Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Click your support

You’ve probably sent all your Christmas cards already, so here’s an idea for next year. A lot of companies these days send Christmas e-cards and give the money they save on postage to charity. But why not take the e-card concept a step further?

I received an email today from fashion etailer Asos that read: “Asos.com will donate 10p to the [Udayan Care] charity on behalf of every customer who shows their support by clicking here”.

If just 5 percent of Asos.com’s registered user base clicks through, the company will raise roughly £13,500. This is such a fantastic idea, and so easy for the consumer. I’d like to see more of this next year, especially from the big players. Smaller companies can get involved too, perhaps a penny for each click, or a sum for every 1000 clicks. How about it? --MT

Monday, 21 December 2009

All the Rage this Christmas

The real winner of this year’s fight for the number-one Christmas single is neither Rage Against the Machine nor Joe McElderry; it’s social media. And any businesses that still fail to see the commercial importance of networking websites such as Facebook are doomed to be mired in the 20th century.

The backstory in brief: Essex music fans John and Tracy Morter were tired of the annual winner of The X Factor--or as they put up, “Simon Cowell’s latest karoake act”--landing the top spot on the Christmas charts, as has been the case since 2004. So they set up a Facebook page encouraging people to buy Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 “Killing in the Name” the week of 13th December so that it could pip this year’s X Factor winner to number one. The campaign worked, with Rage’s not-at-all-festive ditty outselling Joe McElderry’s cover of “The Climb” by about 50,000 copies—or rather downloads, as “Killing in the Name” was available online only.

The obvious moral to this story is that one should never underestimate the breadth of a social network or the enthusiasm with which consumers participate in an online campaign. A sociologist might go so far as to argue that in our far-flung, techno-oriented world, people are so hungry to connect with other humans that they are especially inclined to get involved in virtual campaigns, as a way of sating their need to belong to a group. If this is indeed true, then online grass-roots campaigns will become more, not less, powerful as the internet becomes more a part of our everyday existence.

Leaving that aside, though, there are several other lessons to be learned:

1) Be careful how you respond to social media. After getting wind of the Rage campaign, Cowell told the mainstream media at a press conference that the Facebook campaign was “stupid” and “cynical”. In many cases, you do need to respond to web chatter concerning your brand. By doing so at a press conference, though, Cowell gave the campaign greater play than it might otherwise have received. He also demonstrated that he perceived the campaign as a threat, which of course established its credibility as one. He might have been better off by having the X Factor finalists respond in the weeks leading up to the final and then having winner McElderry launch a campaign of his own.

2) Never assume. “I now realise I’ve taken too much for granted,” Cowell said after the chart results were announced. “I have got to hold my hands up. I accept that there are people that don’t like The X Factor.” If he’d been more diligent in monitoring his brand (the subject of an article in our upcoming January issue, by the way), he would not have been so surprised. Hell, he could have just rung me (and if you’d like to call upon me in the future, Simon, feel free. I don’t like The X Factor, but I’m definitely a fan of Simon Cowell.)

3) People—and especially British people—like to support the underdog. So if you’re being perceived as Goliath, you may want to consider highlighting a few of your similarities to David.

4) Not everyone buys into the force-fed image of Christmas as a time of cheer and group hugs. The fact that the Morters selected “Killing in the Name” (sample lyric: “And now you do what they told you/Now you’re under control”) for their protest, as opposed to a more seasonal or cheery ditty, underscores this. You can’t get much less warm and fuzzy than Rage Against the Machine. Prior to the next Christmas selling season, you might want to conduct some research amongst your own audience to see whether they’ve overdosed on messages of yuletide cheer and, if so, whether you should take a different approach to your holiday marketing.

5) If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em—or try to hire ‘em. Cowell reportedly phoned the Morters to congratulate them and offer them jobs at his record company. So far, they’ve declined.--SC

Thursday, 17 December 2009

What's in a tweet?

When talking about Twitter, the word “engagement” comes up time and again. Twitter isn’t meant to be a sales channel, insist the pundits, but rather a means of engaging customers and prospects with your brand. Of course, the purpose of engaging an audience in this way is to foster a stronger bond between them and your company, a bond that is ultimately expected to pay off in greater customer loyalty, retention, and yes, sales.

In reality, though, how many merchants are using Twitter to facilitate two-way conversation with consumers, as opposed to viewing it as just another means of pushing out their own messages without encouraging response?

In a highly unscientific survey, I looked at the Twitter feeds of a dozen merchants from 10th to 17th December. I was pleasantly surprised by how few of those 12 companies used their posts primarily to talk about themselves.

Electricals retailer Comet, for instance, posted 24 tweets during the week in question. Of those, 20 involved its Tweet the Parcel competition (which colleague Miri assures me was great fun). By naming the various prizes in its tweets, Comet was able to subtly promote its product range—and of course the game itself drove traffic to its website. But by also announcing the winners in its tweets, it created a sense of conversational give and take, and aligned its brand with a sense of fun. I’d say it was a win/win all around.

Compare Comet with nursery etailer Kiddisave, which posted a whopping 156 tweets during the week—that’s more than 20 a day. Just about every one of those posts was a straightforward product advert (“Micralite Fastfold Stroller Black also available in red - Kiddisave The One Stop Baby Shop http://bit.ly/8Ax0ua”, “Great savings on Quinny, Cosatto, Stokke® any [sic] many more big name brands - Kiddisave The One Stop Baby Shop http://bit.ly/3dFrx9”). Kiddisave’s Twitter feed did nothing to distinguish the company as a brand, other than to suggest it was a site to visit when pricing products. But in this era of comparison-shopping sites, using pricing as your primary selling proposition, with “one-stop shop” a distant second, seems short-sighted. Perhaps Kiddisave figures that because it has a high customer churn rate (after all, you only need to buy strollers and highchairs for a very limited span of time), engaging with customers to encourage a relationship is a foolish luxury.

Then again, maternity and nursery cataloguer/retailer Mamas & Papas has a similar issue regarding customer churn, but its Twitter feed establishes a brand persona akin to a girlfriend with whom you might sit at the kitchen table over a cup of tea while leafing through a copy of Heat magazine and chatting about your neighbours. A typical Mamas & Papas tweet: “Congratulations to Zoe Ball and DJ Norman Cook aka Fat Boy Slim on the news their baby is a long awaited girl who will be due in Janaury. [sic]” Of its 19 tweets for the week, only six promoted products, and even these maintained a “just us girls” tone (“The perfect heirloom gift for a little girl's bedroom. How cute is this? Boys version too. http://bit.ly/60znke via @addthis”).

Other retailers that promoted product aimed for a colloquial, soft-sell tone as well. All six of Laura Ashley’s tweets for the week were self-promotional, but at least the brand tried for subtlety or a sense of context: “Did you see Kirsties Home Made Christmas? Get the Novelty Chrismas [sic] Bunting as seen on her fireplace here! http://ow.ly/LO28

Likewise, while two-thirds of Halfords’ 15 tweets were promotional, the auto and cycle accessories retailer injected a sense of humour: “On the third day of Christmas Halfords Twitter gave to me...Three Wiper Blades: http://bit.ly/5nTIEh”. Its other tweets offered vehicle-related news and info, helping to establish the brand as a definitive, qualified source.

A supplier of spare parts for appliances, eSpares is an exemplar of two-way communication. Of its 32 tweets, 22 were responses to the tweets of others, with a heavy customer service component. The remaining 10 tweets were friendly and nonpromotional, along the lines of “Good morning! It's so cold here in London today. I'm thinking I should suggest opening an eSpares branch in Sydney.”

