Pay Attention to Detail While Building a Better Small Catalog

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You have a small mail-order catalog. You have a niche. You have some customers. Now you have decided it is time to stretch and grow your business. The most important thing to remember is who and what got you to where you are - your customers.


A problem some small catalogers have when looking to grow their businesses and customer base is they often make drastic changes that can hinder growth instead of help it. Consider this rule: No drastic changes. Your house list is the foundation you will grow on.


Your catalog does not have to be a work of art, but there is an art to making it work. Don't hand over a pile of photographs and copy to a designer and tell him to come back in a week or two with a layout.


Find a designer that will be an extension of your company. Not simply a designer, but a designer of mail-order catalogs. Discuss with the designer all the elements of your catalog - not only for this book, but also where you want to be next year and beyond.


It is important that the designer you choose to help you grow your business comes at it with an understanding of your merchandise. There is a value to every square inch of catalog space, the balance between white space and product density. The use of type, color, tints and silhouettes should enhance the products, not just fill up the book. Always design for results.


Let it snow! Let's start a catalog called "Snow Jobs, a Jack Frost Publication" that sells snowballs and wants to expand from a 16-page book to a 32-pager. Everyone knows you sell great snowballs in many sizes and colors, plus that awe-inspiring adventure video "A Snowball's Chance in #@!!"


The question is, will your buyers purchase items that relate to snowballs, which would bring in add-on sales and a higher average order? Items include watches with a snowman's face, afghans with snow scenes or socks decorated with snowflakes. You know that watches and afghans are good categories, and you know that your buyers love snowballs. That should give you a better chance that they will buy your watches and afghans.


How about snowball candy or snowballs from around the world? Mittens and gloves for making snowballs? A nice item might be a gallon of maple syrup with directions on how to have a "sugar on snow" party, and, of course, the place settings to go with it.


It all starts with merchandise. Let your imagination run wild! Shop for your 32-page catalog as if you were going to produce a 48-page catalog.


Picture perfect. Now that you have selected the merchandise, you must begin to think about the catalog's layout and what you want to present to your customer base.


How about that cousin who takes great pictures at all the family weddings? Couldn't she take pictures of snowballs and save you a bunch of money? Do not fall into that trap. Hire the best photographer who will fit your budget and give you what you need to showcase your products. You have a split-second chance to stop customers on that page, pique their interest and make the sale. After all, the photo is your "store."


Negotiate and negotiate some more. You have chosen your merchandise and the designer for your catalog. Your samples are in, and you have made your final cuts. It is time to call your vendors. They are an important part of your team and play an important part in your success. You must make the time to negotiate. Resulting benefits can be in the form of additional discounts, photo allowances or dated billing. Ask if you can have a catalog exclusive for a year. Let them know that you expect this to be a long-term relationship and that you value their input and suggestions.


It's in the mail. The photos are great, the product density and price points are right and the design is top-notch, but will our snowball catalog melt?


Believe it or not, it is easier to get the order than it is to ship the order. You must be set up to handle the additional business from your new catalog. More catalogs have gone out of business because they could not ship the orders than those that were not able to get the orders.


It's not about the catalog; it's about the customers. Make it easy for your customer to do business with you. Offer a 100 percent money-back guarantee. Provide a toll-free order phone number. Offer same-day and second-day shipping options. Enclose a catalog with every outgoing order - it rides for free. Enclose a special offer or dollar-off coupon for their next orders. And be sure to say thank you. Remember, you are not only a seller, but also a customer.


How much? Avoid surprises on the invoice. Have your designer give you a page rate that includes layouts, photo retouching and final disks ready for output to film or direct to plate. Ask your photographer for a per-shot rate instead of a day rate.


The process is much more than pretty pictures.


• The product is the star. Approach every book from a merchandise point of view.


• What are your goals? Where do you want to be next year? In two years? Five years from now? Do you have a plan to get there?


• Brainstorm new concepts. Special offers? Change of paper? Web site? E-mail address? Stay informed about new technology that affects how you do business and, ultimately, your bottom line.


• Merchandise meeting. Discuss how products relate to one another. How does this catalog relate to the next one, season to season? Year to year?


• Pagination. Pay close attention to price points and product grouping on each spread, and how they relate to the preceding and following spreads.


• Ask questions. Should page count increase or decrease? Should page size be smaller or larger? Swing pages? What is the effect on postage - and on the customer? Does your cover represent the flavor of the whole catalog? Is copy easy to read, and does it relate logically to the product? Is it easy to order and get questions answered?


• Turnover day. All parties involved must be present: merchandiser, copywriter, photographer and designer. Each product must be discussed and thoroughly understood. Which products need headlines? What is the best angle to shoot each product?


• Remain flexible. Changes do happen. Products drop out, and new products come in. A catalog must remain fluid. A good design firm will react to those changes, while keeping the deadline in mind.


• Your order form is not an add-on. Its design and content are critical. It is how you close the sale.


• Success of the catalog is a shared responsibility - a partnership in the best sense of the word. Communication is key.


Talented people, not fancy buildings or fancy fees, produce great catalogs. Set your goals, work hard, measure results and be sure to take time to dream, gaze at a sunset and toss a couple of snowballs.


• David B. Tibbetts is president of Catalog Solutions, Enfield, NH, a catalog marketing and Web site design agency that specializes in helping small and medium-sized mail-order catalogs grow their businesses. His e-mail address is dave@cataloghelp.com.
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