Friday, 28 August 2009

Orvis is no Ugly American

When companies enter an overseas market, they're sometimes guilty of a cultural arrogance. One could argue that with its new website, Shop Direct commits that crime: Although the site targets consumers in France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain, the copy is almost exclusively in English.

And back in 2003, the then-chief of Spiegel, an American catalogue owned by Germany's Otto Group, told the magazine I edited at the time, “We'll keep the 'big book' going because according to our research in Europe — although we've not researched it here in the US — people use big books for planning and what they may buy in the next couple of months.” Maybe if Otto had done some research in the US, it would have found that by and large Americans viewed big-book catalogues as fusty, and Otto wouldn't have had to sell the Spiegel business.

So it's nice to see that latest Orvis Women's Clothing catalogue steers clear of any such arrogance. Orvis is an American cataloguer/retailer of outdoor gear and apparel, founded in 1856; it's been doing business in the UK for 27 years. In his president's letter, CEO Perk Perkins includes a paragraph especially for the UK market: "Our UK business holds a special place in my heart, since I was there when we opened our doors in 1982. Since then, our business has grown steadily--today we have 23 retail stores, more than 50 stockists, an award-winning website,, and we post more than 15 catalogue titles annually." To emphasise his appreciation of his British customers, he uses British verbiage ("stockists", "post") and spelling ("catalogue"). (Granted, the letter would have been more effective if placed on page 2 than tucked away as it is on page 6, but nobody's perfect.)
Another nice acknowledgement of British mores: On the catalogue request form on the UK site, the options for "title" include ""Dame", "Honourable", "Lady", and "Sir", none of which are applicable in the States.

Sure, these are little details. But as we all know, retail is detail, on both sides of the Atlantic.--SC

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Use the data, Amazon

As a long-time loyal Amazon customer, I sometimes wonder just how personalised its product recommendations are. I rate books on the site assiduously, even those I haven’t bought from Amazon, and I’ve penned my share of reviews. So Amazon certainly has a great deal of data on my literary preferences.

Yet it didn’t seem to take that information into account prior to sending me its latest email of fiction recommendations. Of the eight books featured, I’d rated three of them on the site, and one of the titles—the book that featured in the subject line, oddly enough—I had just bought from Amazon last month. In fact, I'd even posted a rave review of the book on the site.

I don’t mind when the Amazon recommendation engine suggests I buy a book that I would read only if every other bit of reading material in the world--including cereal boxes and flat-pack furniture instructions--had been destroyed. In fact, sometimes when I have insomnia I visit just to see what recommendations it has for me.

But I do mind when a company with which I have spent a significant portion of my disposable income tries to sell me the exact item I’d purchased from it only a few weeks earlier, especially when said company has the technology and data to avoid doing so.--SC

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Catalogues we love: Mamas & Papas

Before my husband and I became parents, we attended a class designed to teach us how to bathe a baby properly, how to attach a car seat, and other practicalities. We knew very little about babies; I’d never even changed a diaper. But even we had difficulty holding back our snickers when another parent-to-be asked, “Is it all right to place the baby’s crib next to a wall?” Have you ever seen a crib stood in the centre of a room?

The point is, new parents and parents-to-be worry about everything. In its latest catalogue, nursery retailer Mamas & Papas addresses parental concerns directly—and doubtless gains lots of customers in the process.

Take the spread headlined “Tests to fit with your life”. It details how the Mamas & Papas safety team tests its pushchairs, car seats, cots, beds, and toys. For instance, “A pushchair is folded 3,285 times in a 12-hour period. This is the equivalent of you folding your buggy three times per day for three years”. And “We test our cot beds to hold 15 stones”. That would support even baby Dumbo.

The 216-page catalogue is organised by product category, and the section selling pushchairs and prams opens with a spread clarifying the types of pushchair available (buggies, pramettes, twins, combos), the available features (swivel wheels, seat unit recline, toddler ride-on step), and how to determine which features are best suited for your lifestyle. If you rely on public transit, for instance, you’d probably be better off with a different model than if you have a car. When we bought our pushchair from a chain store in the States nine years ago, the salesperson helping us didn’t mention any of those points.

