Thursday, 30 April 2009

Swine flu as marketing opportunity?

Rob Lake, a retail specialist and blogger for Australia's Business Spectator website, writes that if the swine flu pandemic turns out to be as severe as some fear, bricks-and-mortar retailers will be especially hard hit: "Shopping will involve far too great a risk of infection for many people. Mexican retailers are reporting deserted stores and restaurants already. Starbucks has closed 10 Mexico City stores."

This in turn could be a silver lining of sorts for cataloguers and online merchants. "Online retailing may have the opportunity to boom, provided capacity can grow fast enough. Fulfilment logistics will be stretched to breaking point. The companies that can expand their online capacity at short notice will do best," Lake continues.
No-one likes to profit from the misfortune of others, of course. (Or if they do, they certainly pretend otherwise.) So I doubt we'll be seeing marketing emails along the lines of "Don't risk your life by venturing out to the high street for a new pair of shoes! Order from the comfort of your home at" or "Since going out is too dangerous, you need some entertainment delivered to your door. Here's a selection of books and CDs we'll ship to you, picked and packed by workers in surgical masks and rubber gloves".

But Slingsby, a cataloguer of office and warehouse supplies, has found a way to take advantage of the swine flu in its marketing. "Safeguard your employee's [sic] health and reduce the risk of cross contamination and infection in your workplace," declares the headline of an email received on Monday. Below are links to hand sanitisers, cleaning fluids, and the like.

Slingsby is no stranger to using fear as a sales tool; see an earlier post, "Scare tactic of the week". And because its current email is circumspect--swine flu and pandemic don't appear at all in the message--it manages not to come across as unduly opportunist. I don't know if marketers of many other types of products could pull off the same trick.--SC

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Too old for Asos?

I was going to post a note about how impressed I was with Asos’s 12 top tips for staying stylish on a budget email. I loved the way it appeals to cash-strapped fashionistas without sounding desperate or gloomy about the economy. And the tips were pretty good too, though I am not too keen on the socks with heels trend.
But between receiving the email and composing this post, another Asos email landed in my inbox. Which brings me onto the real topic of today’s post—I think I am too old for Asos.
This has come as quite a shock to me, and frankly I’m hurt. First I don’t get the heels/socks trend, then I receive an email featuring 90s grunge as a fashion flashback. Uh-oh. Were the 90s that long ago that they now qualify to be a fashion flashback? They must be. But I am not quite 30 yet. And I've been a follower of Asos since before the Buncefield oil depot explosion destroyed its warehouse and catapulted the company into the public eye. Back then I was just 25 and a prime Asos target. I have grown older but it hasn’t. I am Wendy to Asos’s Peter Pan.
I fear my next emails from Asos will be trading me up to its maternity range or kidswear products… Asos has me in an age limbo. So where do I go from here?--MT

Learning from the past

One of my favourite "off-duty" blogs, Jezebel, yesterday posted a handful of pages from the 1972 spring/summer Sears catalogue. In the States, Sears used to produce a "big book" catalogue selling everything from apparel to tyres, aimed at Middle America.  

What's striking about these old catalogue shots--aside from the fashions themselves (and the hairdos that the models were sporting!)--is how they demonstrate creative best practice. There are some catchy headlines and subheads, action shots (I love the admiring bicyclist in the background of the first spread--a nice subliminal touch), insets of alternative colours and additional views, cutouts that enliven the pages and put today's Photoshop acolytes to shame, eye-catching poses and photo compositions (see the "Junior Bazaar Jeans" pages).  

I'd love to know who those art directors and copy writers were, and what they've done since. They really did help craft a commercial aesthetic.--SC

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Lost in translation--part deux

Another reason to do copious research regarding product and brand names before introducing them into a foreign market: This popular dog treat has a name that, in its native US, denotes freshness and wholesomeness with a hint of cuteness. Here in the UK, though, where the treat is now available, the name apparently refers to a distasteful discharge from the nose.
Greenies, anyone?--SC

Monday, 27 April 2009

That ain't a magazine, Montage

"The brand new Montage magazine is out now!" declared an email I received last week. Ooh, the womenswear cataloguer was switching to a magazine format. The only thing I love more than catalogues is magazines, so I was delighted when I arrived home a few days later to find my new Montage magazine in my pile of post.