Dolls House Emporium follows a similar tactic. Not one of its 26 tweets touted product; one linked to a blog post, 15 were responses or retweets, and the remainder were simple observations. The closest its Twitter feed came to self-promotion was with this tweet: “It's very very busy here. We're not complaining, in fact we're quite excited about it :)”

The upshot? If you’re using Twitter solely as a push mechanism, and the only things you’re pushing are your products, you’re not taking full advantage of the medium. Failing to take advantage of its pull capabilities—by inviting followers to participate in giveaways and promotions, say, or by posting nonpromotional snippets as conversational gambits—is akin to kitting out your lounge with the latest wide-screen, HD television set and surround-sound speakers, then using the gear solely to watch decade-old reruns of Last of the Summer Wine. Why bother, really?--SC

Monday, 14 December 2009

Silly propping

If you sold key rings would you photograph them hanging on an exterior wall? This photo, taken from the Frances Hilary by Post catalogue is almost an open invitation to burglars.

The copy reads “make finding keys that little bit easier”. Hmm... not just for the occupants!--MT

Friday, 11 December 2009

Gifts I don’t get

Having a robust imagination, I can empathise with the intent of just about any Christmas gift. Those cheesy kitchen aprons designed to look as if the wearer is revealing his six-pack and just about everything else? Yeah, I guess someone, somewhere finds them funny. Loo seats decorated with “humorous” cartoons and poetry about game hunting? Well, the loo is a popular place to catch up on one’s reading.

A few of the items I spotted in Christmas catalogues recently, though, had me shaking my head and wondering who the hell would buy them—and who the hell would they be intended for?

Take the Monkey Nail Dryer from Hawkin’s Bazaar.

Hawkin’s has a host of brilliantly off-kilter gifts: Crime Scene Loo Roll; the Giant Wine Glass, which holds an entire bottle of vino; the Incredible Expanding Bunny (I can’t begin to explain it). But the Monkey Nail Dryer is, to my mind, just bizarre. I can accept that some people might feel the need to hasten the drying speed of their manicure with an air blower. But why is it in the shape of a cartoon monkey? I just don’t get it.

Then there’s the Furrari dog bed from Pets at Home:

I love dogs. I especially love my dog. But my dog is not going to have a swankier vehicle, plush or otherwise, than I do.

Gifts for the Girls sells Onion Goggles. These aren’t a gag gift, not at £14.99 and with a “comfortable foam seal” and “anti-fog lenses [for] maximum clarity”. But you’d need to chop an incredible amount of onions to justify the expense. Besides, who really wants to receive a gift whose sole purpose is to make it moderately less uncomfortable to carry out a tedious task?

Which sort of brings me to the Tweeze battery-operated tweezer from the Original Gift Company. I’m not saying this isn’t a great product; according to the copy, “it’s estimated to be 30x faster than ordinary tweezing” and is “ideal for facial hair on upper lip, chin and cheek areas”. But woe betide the man who presumes to surprise his honey with an implement for removing her moustache.

When it comes to truly naff gifts, the British have nothing on the Americans. Case in point, from the US catalogue Things You Never Knew Existed: Jingle Jugs.

From the product copy: “This anatomically correct mounted pair performs to the hit song ‘Titties and Beer’ by Rodney Carrington. Molded in soft vinyl with real bikini top! Mount these jiggly jugs on the wall or use the included display stand.”

And people wonder why I left the States for England.--SC

Thursday, 10 December 2009

What we learned from one day’s worth of pre-Christmas emails

In the summer I had the bright idea of logging in every marketing email that Miri and I received for a week. It made for one of our most popular blog posts, as well as for an exhausting several days. So since I couldn’t eke out the time to repeat that experiment (I have prezzies to buy and latkes to fry), I decided to instead home in on the emails we received on 9th December, two days after the so-called Mega Monday. At this point merchants should have had a solid grasp of which products, if any, they needed to push to meet sales goals, so it seemed as good a time as any to take a snapshot of their marketing efforts.

During the week in July that I tallied up the emails, we’d received 150. On 9th December we received 51, not counting duplicates (which makes me even more glad I decided to limit the experiment to one day!). Of those 51, nearly two-thirds—33, or 65 percent—offered some sort of discount or sale. That doesn’t include the email from fashion retailer Warehouse, which promoted a 25 percent discount voucher in the current issue of Grazia magazine.

Free postage and packing was appreciably less popular: Only nine of the emails, or 18 percent, offered it. For the most part the free P&P was tied to an order deadline (Neom Luxury Organics, womenswear cataloguer Gray & Osbourne), a spending threshold (toys cataloguer Letterbox, A Hume Country Clothing), or both (outdoor gear mailer Patagonia), though home-entertainment merchant Play.com and womenswear retailer Wall London offered unconditional free P&P.

Although these emails were sent just two weeks and a day before Christmas, only one in four notified recipients of the order deadlines for Christmas delivery. Orvis, for one, specified the date in its subject line (“Order by 14th December for guaranteed Christmas delivery”).

Gifts retailer Past Times spelled out last order dates not only for the UK but also for Continental Europe, US and Canada, and “rest of the world”. Granted, those overseas deadlines had already passed, which Past Times duly noted by striking through them, but by including them on the email it subtly reminded customers that it does indeed delivery worldwide.
Snow and surf gear seller Blue Tomato went one better, specifying dates for both standard and expedited delivery to EU and non-EU countries. I was confused, however, by the addition of dates for delivery to “AT” and “DE”. After a bit of sleuthing Miri deduced they meant Austria and Germany. (Since when did those countries drop out of the EU?)

So engrossed were marketers in their Christmas promotions, they for the most part neglected to follow email best practice. Take personalisation: A scant 8 percent of the emails (those from toys cataloguer BrightMinds, Conrad Electronic, wine merchant Vintage Roots, and pet supplies seller Zooplus) had any degree of it, and even these limited the personalisation to the salutation. Fewer than one-third—31 percent—of the emails included some sort of “forward to a friend” link. Only 27 percent included a link to their Facebook or MySpace page, their Twitter feed, or some other social-networking site, though that was an improvement from July, when just 17 percent of the emails we tallied offered such links.

In terms of subject lines, few really stood out. There was Orvis’s previously mentioned reference to the ordering deadline, and several others that also emphasised urgency (“Christmas gift ideas--Special Offer--One day only SAVE 20%” from gardening gifts merchant Primrose, “Wild Wednesday--Up to 80% off for 24hrs only” from general merchandiser Sendit.com, “20% OFF EVERYTHING--Ends Midnight Friday!” from fashion retailer Evans). Others simply stated their offers (the awkwardly punctuated “25% Off Everything and Get Ready for Christmas, shop now!” from Laura Ashley, “25% off all purchases at The Body Shop”). I did like “Stuff Those Stockings—Gift Ideas” from fashion brand White Stuff and “Christmas gifts? Ask the experts!” from gadgets merchant Firebox.com because they were somewhat different.

Only two subject lines really stood out, though. One was from cosmetics brand Space NK, and that caught my attention because of the typographic error: “Limited Time Offer: Receive #10 Off Your Purchase”. As an American, this made sense to me: What is called a hash tag on this side of the Atlantic is known as a pound sign on the other side. But I’m sure it baffled many other recipients.

Then there was this: “Christmas Tree Almost Ruins Christmas--A Case Study from The Healthy House”. C’mon, you have to open an email with a subject line like that. Apparently the writer of the email once had a genuine Scotch pine for the family tree, but the kids ended up being allergic to the attendant dust, mould spores, and terpene (yeah, I had no idea what that was either). The moral, according to Healthy House, is to be conscious of people’s environmental sensitivities and other allergies, and if you’re going to opt for a real tree, click through to the Healthy House website to buy an antiallergy spray.