On the pushchair product pages themselves, Mamas & Papas includes handy “Why buy me” guides calling out pertinent features as well as weight guidelines and dimensions. If that’s still not enough information for you (and goodness knows new parents are ravenous for information), each “Why buy me” box includes a bold orange graphic that suggests you “click online for information”. This attention to detail isn’t limited to the pushchairs, either; furniture, mattresses, bedding, and even toys get similar treatment

The clear, easy-to-digest manner in which Mamas & Papas imparts the information critical to making a buying decision is reason enough to love the catalogue. But there are plenty of other reasons as well:

* fabulous in situ photography showing furniture in wonderful aspirational rooms.

* delightful lifestyle shots of babies and toddlers sleeping, playing, snuggling. I’m not one of those people who ooh and aah at the sight of babies (puppies, yes; babies, nah), but even my frosty heart was warmed by some of these pictures. So I can only imagine how the target audience will respond.

* the overall quality of the photos, full stop, particularly of the textiles.

* the clean, clear layouts, the reader-friendly type fonts, and the discriminating use of spot illustrations to add variety to some of the pages while subtly directing eye flow.

* the lush paper, which feels as wonderful as it looks.

* the products themselves. The furniture doesn’t succumb to twee-ness or resign itself to being practical but unattractive. Some of the highchairs, for instance, would fit right in amongst an Eero Saarinen tulip table and some Eames Eiffel chairs. And what I wouldn’t give for the Roundabout Boys wallpaper, or the Hodge Podge knitted blanket, or any of the soft toys on pages 190 and 191… and no, not for my daughter; for me!--SC

Monday, 24 August 2009

Something's fishy

Maybe it's because I don't follow cricket, but I was confused by the email sent by The Fish Society on 24th August. For starters, why is the headline "Fish for Victors"? I get that England won the Ashes, but what if we'd lost? Would the headline have been "Fish for Losers"? Or do losers, instead of sinking their teeth into smoked salmon or lobster, have to make do with gruel?

Then there's the offer of "14% off everything". What's the significance of 14? Surely I'm not the only fish fancier who is perplexed.

Even more perplexing are the competing offers. At the top of the email, in lovely large type, a headline declares "Save up to 30%". A photo of "freshly cookeed [sic] lobster" has slapped on it a dot whack declaring "20%". Not 20% off, mind you--just 20%. Likewise the photos of salmon are accompanied by "30%", and a circle in the lower left corner of a photo of potted shrimp says "10%".

So assuming that the "30%" and "20%" refer to the discount on those items, do I get an additional 14 percent off if I type in the pertinent code? Perhaps I'm supposed to be intrigued enough by the offer that I'll want to click through to find out.

As it is, I'm so frustrated from trying to make sense of it all that I click another button instead: the delete button.--SC

Friday, 21 August 2009

Mystery shopping at Christies Direct

Multiple choice question: What does this company sell?
A. Packaging supplies
B. Sex toys
C. Pet grooming products

If you answered C, give yourself a point and a pat on the back. But what a missed opportunity! We’d much rather have seen a cute pampered pooch on the cover. Sadly the rest of the creative, much like the cover, leaves a lot to be desired.--MT

Celebrity skin

“NEW face of ORTAK revealed” read the breathless subject line of a recent email. Apparently Jill Halfpenny, “glamorous TV actress and star of the new West End production of Calendar Girls”, is “proud to be the NEW face” of the jewellery marketer.

Now, I’ve been known to pick up a copy of Heat magazine in my day, and it took me a few minutes to recall exactly who Jill Halfpenny is. (She played one of the myriad Mrs Phil Mitchells on EastEnders and won Strictly Come Dancing in 2004.)

I’m always fascinated by companies’ choices of celebrity endorsers. So often it all ends in tears (Kerry Katona and Iceland, anyone?). Or sometimes the company fails to exploit the celebrity for maximum effect, as my colleague Miri pointed out in a previous post.