But Montage and I apparently differ when it comes to the definition of "magazine". I believe that a magazine needs to include some sort of editorial content. The Montage "magazine" features nothing of the sort. The email promised "special features on occasion wear, international fashion and those all important holiday items!" The "magazine" delivered only product shots and product descriptions, most of which were bare-bones at best.

The thing is, Montage could easily have created some editorial to transform its catalogue into, at the very least, a magalogue/catazine. A page of advice regarding the best styles of dress for your body type or the best hues for your colouring; merchandisers' picks of the new party clothes and how to accessorise them; a behind-the-scenes look at a fashion shoot; even a horoscope pegged to which sandals are best for your star sign: Any of these would have set the new Montage apart from the old version.
As it is, I feel that Montage overpromised and underdelivered when it came to its "magazine". And if it overpromised and underdelivered on this, how can I trust that it won't do the same with its merchandise?--SC

Sunday, 26 April 2009

What's Mine is yours

So I just received my first issue of digital magazine Mine: My Magazine, My Way, and it doesn't feel like mine at all.

Publishing powerhouse Time invited US readers to sign up for what it promised would be a free digital zine tailored to each subscriber's specific interests. We were asked to select five Time magazines we'd like to read content from and to tick off our interests. Apparently there's going to be some sort of print/postal component as well, as you needed to provide a US mailing address to be eligible. (Guess I'd better tip off my mother-in-law as to why she'll be receiving mail for me at her address.)

"Mine represents a groundbreaking shift in the way magazines are made, because what's on each page reflects what you asked for when you subscribed," reads the welcome note on my debut issue. If that's the case, I must have been possessed by the spirit of my nonexistent evil twin when filling out my sub form. What else could explain the inclusion of an article about designer tents and upscale camping? (I am not upscale, and I do not camp.) A feature on fruit juices? (If anything fruit related entered my body at this point, it would go into a near-fatal shock.) An article on road trips? (If I'm sent to hell, it will be via a road trip.) A look at five sports best for building up your arm muscles? (And once I'm in hell, participating in any and all of these sports is how I will be made to spend my time.)

The fact that I can go to any news agent and pick a dozen magazines off the racks that have more content of interest to me than Mine pretty much negates Mine's raison d'etre.

Then again, I'm not 100-percent sure what Mine's raison d'etre is. Is it to monetise digital magazines by enticing advertisers with a wealth of demographic info about subscribers? Is it to provide a new ad vehicle for a deep-pocketed business that wants to be the sole sponsor of something that's seen to be cutting edge? (Lexus is the sponsor of the first issue. Nice to see that Toyota has money to spend.) Is it to eventually charge subscribers for digital magazines by promising targeted, "every article's a winner" content? Is it to use the digital magazine as a driver of subscriptions to the print magazines whose content is included? 

If it's to show that the future on one-to-one marketing is here, then Mine has failed. Perhaps if it had incorporated some third-party customer information into its database it could have better tailored the content, if that's what it's goal really was. Or maybe Mine just highlights the difficulty, if not impossibility, of any corporation being able to account for the idiosyncracies and variabilities of any individual, no matter how sophisticated the data and the algorithms.--SC

Friday, 24 April 2009

The Ex factor

When you sell branded goods it makes sense to engage the customer by personalising the offering. Apparel etailer Extremepie has hit on a great idea to promote its supplier roster at the same time as stamping its “voice” on the page spreads of its spring/summer catalogue: It includes a short introductory paragraph that highlights a particular benefit or provides a nugget of information on each of the supplier companies featured. For example, did you know that Animal was founded by two surfers fed up of losing their watches whilst out on the waves? And were you aware that motorcross apparel company Fox Racing is still run by its founders and their four children, or that Roxy is using organic materials for its premium range?
There are also at least three competitions/giveaways promoted in the catalogue and plenty of calls to action to hook customers in, so if they get bored of reading, Extremepie will have them clicking. --MT

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

What's the deal?