On a happier note, here are my picks for the most aesthetically pleasing emails. The vast majority featured a broad selection of the merchants’ product ranges, which was quite practical. After a while, though, they blurred together in my memory. These didn’t:
Patagonia didn't eschew its creative trademark--fabulous action shots--and it also tied its copy to the photo: "Don’t be cast out in the cold because you didn’t get your gift there on time. There’s still time to pick up great Patagonia presents and get them there on time..."

The simplicity of this message from fashion brand Howies is refreshing. Plus Howies was one of the few marketers to promote gift vouchers, which are always popular to give and to receive.
Okay, I'm a sucker for puppies. Want to make something of it?--SC

Monday, 7 December 2009

Blogs, break-ups, and dead sharks

It’s over. I have broken up with one of my favourite blogs.

The reasons, for this post, aren’t important. One element, though, had to do with what I (and apparently many other of the blog readers) perceived as a scolding by the blog editors regarding what they felt were off-topic responses to their posts. It could probably be boiled down to a classic case of both sides talking but neither side listening—and who hasn’t had a relationship that suffered to some degree from that?

The upshot is, whereas I used to be a big fan of the women’s-oriented blog Jezebel—visiting it several times a day, posting periodically, recommending it in articles, linking to it via this blog—a few days ago I decided to end our relationship. Okay, I did visit it once or twice during the weekend, but I didn’t click through any of the posts; it was more in the way of phoning an ex-boyfriend just to hear him pick up the phone, then hanging up when he says hello. (Come on, I’m not the only one who’s done that... am I?)

If I’m discussing my relationship with Jezebel in the same terms as one might a personal relationship, that’s because in some ways it felt like a personal relationship to me. Indeed, that’s one of the virtues of blogs and other forms of social media—and one of the dangers.

When venturing into social networking, it’s easy to focus on the upsides: creating and reaffirming customer loyalty, strengthening the bonds between consumers and brand, the potential for word-of-mouth marketing. But bear the potential pitfalls in mind as well. I emailed Jezebel with my concerns prior to breaking up with the blog, and in its defence one of the editors promptly emailed me back. But for every consumer you disappoint who makes you aware of his chagrin, there are sure to be others who simply drop you—or worse, drop you and then proceed to complain about you in his own blog posts or other conversations.

So remember that the opportunity for greater rewards usually comes with greater risks, that you need to listen as well as speak, and that you should never become complacent with your relationships with customers, any more than you should with your significant other. Which brings to mind a quote from Annie Hall: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark… It has to constantly move forward, or it dies. And I think what we got here on our hands is a dead shark.”--SC

Friday, 4 December 2009

Most popular posts: November

Originally a standalone site, the Catablogue e-business blog was rolled into our relaunched website in November 2009. New articles are posted to our website as well as to the standalone site for archiving. Here is a tally of the most popular posts of November combining the top stories from both sites:

1. The big book isn't dead yet

2. The October Catalogue Log

3. Compare and contrast: L’Occitane

4. Striking while the iron's cold

5. Huh of the day: Hyperdrug

6. Vive la difference

7. Season's e-greetings

8. Catalogue we love: Bravissimo

9. Quick ecommerce takeaways from Amy Africa

10. Comfort and joy

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

"It's a magical world, Hobbes..."

For every avid fan of Twitter and Facebook, there seems to be an equally vociferous social-media sceptic. This little case study should give the doubters reason to reconsider.

A few months back one of my favourite blogs, the Comics Curmudgeon, briefly mentioned an upcoming book about one of the best comic strips in the history of the medium, "Calvin and Hobbes". Author Nevin Martell was offering everyone who emailed him a free copy of the first chapter of his book, Looking for Calvin and Hobbes. I emailed, and several weeks later received my free chapter.

I wasn’t the only one. In an interview with the Robot 6 blog on the Comic Book Resources website, Martell said that more than 4,000 people requested the chapter. “My publishers told me that super successful versions of this kind of promotion in the past had garnered a couple of hundred requests. But then the offer got written up by BoingBoing and NPR, not to mention a slew of comic-related blogs and the Twittersphere, so suddenly I had hundreds of requests pouring in.” The success of the promotion spawned additional blog posts and articles, which in turn generated more publicity for the book.

Martell doesn’t have a deep-pocketed publishing house behind him (if such a thing as a deep-pocketed publishing house even exists anymore). And because his book appeals to a niche market, he wisely targeted niche websites with his offer. In fact, for all that pundits have said that ecommerce levels the playing field for smaller merchants, because of the lower cost of entry and whatnot, I think that social media have levelled the field even more (except, of course, that a field cannot be levelled “more”—it’s either level or it’s not. But I digress…).

Let’s say you sell something niche like pig collectibles (don’t laugh—I used to have an extensive collection of porcine novelties… okay, laugh if you must). Ten years ago you would have had to target general collectibles magazines and forums to promote your products. Now after just a few minutes online you can find websites, Facebook groups, newsletters, and the like for pig owners, pig fanciers, and yes, collectors of pig memorabilia. By setting up a blog on your ecommerce site, linking to other relevant sites, and striking up relationships with other bloggers, you could home in on pig fans without wasting resources reaching out to, say, guinea pig collectors or casting a wider, costlier, and perhaps unprofitable net to include collectibles buyers in general.

And people who participate in niche hobbies are, judging from anecdotal evidence, more engaged with social media than those favouring more-mainstream pursuits. Those of us who are really interested in something as fairly specialised as comic strips or pig figurines or Bronteana (hey, I have very catholic tastes) are usually so excited to come upon others sharing our same arcane hobby that we email and post and forward relevant links with virtually no encouragement.

Which is one reason I've included links to both Martell's book and the Comics Curmudgeon site in this post.--SC

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

November Catalogue Log

Christmas came early for our posties, in the form of far fewer catalogues to deliver in November than the previous two months. Catalogue e-business logged in 140 catalogues for the month, down nearly 24 percent from the 184 received in October and down 34 percent from September’s 212 catalogues. No doubt some of the decline in volume was due to fears of continued postal strikes; it wasn’t until 5th November that the Communication Workers Union agreed not to strike against Royal Mail at least until after Christmas.

Catalogue volume wasn’t the only element to decline from October to November. So did the percentage of catalogues touting promotions. In November, 31.4 percent of the catalogues offered sales and discounts, down significantly from 41.3 percent in October. While 14.3 percent of the November catalogues promised a gift with purchase, 16.8 percent of the October catalogues had.

The percentage promising free delivery slid to 19.3 percent in November from 21.7 percent in October. Most of the free P&P offers were unconditional, incidentally, with only a handful (Baker Ross, Hawkins Bazaar, JML Direct, Lands’ End) tying it to a specific spending level.

Overall, nearly half of the November catalogues—49.3 percent to be precise—did not resort to special offers, compared with 41.3 percent of those received in October.

It appears that more merchants are trying to wring maximum margins from the all-important fourth quarter. Email and social media make this decision somewhat less risky than it used to be: If a cataloguer finds that full-price sales are falling short of goal, it can easily and quickly put together a promotional email and spread the word via Facebook and Twitter of special offers.

Among the more notable offers was a free upgrade to a Louisiana alligator watch strap with the purchase of a specific watch from Christopher Ward. The watchmaker also has what is one of my favourite slogans: “Time on your side”. Toys catalogue Letterbox had a nice tiered-discount scheme: 10 percent off orders up to £150, 15 percent off orders over £150. My only quibble with that promotion was the typography and wording of the message; I had to reread it nearly a half-dozen times before the words “up to” versus “over” jumped out at me. Maybe if they’d been in bold I wouldn’t have been so confused. (Or maybe I just need new glasses…)

Boden offered a 10 percent discount, plus free shipping, plus another £10 off. “I owe you a huge apology,” read the covering letter. “It took us far too long to realise that the catalogue you requested had not been sent to you. To atone for this blunder I’d like to give you a free tenner. You can use it on top of the offer printed on the cover.” To quote my colleague Miri, “Is there anything Boden doesn’t do right?”