This is especially important given that in many cases the greatest asset of a celebrity endorsement isn’t so much said celebrity’s tacit approval but instead the media attention that the use of said celebrity generates. A 2007 study by the University of Bath and Switzerland’s University of St Gallen, for instance, showed that a testimonial from someone perceived by the target market to be similar to them—in this particular study, a testimonial by a college student in an advert targeting students—held at least as much sway as that of a celebrity.

But even if those consumers won’t be more inclined to make a purchase because Joe Hotshot is promoting it, a celebrity endorsement used as a news hook or as a reason to contact customers and prospects, as Ortak used its announcement about Ms Halfpenny, can gain their attention.

For my part, the news that James McAvoy was doing the voiceover for a recent mobile-phone advert certainly got my attention. And yes, I have played the advert several times via YouTube, when I’m stressed and in need of hearing his dulcet tones. But can I tell you what brand of phone he’s advertising? Um. No.--SC

Thursday, 20 August 2009

'Tis the season

It’s never too early to plan for the holidays, especially if you’re a b-to-c multichannel retailer! And okay, this may have been published with Christmas 2008 in mind, but there’s still plenty of good tips and advice on peak-season best practice in our Get Ready for Christmas supplement. So if you missed it last year, click here to take a second look.

Still with Christmas past, check out this article reviewing holiday spend in 2008. And looking ahead to Christmas yet to come, the latest issue of our enewsletter Insight gives advice on improving email marketing ROI in the run up to December 2009. Click here to read more.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Of fan mail and thank yous

Despite all the chatter about social media, it’s still very easy to underestimate its effects. And it’s still very easy to get it wrong.

The other day a friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to some items on the Boden website, declaring how much she wished she could order one of everything. Until I saw that posting, I never quite understood why merchants should make it easy for visitors to their website to post product shots to their Facebook pages. Who’s really going to use that function? I wondered. I’ll tell you who: People who are debating whether to go ahead and splurge, and for whom a few responses from friends along the lines of “Love it!” and “That would be perfect for that wedding you’re complaining about having to attend” will make the difference between pass and purchase. And we’re not just talking kids; my friend is a hard-working mom in her forties.

I responded to my friend’s post by telling her I’d actually met and interviewed Johnnie Boden himself (when I’d started here at Catalogue e-business two years ago; you can access the article here), adding facetiously, “Are you impressed?” Ends up she really was. Things that you and I may take for granted because they’re part of our job--interviewing the heads of companies, attending fashion shows, going to trade exhibitions--are not taken for granted by most of our customers. By offering customers a peek behind the scenes--blogging about a runway show, posting snaps of a catalogue photo shoot on your Facebook page--you’re inviting them into the family. Which in turns transforms admirers into advocates.

But with the great power of social media comes great responsibility--the responsibility of not inadvertently snubbing even one customer or prospect. Unfortunately snubbing is all too easy. A somewhat off-the-track example: I’ve written before about the Comics Curmudgeon, a blog that pokes affectionate but snarky fun at US comic strips. When the writer of the blog launched a Twitter feed (@JFruh) I signed on to follow. Imagine my disappointment when the next day I saw that he had blocked me. And here I had just posted a tweet bigging him up. I was as hurt as if a friend of mine had told me that all those anecdotes I’d regaled him with for years really weren’t very entertaining and that, in fact, I was a big bore he only put up with because I paid for rounds at the pub.

So I wrote a post on the Comics Curmudgeon blog about how I’d been blocked and wasn’t feeling the love. Within a day @JFruh got back to me, telling me he’d thought our Twitter handle (@catalogbiz) sounded “spammy” and that he was sorry, honest. Ah, the love was back!

Now imagine that I had been communicating not with a blog but a multichannel marketer, and that my blog post had been ignored. I could easily have written about this on my Facebook page, my Twitter feed, this blog, my next editor’s letter...

One last anecdote and lesson: Never underestimate the importance of “thank you”. During the weekend I found that my new favourite writer (yes, Miri, I’m still on about John Wray and Lowboy) is on Facebook, so I sent him an email, briefly telling him how much I appreciated his latest book and how it has galvanised my own writing. On Monday he replied. It was a brief reply (“Thank you Sherry. Much appreciated”), but it was a reply, an acknowledgement nonetheless that had me squealing and blushing. (Really--I hadn’t gotten that hot in the face since my 50-second chat with James McAvoy in February.)

