Catalog Show Speakers: Your Customers Are the Boss

CHICAGO — Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos and former Victoria's Secret Catalogue president/CEO Cynthia Fields had the same message for attendees in keynote addresses during the 19th annual Catalog Conference and Exposition: listen to and know your customers.

Bezos said many changes to Amazon's site and services have come about because of customer e-mails.

E-mail is the most honest feedback a company will ever receive, Bezos said, though it often is laced with profanity.

“E-mail turns off the politeness gene,” he said.

Amazon has more than 740,000 associate partners that sell through its site, and Bezos said that while 30 percent of orders placed on Amazon are not for its merchandise, associate relationships helped the e-tailer.

He also said Amazon has made huge technological investments that have paid off, including recommendations based on past purchases.

Victoria's Secret created an “aspirational” customer image that was the basis for all its marketing decisions, Fields said.

“We created a verbal picture that included her age, her size, where she lived, what career she was pursuing, the kind of man she dated and so forth,” Fields said. “This fantasy woman became our idealized customer. Whenever we made any decision, our touchstone was whether or not she — the aspirational customer — would find what we had done appealing.

“This consistency led to customer confidence, which led to customer loyalty. And that loyalty enabled us to increase the frequency of our mailings without eroding response rates.”

Fields also told attendees not to focus on lifetime value when prospecting.

“Regarding prospect names, we did not subscribe to the lifetime value concept — that being the theory of mailing at a loss now in the hopes of achieving profitability in the future,” she said. “Our philosophy was to mail for a cumulative profit in the here and the now, and on every book.”

She also told catalogers to retain their focus on print efforts even as the Web continues to grab market share.

“Despite the fact that more and more catalog business is coming through the Web channel, you should focus on creating a strong catalog business,” she said. “In the case of a multichannel operation, I believe the Web is predominantly an ordering channel, driven by catalog mailings.”

The number of companies exhibiting was down this year, with 211 companies taking 385 booths compared with 263 companies and 498 booths last year. The Direct Marketing Association would not reveal overall attendance figures.

Reaction to the show was mixed.

“The traffic at the booth is the worst I've ever seen,” said Randi Weisenthal, a vice president at Walter Karl, Pearl River, NY. “A few list management and list brokerage companies have stopped exhibiting in the last few years and it hasn't hurt business.”

Weisenthal suggested adding cities to the Catalog Conference mix, perhaps San Diego or Las Vegas. She also criticized the location of McCormick Place, site of this year's show, which is outside Chicago's downtown Loop area.

Charles W. Smith Jr., director of business development at AmeriTel, Montgomery, AL, praised the layout of the hall and said he obtained “very good, quality leads.” However, he conservatively estimated that floor traffic was down 30 percent from last year. He said his company would attend next year.

Tom Mack, sales manager at Adrea Rubin Management Inc., New York, said more mailers were walking the floor compared with last year.

“They are looking for new ideas and are not satisfied with the status quo regarding the list recommendations they are getting from their brokers and the business they are doing on their list management revenue,” he said. “It appears that a decent number of start-ups are walking around, which is nice news for us.”

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