Several of the October catalogues made a point of highlighting the cut-off dates for Christmas delivery, and as expected, more of the November editions did so. Some were refreshingly specific: Children’s furniture brand Aspace stated on page 3 “Order before 4pm on 22nd December for Christmas delivery”; apparel cataloguer Lands’ End has a deadline of 10pm on 21st December; Montezuma’s Chocolates gives a deadline of 21st December for standard delivery and 22nd December for express.

But let's not end a blog post concerning Christmas shopping on such a matter-of-fact note. Here are two of our favourite catalogue covers that adorned our inboxes this month:

All together now: Awwww--SC

Monday, 30 November 2009

Why catalogues are like Marmite

“I look forward to each and every mail catalogue I receive.”
“Catalogues are the most favoured toilet reading material in my shared flat.”
“Hate them. Waste of time and money. Waste of resources.”

No, these are not quotes from a focus group. They’re comments on an item that appeared on the Jezebel blog last week. And though writing a blog post about a blog post is rather meta, I think it’s worth your while to check out the Jezebel item, “In the Internet Age, Does Anyone Still Like Catalogs?”, and perhaps even more so, the comments.

Fortunately for those of us in the industry, the number of commenters who waxed lyrical about catalogues outnumbered those who complained about the waste and inconvenience of them by about four to one. Because Jezebel is based in New York, the vast majority of commenters are American, with many citing American catalogues such as J. Crew, Williams-Sonoma, and Crate & Barrel as favourites. But the overriding sentiments, I think, apply to British shoppers as well.

For instance, even those who relish poring over print catalogues by and large prefer to order online. (Note: Jezebel’s target audience is young, media-savvy women.) Wrote one commenter: “Absolutely love catalogs from stores that i actually order from. i do ALL my ordering online~~ it's just fast and easy. but i don't use their websites to 'browse,' it's just so 1D and visually boring. even when they have animation and everything else...”

At least one reader, however, prefers ordering by phone: “…compared to ordering from a literal book, where all you do is pick up the phone and instantly, you have to jump through hoops to order over the net.”

Of course, some catalogue lovers are fans of the medium for reasons other than shopping. Noted one, “They’re fantastic for collages.” And another: “The other day, I got a Williams-Sonoma catalog in the mail and I spent a good 30 min drooling over the spiffy kitchen gadgets that I will never own because they are absurdly expensive.”

Those who loathe receiving catalogues were just as vociferous in their comments as those who love them. “Hate them. Waste of time and money. Waste of resources. A lot of companies, if I order something online, they send me a f---ing catalogue and refuse to stop sending it. I ordered ONLINE. I don't use your primitive printed material.” But tell us how you really feel, commenter Bythesea; don’t hold back.

As fascinating as the comments themselves is that so many people felt strongly enough about catalogues one way or another to submit their opinions. In this, catalogues are like Marmite: You love 'em or hate 'em. For most, it seems their sentiments for the print catalogues are tied directly to their feelings about the brands; the medium is indeed the message. All of which is something to think about if you’re considering drastically altering your print circulation strategy.--SC

Friday, 27 November 2009

XX marks the spot

More attention to detail is required at this cataloguer, whose most recent mailer included the following customer notice on the front cover:

To spare its blushes, the company that produced this catalogue will remain nameless. If this is your business, someone probably has a bit of explaining to do.—MT

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Vive la difference

Last night, my boyfriend and I were looking online for some Christmas gift inspiration. It struck me that we use the internet in completely different ways, and I am sure I am not alone in noting how frustrating it is to watch someone else shop online.

For one thing, he never—and I mean never ever—types the URL straight into the address bar. Even if he knows it, and even if it’s Amazon! He uses Google for everything (yes, Google specifically, no other search engine will do). At least now I have trained him not to automatically click on the paid-search links and instead look through the organic search results first. I imagine Google’s fortune is largely made up of lazy customers clicking on paid links instead of typing the merchants’ URLs directly into the address bar.

When he doesn’t know where to buy the item he’s looking for he’ll type it into Google and use Google’s product search. I tend to use a comparison site like Kelkoo, a marketplace or eBay, or if I know a shop that might do it, I’d search for that seller and see what else comes up on the page. I also like to use Quidco, which my boyfriend thinks is a waste of time. (We’ll see if he still thinks that after I buy a tasty takeaway for us both with the saving I made on home insurance)

Tabs are another bone of contention. Say a search has thrown up several different options, I personally like to open each page in a new tab, assess each one and close the tab once I know I no longer need it. That’s not how he does it. He loathes having more than three tabs open at once. He thinks it makes the machine run slower, and for all I know it might, but I like it my way.

When we’ve settled on a product but don’t want to buy it straight away I like to bookmark the product using the social-media widgets. He didn’t even know what the “Addthis” button did. I am proud to have imparted some of my web wisdom onto him. I love the Addthis button. I use it all the time to send myself product reminders and send him suggestions. My boyfriend prefers to either save his basket, manually add the page to his favourites, or write the product number down somewhere. What we both agree on however, is that more websites should give you the ability to save the basket and return to it another time from another computer.

Luckily my boyfriend isn’t so trigger happy that he completes the checkout process without looking for discount codes first. At first I thought it was a girly thing to do, but now anecdotal evidence shows more men are now coming round to the idea of searching for vouchers.

What all this goes to show is that you can never assume that because you shop online one way, your husband, colleague, or customer will do the same. Even more important is user testing. It might be frustrating to watch people double-click a web link on your site, but unless you know how your customers want to shop with you, you'll leave a gap that your competitor will fill.—MT

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The “big book” isn’t dead yet

The headline of the press release was innocuous enough: “JCPenney Transforms Catalog Strategy to Better Serve Customer Preferences”. But beneath the corporate-speak came the real news: The Stateside department store retailer is discontinuing its twice-a-year “big book” general-merchandise catalogue to focus on the web and speciality mailings. The fall/winter 2009 edition will be the last. It will also be the last major consumer big-book catalogue in the US. Montgomery Ward ceased publishing its big book in the mid-1980s; Spiegel and Sears retired theirs in the 1990s.

So the big book is dead in the US; long live the big book in the UK?

Without a doubt, the traditional UK big books aren’t as big as they used to be. And the Big Six are now owned by just two companies: Shop Direct Group has commandeered Littlewoods, Great Universal, Empire, and Kays (transforming the latter three into near-identical triplets), while Freemans Grattan Holdings owns—wait for it—both Freemans and Grattan. The Big Six have moved from their agency roots, though the ability to pay for products in weekly or monthly instalments remains part of their appeal to lower-income consumers and those ineligible for major credit cards.

Of course, those brands could still offer payment plans as online-only entities or while substituting smaller, niche catalogues for their comprehensive editions. And in fact Shop Direct this summer rebranded its Littlewoods Direct fascia (which unlike the core Littlewoods brand did not allow for weekly payments) as Very. The website, which has a prominent social-networking component, is Very’s core sales vehicle; the first print catalogue under the new name was nothing more than a compilation of tiny photos and SKU numbers of every item available on the website, designed solely to drive readers to Very.co.uk.

The second edition of the Very catalogue, however, did revert back to a more traditional big-book form: in situ photos, a variety of page layouts, 676 pages versus 354, the listing of the call centre phone number as well as the website URL, an index, size guides. Which suggests that the UK is not ready to abandon the big books just yet.