If someone has taken the time to contact your company, whether it’s just to post a “love the widget” on your website forum or to email with what may seem like a silly question, make a point of responding. For at least a few seconds, let him feel that he means as much to you as your brand means to him.--SC

Friday, 14 August 2009

Compare and contrast: Book Depository

When taking a brand across the Atlantic, how much gets lost in the translation? For instance, is it enough for a UK merchant to simply change all the “colours” to “colors” and the pounds to dollars when expanding into the US, or are changes in merchandise mix, creative, and offers necessary as well?

I’ll be up front: I don’t know. But in hopes of finding out, I figured I’d periodically take a look at the US and UK versions of etailers that sell to both markets. First brand of call: The Book Depository, a bookseller based in the UK that launched a US website last month.

The home pages of both sites have nearly identical layouts (the UK version is above; the Stateside version is below). Both promote the free worldwide delivery prominently up top; both include links to categories such as “Coming soon”, “Bestsellers”, and “Publisher of the week” along the top nav bar; both run a list of book categories down the left-hand column. Fun fact: Both and have a category for “religion”, but the US also breaks out "Christianity” as a separate category. Make of that what you will.

Where the home pages differ is in the choice of titles and subjects to spotlight. Both home pages feature links on the top left to two featured topics (though Book Depository doesn’t spell that out, which would have been nice). On the UK site, the topics are “Man on the moon” and “Booker Prize longlist”. The Booker Prize means nothing to Americans, so the US-featured topics are “Iran” and “Men on the moon” (and while I’d love to know why the Yanks prefer “men” to “man”, I suspect there’s no significance at all). The “Editor’s top picks” also vary between the sites. And while the US home page includes a link to UK best-sellers, the UK site doesn’t reciprocate with a list of top US sellers. My theory comes down to a US sense of cultural inferiority and a British sense of intellectual superiority, but as I don’t want to start an international incident, I’ll refrain from continuing down that path.

Both sites accept a full array of payment options, including some (such as Solo and Visa Electron) that I don’t recall being used in the States. The UK home page has a link near the bottom labelled “Affiliates”; the US version doesn’t.

Both sites have blogs, but they feature different posts, about different books, which is as it should be.

I decided to search for the same book on both sites, a book that I know is available in both countries. If you follow us on Twitter (, you may know that I’m a bit obsessed with Lowboy, by John Wray, a Brooklyn-based author, so I searched for that. The UK results page, under the caption “Top results: People who searched for the same keywords bought these books”, came up with seven matches: four versions of Lowboy (including large print), two other books by John Wray, and a book by Wells Tower. The US results page delivered just the paperback version of Lowboy, which sadly was out of stock. Both results pages, by the way, allowed you to filter the results by price range, availability, and format, as well as to sort the listings by popularity, price range, and publication date—nice!

But wait! Below these top results were “Main search results”. On the UK site these were six versions of Lowboy, including spoken word. Ditto on the US site, including several print versions that were indeed available. But because these main results were below the fold, they could easily be missed—and a sale lost.

The product description of the book was the same on both sites; ditto the lack of customer reviews (which I promise to rectify). When I searched for another, more popular book (Twilight), I found the same description but different reader reviews—or rather, reader reviews on the UK site but not on the US version.

Both sites gave the option of paying in sterling, US dollars, or euros. Both also gave the option of registering or checking out without registration. The price was the same on both sites.

All in all, the Book Depository sites seem to be built on the same platform, using the same navigation, with the same features. This works, because the basic site is damn good: easy to navigate (aside from the “top results”/“main results” problem), great filtering and sorting options, easy to shop from, free shipping. At the same time, Book Depository recognises the basic cultural and merchandising differences between the audiences and caters to each group accordingly. With books it’s probably easier to do this, given that publishing has always been a fairly stats-oriented industry with its best-sellers lists and the like.

