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Catalogers Need Innovation to Stand Out

In the fall of 1970, Roger Horchow released the first issue of a new catalog called The Kenton Collection, which within two years became The Horchow Collection. At the time, the dominant catalogs were the big six, led by Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Wards. These retailers produced major books of up to 1,400 pages with more than 300,000 SKUs. Even specialty catalogers like Neiman-Marcus and Tiffany’s produced catalogs with large SKU counts and crowded pages.

What made The Kenton Collection different was that it broke almost all the accepted rules of specialty cataloging. It did not have heavy product density but rather averaged only four to five items a page. It was completely four-color, something few catalogs were doing then. The photography, copy and presentation romanced the product and the potential buyer.

Had a poll been taken among specialty catalogers then, no doubt at least 95 percent would have said The Kenton Collection would not last. But this catalog was as instrumental in changing cataloging as toll-free calling. That team realized the customer was changing. She was educated, sophisticated and wealthier, and it was likely that she would respond to a catalog that appealed to her on this level. The Horchow catalog soon was the largest specialty cataloger in the country, surpassing even L.L. Bean and Lands’ End in the early 1970s.

However, Horchow had an advantage in 1970 that does not exist today. Then, customers, consumer or business, were not bombarded every waking minute with messages competing for their attention. The typical television commercial was 30 seconds, and cable was limited to remote areas. There was no Internet, and there were probably fewer than 1,000 catalogs, making it much easier to be seen in the mailbox.

This luxury no longer exists. At home, in the car, at the office, everywhere you turn, the consumer is blasted with attempts to gain attention. Even the typical mailbox is filled with catalogs screaming, “Look at me.”

However, too many catalogs have the same feel and look. This is even worse on Web sites, but that is another article. From merchandise to presentation, it is hard to differentiate one from the other. Because of this, what compels the recipient to look at a catalog is familiarity. That is fine if you are mailing to customers but terrible if you are mailing to prospects or one-time buyers.

This competition to grab customers’ attention is universal and applies not only to catalogers but also to retailers and dot-coms. Every company is trying to turn buyers’ attention to its site.

Retailers have the additional problem of getting prospective customers to come to the store. At least catalogers and dot-coms are accessible from home, 24/7. However, the need to pull people in has forced store retailers to try new strategies, such as making the shopping experience educational and entertaining through display techniques.

While the specialty stores tend to be on the “bleeding” edge in their screams for attention, they have forced the old, established retailers to adapt. An example is The Gap. Faced with competition in the lower price points and fearful of changing the merchandise mix too drastically, it created a new division, Old Navy. It offers the same type of merchandise but in a more youth-oriented environment — complete with a disc jockey playing contemporary artists on the music system and add-ons like a restaurant.

Dot-coms took advantage of a new medium and no prior identification in the customers’ minds and tried just about every conceivable advertising and promotional venue. Some worked, and some did not.

However, typical catalogs today are not that different than they were 10 or 15 years ago, and this shows in their results. Compounded growth rates in the double digits that we all saw for years are dropping. At home or at the office, look at the next batch of catalogs you receive. What is there that compels you to open them and read, especially if there’s one you have never seen before?

What should be done? Catalogers have to be more innovative. Waiting for the next company to test an idea and then copying it is a sure way to stay mired in the lower ranks of cataloging. The innovation can take many forms. Fingerhut Cos. Inc., realizing that by 2005 the U.S. Hispanic population is projected to be almost 13 percent of the total, is now producing and distributing catalogs specifically designed and produced for this market in Spanish, English and Spanglish. The Blair Corp. realized that its traditional method of mailing a mix of single sheets, each featuring a product, was no longer effective, and it took the plunge to create a catalog that will slowly phase out its old format. Damark decided to become a membership company that would try to generate more than 70 percent of its revenues from its Web site.

But who will be the new Roger Horchow and create a catalog that stands out from all the others? Is there no cataloger willing to be innovative and go for the gold? Even more critical is that everyone should strive to find innovative ways to cut through mailbox clutter. If catalogers do not, then it is likely that we will see loss of sales to other, more adventuresome competitors ranging from traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers to the new dot-coms.

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