Uncovering the catalog cover's new role

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The cover of a catalog has always played an essential role: to persuade recipients, in just a few seconds, not to throw the entire book into the trash. However, thanks to the growth of multichannel retail and rising postage costs, this single piece of paper has never had to work harder.

Several recent covers illustrate just how far some multichannel merchants will go to ensure their catalogs don't go unnoticed: Redcats USA's Metrostyle spring catalog will feature the winner of the "America's Next Top Model" television show on the cover; L.L. Bean attached a piece of fleece to page 3 of a recent catalog and employed a cut-out on the cover so recipients could feel it; and The Sharper Image will highlight its exclusive arrangement to market commercial zero-gravity flights on the cover of its Father's Day catalog.

"The customer today is getting accustomed to quite a bit of excitement and, as a result, the creative bar is being raised on every level," said Stephanie Sobel, executive vice president of the special sizes group at Redcats USA, New York.

Part of what's driving the emphasis on covers is higher postage rates, she said.

"You really want to make sure that you make a very strong impact," Ms. Sobel said.

Another reason for the push is the realization by some marketers that the catalog cover is playing a broader role today than ever before, said Phil Donahue, vice president of strategic accounts and development at Catalogs by Lorel, King of Prussia, PA.

"The cover needs to work not only in the mail but on the Web and in bricks-and-mortar," Mr. Donahue said. "Weak covers that lack focus and neglect the brand create an obstacle that a consumer has to overcome to want to spend money regardless of channel. A successful cover translates well across channels."

Sharper Image, for example, has made a "sizeable marketing commitment" to Zero Gravity Corp.'s commercial weightless flights and will promote them in its catalog and online at www.sharperimage.com and on in-store displays, according to the company.

This new multichannel role of the cover is likely to bring about fresh ideas and approaches, Mr. Donahue said. However, in the current climate of postage increases, many catalogers are sticking to tried-and-true formulas and putting testing on the back burner to save costs.

"Catalogers that have strong retail roots rather than direct mail roots are ahead of the curve," Mr. Donahue said.

Multichannel merchants who are paying closer attention to their customers and trying to engage them on an emotional level understand that the cover is the first chance to make a connection with the customer, said Andrea Syverson, president of marketing consultancy IER Partners, Black Forest, CO.

"I can always tell the brands that get this and those that don't," she said.

Putting the winner of "America's Next Top Model" on the cover of Metrostyle, previously known as Lerner, is another step by the multichannel brand to enhance its fashion authority with customers. Metrostyle has also recently updated its photography, collections and Web site with a stronger fashion-forward appeal.

Then there's the simple fact that there is more and more competition in the mailbox, said Bill Licata, president of LCH Direct, North Reading, MA. As a result, smart catalogers are looking at every aspect of their catalogs - including the cover - more closely than ever before to gain an edge in driving sales, he said.

"It is harder to get someone to open the book than it's ever been," Mr. Licata said.

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