods (HEY! […]

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We Are No Longer Competitors

November 6, 2016

Can the catalog industry save itself by doing more collaboration? Let me show you how it happens in other industries. I live in New Hampshire and work in Vermont. I’m also a history buff and belong to the state historical society in both states. The NH Historical Society promotes only itself and its own events at […]

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Cute – But Not $50 Cute

October 30, 2016

I have my wife to thank for giving me the idea behind the topic of today’s posting. We’ll get to that in a minute, and you’ll have to watch the video at the end of this posting to understand today’s title. In the last 10 days I’ve had three mailers (two of them not Datamann […]

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2016 Holiday Catalog Observations – Part 2

October 23, 2016

Today I’m going to revisit a few topics which have been the subject of prior postings on catalog trends to see what has changed. The Dead Might Vote, But Do They Buy On-Line? Earlier this year, I reported (click here) that I had received a postcard from an online company, addressed to my mother, who […]

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Hey, LL Bean! – You Aren’t Louis Vuitton Either

October 16, 2016

About 20 years ago, I was invited to the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC to consult on their catalog. I walked into a big conference room filled with about 20 people.  The creative director for the catalog ran the meeting. He announced that they were planning a full redesign of the catalog and wanted […]

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2016 Holiday Catalog Observations – Part 1

October 9, 2016

As we start to rev up to high gear for 4th quarter catalog sales, and the election, let’s take a look at where we are. Current Catalog Sales: Based on what I’m hearing from clients and other mailers, response was soft to very soft in September, and continues to be so in October. We do […]

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What is missing, is not metrics…but how we react to metrics

October 2, 2016

Today is a pivotal day. Six months have passed since Datamann’s seminar on Customer Acquisition. Coincidentally, today starts the all-important 4th quarter. I know that all of you who attended that seminar last spring are watching the results of your new customer acquisition programs – especially those efforts that don’t involve the co-ops, retargeting, or […]

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Understanding Premium and Affordable Luxury

September 28, 2016

Timing is everything. I almost looked like a genius on Monday. I had a blog posting already to go on why I thought Federica Marchionni, CEO of Lands’ End, was not going to last much longer. But, at the last minute, I decided to substitute my posting on the Marine Layer catalog (click here if […]

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