Electronics Cataloger Gets Less Personal on Cover

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A manufacturer, distributor and marketer of data communications products is trying a new look for its catalog cover with this month's drop of its latest edition.


B&B Electronics, Ottawa, IL, serves industrial sectors such as utilities, petrochemical plants and manufacturing facilities. It had placed its co-founder and engineering manager on last summer's cover wearing a headset next to the quote, "Sure I can help you with that. I designed it." And in January, a testimonial on the cover stated, in part, "recommending that our systems integration group use B&B in ALL projects."


The issue set to hit the mail Aug. 16 uses a more product-focused approach. "Ethernet Solutions for Serial Connections" is the headline appearing prominently on the cover above a product that is expected to be one of the book's hot sellers: the VLinx Ethernet Serial Server.


"We put a human face on the cover to try a more personal touch in the past two catalogs," said Mike Fahrion, director of marketing. "But we're past that now."


Despite the new approach, he said, employee photographs continue to be used throughout the book, which is published twice annually.


"We wanted the cover to have more of a selling focus," he said. "Our core business has been around serial products, which are low-tech, low-cost ways to connect equipment used in such items as thermostats, lighting controls and even machinery used on a plant floor. It's the type of equipment used in Wal-Mart to connect a cash register with a barcode scanner, the cash drawer and the display pole that shows the total spent. We don't want to abandon serial products, but we want people to identify us as a solution provider for ethernet products as well."


The drop date also represents a shift for the company.


"Last year, it went out during the first week of July," Fahrion said. "We've pushed it back six weeks since there is a bit of a lull in the summer [because of] so many people taking their vacation at that time. We're trying to catch people when they get back to work."


Circulation falls to 450,000 from 500,000 last summer.


"We are more heavily dependent on rented names than I would like, and we are correcting that over time," he said. "Growth in the house list has lessened the need for prospecting."


This month's drop targets 60 percent prospects, down from 70 percent last summer.


"It's simply easier to sell more to an existing customer, making prospecting not a good long-term strategy for us," Fahrion said.


The target audience includes technicians and engineers at companies of all sizes.


"Our customers range from a three-man shop doing one-off projects to 75 of the Fortune 100," he said.


Page count stays at 64.


"But we're reducing items per page and adding application diagrams," he said. "In the past, we had several paragraphs of text with items. We're moving to a much more 'bullet' style while retaining technical content. For the longest time, we would always add pages and products. But we ended up with overfilled product lines and too much overlap between products."


Fahrion described the percentage of merchandise that changes with each issue as "lower than it should be," at 5 percent and 10 percent.


"We want to get it up to approximately 20 percent since we're cranking up our product development," he said. "We have products that are still among our top 35 SKUs from the late '80s."


The VLinx Ethernet Serial Server has a price range of $149.95 to $449.95. The catalog's average-priced item is $150. Fahrion hopes this summer's changes produce an average order in the mid-$400s. The average has risen 5 percent with every book mailed over the past five years, he said. The previous issue, mailed in January, had an average order of $413.


Fahrion described a typical order as including four or five accessories along with two or three core items. Accessory products include "$10 and $20 items like cabling and power supply items."


Response rates by segment are expected to continue rising, with rented names continuing to generate less than 1 percent and the house file exceeding 1 percent.


"In the long run, I want to get up to a 2 percent response," he said, "and we're about 18 months off."


Rented names come from about a dozen lists, including trade journals such as Control Engineering and Control Design. Selects include readers with either an engineering- or technician-related job title.


Thirty percent of recent orders have been placed at www.bb-elec.com. Fahrion expects a 2 to 4 percentage-point increase at the expense of orders phoned in for the rest of the year. That channel accounts for most of the rest of catalog sales. Order forms mailed or faxed are negligible.


Total per-piece cost to produce the book, including list rentals, has held steady in recent years at less than 70 cents.


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