Another sign that the extinction of the big book in the UK isn’t yet imminent: The past few years have seen a few new entrants. Supermarket giants Tesco and Asda both launched comprehensive catalogues of their nonfood, nonapparel offering in the past few years. These catalogues follow the Argos big-book model, and not just in appearance (smaller trim size, boxy layouts). For all three brands, you can have products delivered to you or you can pick them in-store (though not all Asda and Tesco supermarkets allow for store pickup of direct orders just yet).

Why, though, do the Brits still favour comprehensive print catalogues while the Yanks apparently don’t? A few thoughts:

* The US is a much more diverse population and therefore has more need of speciality catalogues. The BNP’s fear-mongering to the contrary, 92.1 percent of the UK population is white, according to the 2001 census, and of that group, according to the CIA World Factbook, nearly 84 percent are of English ethnicity. Indians are the largest minority group, with 1.8 percent of the population. In the States, according to projections from the US Census Bureau, 68 percent of the population are non-Hispanic whites, with Hispanics of all races accounting for 15 percent, African Americans 12 percent, and Asians 5 percent. When you’re speaking to a less homogenous audience, you need to create more-specialised marketing to best target their distinct preferences and needs. For example, Spanish-language versions of mailings make good sense for many Stateside marketers.

And that’s just barebones ethnic diversity. The US is also more diverse than the UK when it comes to geography and climate: If the fall-winter edition of a big-book catalogue features 50 pages of snow boots, anoraks, ice scrapers, and portable heaters, that’s 50 pages of content irrelevant to recipients in southern states.

* Digital marketing in the US is more advanced than in the UK, making it a more viable substitute for traditional print catalogues than in Britain. No, I’m not suggesting that digital can replace print full stop. But because US websites have been quicker to adopt features such as customer reviews, live chat, product recommendation engines, video demonstrations, and the like, they have become more of a primary resource for shoppers than the print catalogues. In response to this quicker evolution of ecommerce in the States, print catalogues over there have morphed more dramatically into traffic drivers. (For examples, see “Which is the tail and which is the dog?”.)

* The Brits love their traditions more than the Yanks. Despite the advent of satellite TV with its 500 channels of choice, and regardless of the fact that the monarchy is all but powerless, Brits still sit themselves in front of the telly after their Christmas dinner to watch the Queen’s Speech. It serves no real need and has no real effect on anyone’s life, but the British won’t give it up. So we shouldn’t be surprised that two-thirds of all UK households still have an Argos catalogue in their home at any given time. For most UK shoppers, it—and other big books—still works just fine, thank you.--SC

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Huh of the day: Hyperdrug

It’s been a while since an email really made me think “Huh?”.

If you thought that a stationery supplies merchant stocking Christmas gifts was unusual, a pet pharmacy selling festive items would be even more out of the ordinary.

A couple of days ago I received an email entitled Gifts and Treats For Christmas from‏ Hyperdrug. Hyperdrug is known as the “Equine Pharmacy, Pigeon Pharmacy and Canine Chemists” so before opening it I expected some pet-related gifts—treats for the dog, a scratching post for the cat, a winter rug for the horse maybe. Instead I was presented with a car cover, a deluxe heated airer, and binoculars among other what seemed to me as randomly selected items. The only thing animal-related was a heated dog bed.

A visit to Hyperdrug’s website only adds to the Huh? factor—“Electrical gifts for all the family” declared a banner. True, alongside its animal pharmacy Hyperdrug also stocks medicine for humans, but it wouldn’t be the first place I’d think of if in the market for a new hairdryer. Personally, I would have liked to see more animal-related gifts and items that that are not so commonly found in high-street chemists. Hyperdrug had the right idea with the dog bed, shame it didn't carry it through.

I also feel that Hyperdrug should have crafted its email a little more carefully to avoid flummaxing recipients . Instead of hitting inboxes with a vague “here are our offers” message, it should have gone in with something more like “did you know Hyperdrug also sells Christmas gifts? You can find them in a special section on the website, along with all your family’s healthcare needs”. As the adage goes, you need to sell the sizzle, not the steak. With so many others competing in the gifts market, why should I choose Hyperdrug?--MT

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Compare and contrast: L’Occitane

A cataloguer/retailer of toiletries, L’Occitane has branched out far beyond its origins in the Provence region of France. Today it has commerce-enabled sites for 19 countries, including Colombia, Israel, Russia, and Slovakia. Among its English-language sites are those specific to the UK, the US, and Australia.

The home pages of the various L’Occitane websites use a similar architecture: hero photo/offer taking up two-thirds of the first screen, with a right-hand column of two stacked offers making up the final third. The offers differed among the Australian, UK, and US sites. On the Australian site (above), the main box was a rotating selection of best-sellers that were on sale; the right-hand column reminded visitors that this was the last week to receive a $10 gift voucher with every online order and promoted the Christmas catalogue. (The Aussie home page also featured some lovely tinkling music to put you in a Christmassy mindset.)

The UK home page (right) also rotated the images of its hero offer, Festive Limited Editions, as well as of the Limited Edition Collections highlighted on the top of the right-hand column. The second item on the right-hand column was a link to the site’s Christmas Gift Boutique, with product categories consisting of Festive Limited Editions, Irresistible Special Value Gifts, Petite Gifts Under £20, and Our Best Sellers. A third, smaller right-hand box linked to a page of "beauty secrets".

The Festive Limited Editions accounted for the hero spot of the US home page (below) as well. Beside the photos of the boxed sets was a prominent note that standard shipping was free with every Limited Edition. To the right was a link to the site’s page of Provencal holiday recipes and a promotion of a boxed set of goodies free with every purchase of at least $100. It’s not surprising that the Stateside site emphasises the free P&P: As Scott Silverman of US trade group Shop.org told USA Today, “Consumers [in America] feel it's their right to buy online without paying for shipping”. The US site reiterated the free shipping offer alongside the main navigation bar, which enabled you to shop by Product Type (such as fragrance, skincare, men, new, and best sellers) or by Ingredient (shea butter, verbena, almond, essential oils, and the like). The other two sites used the same mode of navigation, though the UK site labelled the tabs By Category and By Range.

Above the product navigation bar was an overall site nav bar, and additional navigation links ran along the bottom. These varied significantly among the three home pages. Unlike the Australian site, for instance, the US and UK sites offered free gift wrap and free samples with every order—the latter a great way of creating additional sales of what is a very sensual product. The US site, unlike the other two, did not include a catalogue request link. But it was the only one to include a blog and links to a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. Combined with the prominent placement of the link to the recipe page, these features indicate that the US team, more so than its UK and Australian counterparts, considers increasing customer engagement critical to encouraging brand loyalty and repeat business.

L’Occitane US was also more advanced when it came to gift cards. They were featured on the home page of the US site, and they can be redeemed online, via phone, or in-store. While Australian shoppers can buy gift vouchers online, they can be redeemed in-store only, not an ideal situation for a multichannel retailer. Even less ideal: The UK site didn’t sell gift vouchers at all.

All three sites offered a Best Seller product category. The products differed among the sites, which was reassuring; I’d suspect a fix if the favourite product Down Under was also the favourite in the States. (For the record, face creams seemed to be more popular with the Aussies, while Yanks favoured hand creams, and Brits loved the Immortelle skincare range.)

The product copy also varied somewhat among the sites. In Australia, the headline on the landing page for the Immortelle range emphasised its “skin-brightening” abilities, while the other two sites came right out and praised its “anti-ageing” qualities. But while the actual verbiage differed, the copy on all three pages used a similar blend of fanciful imagery and scientific-sounding claims. Can you guess which description is from which site?