As far as I am aware has always had very keen pricing and regular price promotions. So when it sent me an email promoting its time-limited “credit crunching deals” I was dubious. How much cheaper can Play afford to sell its products? Secondly, how do these deals compare with other entertainment retailers? And thirdly, why is there a time limit on this promotion—surely Play could just have a different credit-crunching special offer each week if it wanted? The email failed to show me what exactly made this particular deal so special, so sorry Play, this time I hit eject.--MT

Go fish

The above cartoon (a fish flailing in the desert, saying to a vulture, "So, enough about me, what are you doing all the way out here?"), which appears on page 7 of the spring/summer Weird Fish fashion catalogue, made me laugh out loud. Weird Fish is known for its T-shirts featuring its cartoon fish icon, so I figured I'd be able to buy a shirt with this cartoon on it. Alas, no... which makes me wonder why Weird Fish includes it in the catalogue in the first place. Perhaps the company is fishing for feedback for future T-shirts.--SC

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Turning badwill into goodwill

When a company buys a brand out of administration, it often acquires some debits along with the assets. These liabilities come in the form of customers who never received the goods they'd ordered from the failed company and all manner of badwill.

TKC Direct, the parent company of streetwear cataloguer/retailer Route One, is well aware of this. It recently acquired music-inspired fashion merchant Everything but the Music (EBTM) out of administration, and apparently a number of orders taken under the old management have yet to be fulfilled. In a link from the home page of, the new owners write: "If you ordered from the site’s old owners before 1 April 2009 and haven’t received your delivery, then we are very sorry to say that you are unlikely to do so now." They proceed to explain how customers can lodge a claim with the administrators and/or their credit-card firm, which is very helpful.

But it's not necessarily enough to turn the frowns of the discontented customers into smiles, let alone to persuade them to make additional purchases. "And here's what we're doing to help you..." the copy continues. "Email and we’ll give you a £15.00 Gift Voucher FREE. We’re sorry you’ve lost out and whilst we aren’t responsible, we value you..." Awww... kinda makes you want to give the guys at the new EBTM a big hug--or at the very least buy from the website once it relaunches later this month.--SC

Monday, 20 April 2009

Lost in translation

I gathered from the .de top-level domain of the website’s URL that Jessops’ photo-printing software originated in Germany. That’s no excuse for misspelling the word cancel though. And I looked it up—cancle isn’t a German word either. —MT

Be my friend--I'll pay you

Entertainment etailer apparently believes in the power of social networking and is putting its money where its mouth is. On its Twitter feed it posted: "Join us on facebook, tell you're [sic] friends. Once we reach 500 fans we'll give you all a discount voucher." 

As a kid we were told you can't buy popularity and shouldn't bribe people to be your friends. TheHut doesn't appear to abide by that old-school thinking. Then again, bribing people to join your Facebook page isn't much different to offering people a prize to sign up for your enewsletters. I wonder what the ROI on this promotion will be and if other marketers will follow suit.

By the way, as of Monday morning TheHut had only 80 Facebook friends, so if you want that voucher, there's still time!--SC

Friday, 17 April 2009

No way to treat a legend

In the January issue of Catalogue e-business I'd praised Derby House Saddlery for featuring Katie Price on the front cover of its autumn/winter catalogue but also chided the company for making it difficult to find her KP Equestrian range within the 226-page book.

With its latest email, Derby House again fails to treat the former Jordan with the respect she is due as both an equestrian and an entrepreneur: It misspells her name as "Katy".

Katie, are you going to put up with this? I extended this invitation before, but let me repeat it: If you ever want to speak with Catalogue e-business about any of your ventures, I promise to feature you on the front cover as well as prominently within the magazine. And I also promise to spell your name correctly.--SC

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Ocado is watching you

In today's Daily Mail, Hilary Freeman writes of her bemusement, then her concern, at the fact that online grocer Ocado somehow sussed out that she was Jewish and as a result sent her an email wishing her a happy Passover last week. She figures that the supermarket came to this realisation because of her past purchases of gefilte fish, which she generously terms "a Jewish delicacy". (There's nothing delicate about gefilte fish, believe you me--and I actually like the stuff.)