A. “Immortelle is a wild and mysterious flower from Corsica, which yields a miraculous essential oil - a precious elixir of youth. Immortelle anti-aging skin care reduces signs of aging by multiplying collagen production, improving microcirculation and fighting against free radicals.”

B. “Immortelle is also known as the everlasting flower, because the papery flowers retain their form and color when dried. We have extracted a precious essential oil from the plant, which has anti-free radical and anti-wrinkle properties. The Immortelle collection offers anti-aging products for the face and body.”

C. “On the Mediterranean island of Corsica there lives a flower that never withers – Immortelle. Thousands of flowers are slowly distilled to extract the plants essential oil. L’OCCITANE has harnessed the power of the Immortelle essential oil to create an anti-ageing range that helps to stimulate micro-circulation, increase collagen synthesis and protect against cell ageing.”

If you guessed A for US, B for UK, and C for Australia, give yourself a pat on the back. Oddly the UK description used American spellings (“color”, “anti-aging”). I’m not sure whether we can draw any useful conclusions from this, however, especially as on other pages the product copy was all but identical from site to site.

The product ranges themselves varied to some degree among the sites. It would seem that orange is not a popular scent in Australia, as L’Occitane did not sell its Ruban d’Orange range on its site there, though the UK site did. The range was available in the States as well, though in the product copy it was referred to simply as Orange, not by its French name nor the English translation (“Orange Ribbon”).

On the actual product pages, the descriptions were similar, if not identical, from site to site. Other similarities on the product pages: the breadcrumb trail as a navigational aid, the ability to enlarge the product image, a “send to a friend” facility, links to products “Customers Also Liked”. The US product pages offered the most additional features: links to recently viewed items and related products, an Advice tab (which often recommended ancillary products—very savvy), “Testimonials” (which I’d suggest renaming “Customer Reviews”; as it stands, one might assume that only positive comments are solicited or that negative remarks are censored). The UK product pages included the same features, except for the related products. The Australian site, however, did not include customer reviews or recently viewed items.

All told, L’Occitane does an admirable job of maintaining brand consistency across borders while allowing its local teams enough autonomy to tailor the details of their websites to the individual markets (American spellings on the UK site notwithstanding). If only L’Occitane could figure out a way to replicate the scent of one of its boutiques as soon as you log on to any of the sites.--SC

Friday, 13 November 2009

Striking while the iron's cold

When the Communication Workers Union announced last week that it would not strike against Royal Mail for the remainder of the year, there was much rejoicing among businesses and consumers alike. So I don't understand why I am still receiving emails from direct merchants--including Culinary Concepts, Space NK, and Jigsaw--telling me "don't worry about your order getting delayed by the postal strikes, where possible we will send your order via courier", reassuring me that "delivery will not be affected by the Royal Mail strike action", and advising that by ordering with them I can "beat the strike" because they use alternative carriers.

One of the advantages of email marketing is how quickly you can create or amend a message. Sending out-of-date messages like these will not inspire trust among recipients in your company's ability to stay on top of things.

Petmeds, on the other hand, once again shows how it should be done. Last month we praised the pet-supplies merchant for its email to customers warning them of possible delivery delays due to the postal strikes. Today it sent out another email noting that normal Royal Mail delivery has resumed. What's more, "We would like to thank everyone for their patience during the strikes by offering free postage on all UK orders until Monday 16th November". Well done!--SC

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Comfort and joy

Two diverse organisations, John Lewis and Oxfam, are using online video in a similar way: to encourage us to spend some of our Christmas budget at their websites.

In its enewsletter last week, John Lewis included a blurb about its Toy Joy video, in which "we asked some children we know to give our predicted best sellers a test run, and as you’ll see, they had lots of fun". In the three-minute clip, a half-dozen or so kids play with scooters, dollhouses, glow-in-the-dark light sabers, and the like. It's a cute idea; I just wish that the production was a bit less slick. The kids seem more like child actors told to play nicely than "real-life" kids who jumped at the chance to mess about with toys. One of the girls in particular appeared positively joyless playing with what looked like a pretty fun dressmaking kit.

John Lewis doesn't seem to have uploaded the video onto YouTube, which seems to be a lot opportunity. Oxfam, on the other hand, has a series of videos on the clip-sharing site as well as on OxfamUnwrapped.com. The site sells "gifts that make a big difference"--£30 buys farming tools for a Third World family, £221 a desk and chair at a school in an impoverished community, £25 a goat for a family in need. The print catalogue includes plenty of callouts directing you to the website to "see this gift in action". The video (below) in which a Honduran family shows how the gift of a cow (£80) improved their well-being is more effective than any copywriter's verbiage could be. And if the expression on the girl's face at the 1:25 mark doesn't epitomise "joy", I don't know what does.--SC

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The October Catalogue Log

St Nick lugging a bag brimming with toys has become a near-universal symbol of Christmas. For the weeks leading up to the holiday, you could substitute a postie for Santa, and a mailbag bulging with catalogues for the sack of toys.

In October alone, Catalogue e-business logged in 184 catalogues. That’s second in volume only to September, when we tallied 212 catalogues. And one could argue that we would have received even more catalogues last month were it not for the intermittent CWU/Royal Mail strikes.

Not only was our mailbox full of catalogues, but the catalogues were full of promotions. The number of catalogues that featured sales or discounts on their covers was the same that offered no special promotions at all: 76, or 41.3 percent. Only August and May had a higher percentage of sales promotions, at 43.7 percent and 42.6 percent respectively. The percentage of catalogues offering free delivery reached a year high of 21.7 percent. The percentage of catalogues offering a gift with purchase, meanwhile, was 16.8 percent, behind only June (17.8 percent) and August (16.9 percent).

Several of the cataloguers committed the marketing equivalent of hiding their light under a bushel: not promoting significant offers on the cover. Fashion mailer Carr & Westley, for instance, tells readers, “No extra charge for post and packing within the UK”—not on the front or back cover but on the inside front cover. Tools cataloguer/retailer Screwfix offers free delivery on orders of more than £50, though again you’d have to open the catalogue and scan the inside front cover to learn that fact. I don’t understand why you’d offer a buying inducement like free P&P without promoting it. Are the companies secretly hoping no-one will take them up on the offer? The only logical explanation I can come up with is that they’re testing the effectiveness of free P&P, though I didn’t notice any mechanisms in place to help in tracking such a test. If anyone can illuminate me, please do.

Among a few notable catalogues we received: Food gifts mailer Virginia Hayward offered 12.5 percent off its Christmas hampers. I assume that percentage of discount was selected to tie in with the fact that Virginia Hayward is celebrating its 25th anniversary, though maybe the company settled on that number simply because it’s more attention-getting than, say, 10 percent off. Viking Direct sent the most distinct editions of any cataloguer in October: eight, including the 484-page Office Buyers Directory, a 72-page November Sale edition, and a 56-page Pricebuster Sale edition.

Several of the October catalogues made a point of alerting shoppers of their cut-off ordering dates for Christmas delivery, something we’ll no doubt see more of among November’s crop of mailpieces. Silk-flowers cataloguer Bloom will take orders until 18th December for standard Christmas delivery and 21st December for expedited delivery. Toys cataloguer/retailer Early Learning Centre lists 20th December as its deadline. The last order date for Christmas delivery at Rainbow Flowers & Gifts is 18th December. So far CJ Wildlife offers the latest deadline: 21st December for standard delivery to mainland UK.

The Executive Christmas Cards and Promotional Calendars catalogue that raises funds for the RNLI has the dubious distinction of the most incomprehensible promotion, involving a sister company of Kingsmead Publications, which handles the catalogue operations for the RNLI. I think it’s simply a 50 percent discount on stationery from Simply Letterheads, good from 13th December through March, but it’s wrapped in some “clever” verbiage about how taking advantage of the discount enables you to in effect spend nothing on Christmas cards next year, because the money you saved on the stationery will balance out the money you spend. Why not just state, “When you buy cards from this catalogue you can get a whopping 50 percent off your stationery at Simply Letterheads”? That seems like a strong enough proposition in and of itself, and as Lisa Simpson taught me, simplest is best.--SC

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Call for an intervention

The big brouhaha here in Ilfracombe is that government health-and-safety regulations are once again making it impossible for the town to have a real bonfire on Bonfire Night. Instead locals will be holding sparklers as they watch a film of a fire on a jumbo screen.

Don't get me wrong: I love my adopted country. I like the current government. I even like Gordon Brown (yes, I'm the one). But if the government can see fit to dictate the minutiae of a small town's Guy Fawkes festivities, why can't it interfere with something as nationally significant as the Communication Workers Union's strikes against Royal Mail?

You needn't be Alistair Darling to know that companies are losing significant sums because of the strikes. Shopping-comparison site Kelkoo.com estimates that they will cost each UK retail business an average of £840 a week. Given that the UK has roughly 319,000 retail businesses, that's a lot of sterling that won't be finding its way into the government's tax coffers--never mind the potential catastrophic effects continuing strikes could have on the direct marketing sector, which relies much more heavily on Royal Mail than bricks-and-mortar retailers do.

Yes, we all know that fireworks and bonfires can injure and kill observers. But if the postal strikes last much longer, they may well injure and even kill some businesses. Will the government intercede in the strikes then?--SC

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Book learning

According to Persephone Books, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is one of its best-selling title. So it wouldn't be surprising that the company mentioned the book periodically throughout its catalogue.

But Persephone Books doesn't refer to Miss Pettigrew periodically. It cites the novel repeatedly, redundantly, in descriptions for its other titles. The Making of a Marchioness "is in the Cinderella (and Miss Pettigrew) tradition..."; "The Casino, like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day three years before..."; "Like Miss Pettigrew, [Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary] is a fairy tale for grown-ups..."; Miss Buncle's Book "is an entirely light-hearted, easy read, one of those books like Mariana, Miss Pettigrew..."

Persephone seems to think that its entire target market loved Miss Pettigrew. I haven't read the book myself, nor do I plan to. A Persephone blogger described it as "so light it practically floats", and I find it difficult to focus on books that defy the laws of gravity and refuse to stay put. But my antipathy for the hard sell made me refuse to consider buying any of the books in the catalogue that referenced Miss Pettigrew. And if I had actually read and disliked Miss Pettigrew, I may have hesitated to order anything at all from Persephone, so closely does the catalogue associate itself with that one book.--SC

Thursday, 29 October 2009

CWU warns: more strikes to come

A three-day postal strike is underway as talks between the Communications Workers Union and Royal Mail failed to reach agreement last night. And although the union is saying that future strikes can be avoided, some newspapers and TV news channels are reporting that strike action will only get worse in the coming days and weeks.
The Guardian and Telegraph quote the CWU’s general secretary Billy Hayes as saying: "We will be upping the dispute. We will not be scaling it down. There is every prospect that we will increase the action and we could be looking at longer strikes." To the BBC, Hayes said: "I don't think we're going to put up with this messing about."

And messed about is how I expect many retailers are feeling as they scramble to put their contingency plans into action. Tell us, how have the strikes affected your business? What are you doing to ensure your customers still get their orders in time? Have you had to rethink any Christmas print marketing campaigns? Do you have a postal strike horror story to share?--MT

Monday, 26 October 2009

Season’s e-greetings

It’s official, Christmas is here, or so Argos would have you believe now that its Christmas commercials have started airing on television. And late last week I received my first Christmas email marketing piece.
It wasn’t from Argos, whose only mention of Christmas in an email to me recently was an opportunity to win a trip to see A Christmas Carol at the cinema next month. No, whilst most retailers are still busy touting spooky Halloween merchandise, The White Company sneaked in the first Christmas email: “No mad rush. No silly price. No shortage of ideas. Just the perfect Christmas, starting right here”. It also offered a discount of 15 percent for enewsletter subscribers.
I wasn’t expecting The White Company to be the first company to get in touch, and for me it’s far too soon to start worrying about buying Christmas gifts (there are two family birthdays in November for a start). But what I am keen to find out is whether now the first email has landed in my inbox there will follow a flood of Christmassy missives. Or do retailers have too much on their minds with the postal strikes to start their Christmas campaigns just yet?--MT

Friday, 23 October 2009

The good, the bad, and the huh?

A few comments on catalogues and emails that arrived at Catalogue e-business HQ this week.

First, the good: “Do we look good naked?” retail supplies cataloguer Morplan asks on the inside front cover of its October issue. It had mailed the catalogue without a plastic wrap, you see. “Did your copy arrive in good condition or should we stay covered up” the note continues. “Please let us know at naked@morplan.com.” I like this for two reasons: 1) Mailing without a polybag is more environmentally friendly, and 2) Morplan is asking for customers’ feedback on the move. Much as I loathe when catalogues come entombed in plastic (it’s just more flotsam to rip open and discard), I can appreciate that not everyone agrees with me. By asking its clients for feedback, Morplan shows that it values their input and, by extension, their custom.

Next, the bad: “We've noticed that customers who have purchased or rated The Wanderers (Bloomsbury Classic Reads) by Richard Price have also purchased Rays by Richard Price,” begins an email from Amazon.co.uk. The message includes a link to Rays, which is scheduled to be released next week, and suggests I preorder a copy. Now, if Rays has not yet been published, how could people have already bought it? And more to the point, the Richard Price who wrote The Wanderers, a gritty novel (and one that I gave four stars, by the way), is not the same Richard Price who wrote Rays, a book of poetry described as “a wry and tender lover’s gift”. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of readers of Richard Price I and Richard Price II, the circles probably wouldn’t even touch, let alone overlap. I’d complained about Amazon’s dodgy product recommendations before; this seems to confirm that while it owns leagues of customer and product data, Amazon doesn’t really know what all the info means.

And now, the huh?: A 20-page Christmas edition of the Viking Direct catalogue includes two pages of Wii games, two pages of additional games, a page of kiddie electronics, and a page of DVDs. Viking, of course, is a direct seller of office supplies. Is the company really suggesting that office managers should stock up on boxed sets of Shameless DVDs and Hannah Montana karaoke systems in addition to wall planners and toner cartridges?--SC

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Delivering info about deliveries, take two

Last week I went on a bit about how few companies were posting messages on their home pages reassuring customers about deliveries in the event of a Royal Mail strike. But I’m pleased to report that during the past day or so, eight of the 17 marketing emails I’ve received have included some sort of note about delivery. (Okay, I’d be even more pleased to report that the Communication Workers Union won’t be striking against Royal Mail tomorrow, but hey ho.)

For instance, in its email the day before the scheduled strike, NotontheHighStreet.com included a “Postal Strike Update”. The note was a bit ambiguous: “While any postal strike will inevitably affect some of the delivery times stated on our product pages, many of our deliveries are by courier and will be unaffected. In addition, we will do everything we can to get your order to you as quickly as we can.” While I like the idea of the beautifully groomed NotontheHighStreet founders pedalling a bike in high heels to personally deliver a gift to a customer, that’s probably not what they had in mind by “we will do everything we can”.

The postal note appeared about three-quarters of the way down the NotontheHighStreet email; I didn’t see it until I’d hit the Page Down button 13 times. I also had to scroll down, though just a bit, on the email from Baker Ross to read that “Your order will NOT be affected by a Royal Mail strike”.