Such knowledge on the part of retailers, Freeman concludes, is the price we pay for the nice discounts and promotions they give us as part of our membership in their loyalty schemes. This isn't news to those of us in the marketing industry, of course.

But what was eye-opening, at least to me, was the vitriol directed toward loyalty programmes in the online comments about the article. "You are at fault for having store loyalty cards. The cards store information on everthing you purchase. The State in the guise of the police have access to all these loyalty cards under anti-terrorism legislation. Everything using a computer leaves an electronic fingerprint and all this information is now stored by the State," wrote one commentator. "Just cut the stupid cards up. The discounts that the companies give you back is money that they have taken off you in the first place," typed another. The number of commenters urging their comrades to shred their loyalty cards far outnumbered those who didn't mind disclosing some personal information in exchange for vouchers and discounts.

I think that as marketers, we tend to assume that consumers don't mind sharing their name, address, and a few other details in exchange for some perks. And that may be true--at first. But once they realise that by giving up a handful of details they're actually enabling companies to gather a lorry load of personal data, many feel betrayed. The loyalty programme ends up becoming a disloyalty programme. (For the record, Freeman says she did not buy any of her Passover supplies from Ocado--although she did purchase an Easter egg.)

The solution? Perhaps it's not to be overly forward. In the Ocado-Passover case, perhaps the supermarket would have been wise not to push forward with a "happy holiday" greeting in Hebrew but to have taken a lower-key approach, sending an email to a broader group of customers with one link for Easter offers and another for Passover promotions. I don't think any of Ocado's Jewish customers would boycott the company for failing to extend a Passover greeting. But having read the Mail commenters, I do believe some would avoid shopping at Ocado for fear of providing more fodder to Big Brother.--SC

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

It's Asos's world

In its continuing quest for world--or at least World Wide Web--domination, apparel etailer Asos is beta-testing its Asos Life online community. It promoted the soft launch exclusively on Twitter: "We know you love Asos, and it’s because of that that we wanted to let you guys see our community first … to get your opinions on what we’ve done so far, and to help us shape future versions." Even in beta, it's an exhaustive effort, with blogs, forums, groups, and all the other trappings of a first-rate social network. I do question the ROI on the project, though. Then again, only a fool would bet against Asos at this point.--SC

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Twittering on

Now that Catalogue e-business has jumped on the Twitter bandwagon (, I've been checking out how some multichannel marketers are using the channel.

A number of retailers simply use their Twitter feeds to advertise their promotions and offerings. Lingerie etailer Figleaves, for instance, touts the addition of womenswear, menswear, and children's apparel to its product line and asks readers to vote for it in the Prima Fashion Awards. It also contributed this intriguing post: "Getting in some training for our attempt at breaking the world record for most bras unclasped in one minute!"

Upscale fashion etailer dresses up its promos with fashion advice ("For office cool, we're giving our peg leg pants an urban edge with a tucked in tank!"). Jackson's Art goes one better and links to artists it (or at least Julie Caves, who runs the feed) likes and quirky articles.

The best feeds make the most of Twitter by encouraging a dialogue with readers. For years lots of lip service has been paid to communicating directly and personally with customers and prospects; Twitter enables it, easily and quickly, and that may be its greatest value to merchants.

Gadgets marketer Firebox, for one, understands this: Its posts in response to reader queries and comments far outweigh its self-promotional posts. (Firebox also won me over by posting a link to Cake Wrecks, a blog that posts photos of... well, see for yourself.)

In short, companies that view Twitter only as a means of pushing out their message are missing out. Doing so is like going to a Michelin-starred restaurant and ordering only a cheese toastie.--SC

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Growing pains

Janet Street-Porter actually manages to make two good points in her Independent column today. First, she notes that for many households, the Lakeland catalogue of household wizardry is better than porn.  Second, she calls out the conventional wisdom that growing your own veg is cheaper than buying it. 

If you're a seasoned gardener, perhaps it is. But as a newbie, I figured that after factoring in the cost of seeds and soil and fertiliser and slug repellent and containers and whatever else, buying a bag of carrots at Tesco each week definitely seems cheaper than to trying to cultivate my own--and that's not even taking into account my ability to kill something as indomitable as a cactus. (They don't call me The Black Thumb for nothing.)

Surely I'm not the only cautious consumer out there who thinks this way. So why don't any gardening and home goods marketers post on their websites or in their catalogues a breakdown showing exactly how cost-effective growing your own can be compared with buying someone else's? (It can't be because growing your own isn't really cheaper, can it?) And then, to appeal to those who still aren't convinced--either of the worthiness of gardening or of their ability to garden--these marketers can cross-sell storage containers and other products that help us make our store-bought produce last longer.--SC

UPDATE: Snow Valley's Sarah Clelland called to my attention a recent marketing email from Lakeland that pretty much details what one needs to grow tomatoes, including advice, recipes, and £60 worth of product. Check out her blog post about the email at The Snow Patrol. 

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Bunny love

What's not to love about the Easter email/online promotion from cashmere specialist Brora? It features cute bunnies, pretty eggs, and the opportunity to earn a 15-percent discount. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some virtual eggs to hunt for.--SC

No soup nuts for you

For the second year in a row, I ordered my Passover food from J.A. Hyman Titanics (motto: "The store where you shop, we schlep"). All was well and good, until I checked my packages and realised that the five boxes of mandlen, or soup nuts, were missing. Imagine tucking into an Easter dinner absent the ham, and you'll have an idea of how woebegone I was.
After scrabbling through the cartons, I found the packing slip and saw that "unavailable" had been written across the listing for the mandlen. Okay, things happen, soup nuts go astray, I can live with that (sniffle). But why hadn't J.A. Hyman contacted me earlier to let me know that the mandlen were missing and to suggest some substitutes? J.A. Hyman could have salvaged an additional few quid (the five boxes of mandlen cost nearly £11), and I'd have ordered something--another box of matzos at the very least--to accompany my matzo-ball soup. Sigh.--SC

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Over-egging it

It’s Good Friday tomorrow so we’re eggspecting (sorry) all sorts of Easter promotions to land in our inbox today. It appears that you don’t even have to be a retailer remotely associated with spring fayre to cash in on the holiday—everybody’s doing it. Possibly the most unusual—read tenuous—link to Easter is fetish etailer Honour’s eggstravaganza. We received a press release outlining its special offers this weekend and its “S-egg-xy Easter Sale”. Quite what it has do with Easter can only be answered using smutty puns and double entendres—but we’ll leave that up to you!—MT

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Don’t forget your walking boots

This email from Rohan caught our eye not only for its use of high-quality photography and pretty decent offers, but also for its innovative travel promotion.
At the end of the email, once we’ve looked at all the clothes on offer and (Rohan hopes) clicked through to buy some, it asks us: “All dressed up? Here’s somewhere to go”. We’re invited to click through one more time to join Rohan staffers—and fellow Rohan enthusiasts—on a trekking adventure in Iceland. Flight leaves 15th August, anyone for Reykjavik?—MT

Monday, 6 April 2009

Catalogue e-business April issue

If you’re a Catalogue e-business subscriber, you should have received the April issue of the magazine. If you’re not yet a subscriber, here’s a taste of what you’re missing:

* Special focus on the distribution centre: selecting the best picking methods for your business, pros and cons of automation, and a 12-step guide to cutting fulfilment costs
* Circulation: how to mail more efficiently by eliminating waste from your house file
* Profile: how Foot Shop has grown from a niche mailer to a multititle cataloguer and full-service agency
* Q&A with: The Hut Group CEO Matthew Moulding
* Bonus: Systems 2009 supplement mailed with this issue
* Plus: the latest industry news, a review of the Séraphine catalogue, our continuing series on change management, and much more

To get Catalogue e-business magazine delivered every month, or for more information, contact Jill Sweet on 01271 866112 or

Friday, 3 April 2009

Guest appearance

It’s a well-known movie fact that Alfred Hitchcock appeared in every film he made. And if you’re looking for a good cameo in the direct selling world how about this from Peter Christian? On page 3 of the menswear cataloguer’s Jack Frost Collection 2009 appears the company’s managing director Nick Alderton, uncredited, sporting the limited edition knife and fork braces. With him are a regular Peter Christian model on the left and—so I’ve been told—Alderton’s personal Italian chef on the right of the photo.—MT

Congratulations winners!