Great Little Trading Co, on the other hand, put its notice right at the top of its email. So did Great Universal, which kept its message short and sweet: “Rely on us—we won’t be affected by the Royal Mail strikes.” Others that featured reassurances regarding delivery on the initial screen of their emails were The Book People, The Healthy House, and Vertbaudet.

Next and Joe Browns even used the occasion of the impending strikes to contact their subscribers just to let them know that delivery would be unaffected.

Another eight retailers made no mention of the Royal Mail strikes or delivery options in the marketing emails they sent out on the Tuesday and Wednesday prior to the scheduled strike. Maybe that’s because they are Royal Mail customers and have no contingency plans.

Then again, Petmeds uses Royal Mail, yet it emailed customers an update about delivery. “Due to ongoing Royal Mail Postal strikes we ask if you could allow extra time for orders to be delivered. We are currently working on using an alternative postal provider and will update you when this is in place,” the message began. It proceeded to remind readers of its expedited service options and added, “We really value your custom and appreciate your patience at this time”. Come on, everyone: Aww…

Petmeds knows that consumers would rather be kept informed, even if the information isn’t ideal. It also knows how to position that less-than-ideal news, in this instance by couching it as a “we’re all in this together” situation. After all, very often it’s not what you say but how you say it--and that you say it--that counts.--SC

Monday, 19 October 2009

Mixed message

A recent marketing email from Big Man's Shop made me wonder whether it was trying to win my business or warn me off.

"Fantastic Half Price Sale" read the headline, below which were pictures and descriptions of some of the items on sale. So far so good.

Then, in the left-hand column, just below the company contact info, was a caveat: "Some of the special offers promoted via this newsletter are very limited stock end of line ranges. As such we cannot guarantee fulfillment of all size/colour options. We do apologise for any inconvenience." Instead of apologising and setting up the expectation of disappointment, Big Man's Shop might have been better off positioning the limited stock as a reason to rush to the website, with text along the lines of "Stock is extremely limited, so hurry today for the best selection".

And below that copy block appeared this customer service nugget: "To return goods to us please enclose the returns form with your instructions. Return goods by Royal Mail obtaining a certificate of posting. Return postage costs are the responsibility of the customer."

First off, I question whether this information even needs to be on the email. Here you are, talking to people who haven't yet made a purchase, and you're already telling them what they need to do should they be dissatisfied with their purchase. Second, the returns process sounds onerous and even punitive: "Because you were naughty, the return postage is your responsibility. That'll teach you." Yup, that'll teach 'em, all right--teach 'em to think twice about clicking through to the site and ordering from Big Man's Shop.--SC

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Delivering info about deliveries

When I searched for "Royal Mail" and "strike" this afternoon, Google News delivered "about" 2,368 news stories as results. (I love how Google News won't pin itself down to a specific number of stories but instead feels the need to qualify the number with "about".) A sampling of the headlines: "Royal Mail national strike would cause havoc with Christmas post" (The Telegraph); "Firms' fears over post strike threat" (Scunthorpe Telegraph); "Prepare for disruption" (Burton Mail); "The last post" (The Independent).

I figured that lots of direct sellers would be responding to the fearsome headlines with messages on their websites reassuring customers that even in the case of a national strike, their orders would be delivered on time.

Once again, I figured wrong.

Of the 20 ecommerce sites, both b-to-b and b-to-c, I visited, only four had some sort of disclaimer on their home page.

Office supplies cataloguer/retailer Staples placed its message front and centre, just below its logo: "Your order will not be affected by any Royal Mail strike action. For your peace of mind, remember that your order is NOT delivered by Royal Mail and will continue to be delivered next day as usual."

On the other three websites, the messages appeared below the fold. Even so, they were difficult to miss. Fashion etailer Asos went with a bold albeit somewhat ungrammatical "Royal Mail Strikes Delivery Unaffected". Fellow apparel merchant Cotton Traders, which caters to an older audience, posted a genteel "For complete confidence your order will be delivered by private courier". And general merchandiser Littlewoods tied its message to a reminder that "Standard delivery is free on all orders. Don't forget... our deliveries are not affected by any postal strikes".

So of my informal survey, 20 percent of the websites were addressing what is undoubtedly a concern of many consumers. As for the other 16 websites, several of them (Amazon.co.uk, Marks & Spencer, and Liberty) prominently promoted free shipping offers, but they didn't reassure shoppers that the orders would actually arrive. For the others, it was business as usual.

Some of these companies may still be scrambling for delivery alternatives and therefore can't promise uninterrupted service. But department store John Lewis issued a statement this week stating that it has switched its parcel deliveries to other carriers--so why not post this info on its website?

Maybe John Lewis and some of the others are afraid that by mentioning the strikes on their sites, they're planting a fear in the minds of consumers and that therefore the less said the better. Or maybe they feel it's too early to start pounding the message.

A former editor of mine said that when writing a feature or a presentation, you should "tell the audience what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them". In other words, you can't repeat your message too early or too often. For consumers who are already a bit hesitant about parting with their hard-earned money, it's not too early to reassure them that they'll actually receive the merchandise they've opted to spring for.--SC

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Quick ecommerce takeaways from Amy Africa

The title of Amy Africa’s ECMOD session “Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Website Performance” was erroneous; she delivered nearly three times as many tips and takeaways—too many for one lone scribe to capture. Here, then, are some highlights from the ecommerce consultant’s session:

  • Design your web page as a three-column format, though the columns do not need to be of equal width. In fact, you want the centre column to be widest, as that is where you should place the most important elements of each page. “We look at the left if we need more help,” Africa explained. “We look at the right if we want to leave. For everything else we look in the middle.” That’s why product category indices are almost universally on the left. And that’s why you should place elements designed to prevent viewers from leaving—previously viewed items, best-sellers, special offers—on the right.
  • Don’t place your text search box in the top right corner. “If your site is good,” Africa said, “it should work without people having to use text search.” This is especially important when you consider that, according to her research, about two-thirds of people who abandon a site do so while in the search process. So rather than prominently feature search in the prize upper-right spot, move it to the left-hand navigation column.
  • “You can only ever count on 30 percent of users scrolling down a page.” Therefore you need to make sure your key elements and messages appear on the top of every page. These would include the email sign-up box (“Sell you soul to the devil for your users’ email address,” Africa advised) and the perpetual shopping cart. And make sure that you feature at least three products above the fold on your landing pages.
  • Add an image carousel to your landing page. Carousels are revolving slideshows of images. According to Africa, “They help refresh the eye in a positive way and tell the user, ‘These are things that you need to look at’.” In addition to an image, each slide should have a call to action, such as “Click here now”, and a catchy headline.
  • Use instigated chat on the pages where it matters most. Instigated chat is a proactive form of live chat; rather than waiting for the user to contact the etailer for a chat, a customer service rep contacts the user via a pop-up box if the user seems to be having a problem—for instance, if he has been on the same page for more than one minute without taking any sort of action.
  • Leave abandoned shopping carts open indefinitely so that when the user returns, no matter how long the absence, he is shown the cart with his selections. And while we’re on the subject of abandoned carts, bear in mind that abandoned-cart programmes, in which you contact visitors who have abandoned their carts via email reminders or offers to encourage them to return to complete the transaction, “are programmes,” Africa said. “Sending one email does not count.”
  • Put your perpetual shopping cart in multiple places throughout the site: the upper right-hand corner, of course, but also on the bottom of the page and somewhere in the right-hand column.
  • Add a “temperature bar” at the top of your checkout pages so that customers know how far along in the process they are.
  • “Choose brains and brawn over beauty” when it comes to website design. “Esthetics doesn’t make a lot of money online,” Africa insisted. “You want to do something for your site today? Add more ‘checkout now’ and ‘add to cart’ buttons.”--SC