Three cheers to all the winners at last night's ECMOD Awards. The full list of winners is available here. More details and photos will shortly be available from the ECMOD website --MT

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Live from the Cat X Factor

If you didn't attend the Cat X Factor conference in London today, you'll regret it--especially if your competitors attended. I just slipped out to give my hand a break from jotting down all the ecommerce tips and tactics that Amy Africa and Stephan Spencer are sharing. 

I know I'm not the only one who was both impressed (by the level of detail in the session) and dismayed (by how many things we're doing wrong with our website--alas).  

I'll be writing up the sessions in greater detail for our Insight enewsletter and the Catalogue e-business website. In the meantime, though, here are a few of my favourite quotes:

"You can't just throw money at the web. If you don't involve the right people and you don't think about your user, you'll have a crappy site."--Amy

"Keywords you consider relevant to your business might be keywords that no-one searches for except your CEO."--Stephan, in discussing the need to conduct keyword research for the most effective SEO.

"Navigation is about 60 percent of success."--Amy

"Long URLs are repellent, pushing the user to look at the [search] listing below."--Stephan

"Anything after an ampersand, people do not see."--Amy

I'll let you know when I've put together a more thorough summary of the session, which covered everything from meta tags to trigger emails to Twitter.--SC

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Form and function

This may well be a conventional way of putting together an order form these days, but it’s the first time I’ve noticed this nice little touch. Educational supplies cataloguer Morleys Early Years prints the fax number on the gutter and upside down on the reverse of the order form. That way the number is right-side up when the page is fed through the fax machine, saving the customer the trouble of writing it down before sending the order. Nifty, huh?--MT

Switchover savvy

Digital switchover is coming. And in our sleepy little town it’s coming on 1st July, or so I’ve heard. Is my TV ready for it? Seems that Argos has the answer.

The home and electricals retailer is getting the most out of the impending changeover to a digital TV signal by sending an email that not only promotes its latest digital TV offers but also goes some way to explain how switching needn’t be another thing to stress about.

Here Argos takes a gentler approach. There’s no hard sell. Reassuringly, the email looks like it’s affiliated with Digital UK, the independent organisation leading the process of digital TV switchover. It links back to the Digital UK website as well as to more information on freesat, the BBC’s subscription-free service. Also reassuring is that there’s no scaremongering. No threats that I won’t be able to watch my favourite programmes unless I take up Argos’s digital TV offers. In fact, the email even says that I may be able to continue watching my telly after switchover without taking any further action. Phew!

By being the first retailer to send me such an email—and making it a good one—Argos has its foot in the door. So if I were looking to replace any televisions in my house, this email may have just convinced me that it’s easy with Argos.--MT

One for the road

I'll be heading up to London later today to attend tomorrow's Cat X Factor Conference and the ECMOD Awards dinner. I'm especially excited about the conference, presented by two internet pros I've had the privilege of working with over the years: ecommerce doyenne Amy Africa and SEM guru Stephan Spencer. They're not only highly knowledgeable but also very entertaining. I've moderated panels on which both of them appeared, and boy, was it tough to hold my own. (That's assuming I even did manage to do so.)

The only downside, for me, is that because I'll be travelling today, I won't be able to partake in my annual Ronnie Lane birthday celebration. Ronnie Lane was a criminally underappreciated songwriter/performer, formerly of the Faces and Small Faces, who died in 1997 of MS at the age of 51. Each year on his birthday I play as many of his solo CDs as my family will let me get away with, but I won't have the opportunity to do so today. Well, maybe I'll be able to sneak in a few visits to YouTube.--SC