It’ll be interesting to see if the US site does develop a distinctive copy tone from the British version. And I’ll also be interested to see if, after I submit my rave review of Lowboy to the UK site, whether it will appear on the Stateside version as well.--SC

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Is stat so?

We’ve just received the results from a survey carried out by feedback forum Feefo. Not surprising, its main findings say that consumers are less likely to trust an online company they have never heard of. It found that more than half of online shoppers are “more likely to buy from websites carrying independent product (53%) and service (51%) reviews from past customers”. Fair enough.

However, one of the findings struck me as erroneous: “Even when purchasing from legitimate websites, one in eight people (13%) has experienced problems ranging from goods being faulty or not turning up at all, to being unable to return items or get a refund.

First, I don’t think that statistic should be used to demonise online shopping. When shopping in general, how many of us have taken something we bought on the high street back to the store because it was faulty? How many have had problems returning items in-store? Or, regardless of channel, have had a bad experience with a customer service rep?

Second, one in eight seems very low… I had to return a top recently because the seam was torn. A straw poll of my colleagues reveals a similar picture. We’ve all had to return or query an order at one point or another. And surely it depends on how frequently a consumer transacts online as to how likely he is to experience problems. I have been shopping online regularly for 10 years (first-ever purchase from Amazon, 1999), so I am much more “at risk” of encountering a problem than someone who makes one or two purchases a year.

So what is Feefo trying to say? If it’s saying that transacting online is comparatively safer or less hassle than shopping on the high street, I’ll buy into that. Otherwise, I am not quite sure how it wants me to read that…--MT

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Email we love:

I’ve been holding on to this email from since 31st July. Why? Mostly because I tend not to delete emails (you never know when you’ll need it for a blog post, right?) but also because this one stood out as an example of an email that works hard for the customer’s attention.
1. The subject line (See what's new, plus win a pampering treat worth £500‏)gives a clear incentive to open the email. A chance to win a treat worth £500 is just too tempting to resist. The details of the prize draw are then positioned halfway through the email, subtly encouraging recipients to read the copy before and after the competition info.
2. Something for everyone. NotontheHighStreet does a good job of introducing a new section of the website by using lovely photographs and humble copy: “We might not be the first place you think of when ordering flowers, but with our new flower shop, we could just be your favourite new florist…” If flowers aren’t your thing don’t worry, NotontheHighStreet is not a one-trick pony. There’s plenty more on offer including “perfect pampering gifts”, star-themed ideas, pick of the best wedding presents, original cards and wraps, and a nod to the continuing summer sale.
3. Socially aware. There’s a link to the company’s Facebook page and Twitter feed as well as a screenshot and link to NotontheHighStreet’s blog, showing that there are plenty of ways to interact with the business. You can even click on a link that optimises the email for viewing on a mobile application! I also like that a photograph of company’s founders Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish appears at the bottom of the email. It helps strengthen the brand’s personality and emphasises that NotontheHighStreet isn’t just a faceless web portal.—MT

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Catalogue e-business August issue

By now, subscribers should have received their copy of the August issue of Catalogue e-business. If you don’t subscribe, here’s what you’re missing out on:

* Special Focus on customer retention and reactivation: reducing churn, improving the customer-brand bond, and more
* Ecommerce: Stephan Spencer of NetConcepts translates SEO jargon into actionable tactics
* Business-to-business: How to coordinate marketing and outbound sales
* Plus: the latest industry news, a review of the Nomads catalogue, Q&A with Rachel Perrett of, a review of the Perigee system and more

To guarantee your copy, subscribe today by calling 01271 866112, emailing our subscriptions department or filling the form online.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Chat-up lines

Received from Bonprix an email with an intriguing subject line: “Let’s take it to the bedroom!” Now, maybe it’s because my husband’s been out of town for several weeks, leaving me on my own, but I wasn’t expecting the message to be about... low-priced, family-friendly pyjamas and bedding. Although I immediately opened the email, I wonder if some recipients might have been turned off, especially if like me they regularly receive spam with similar, though more explicit, subject lines. Then again, there was one big hint that this message wasn't selling Viagra or enhancement aids: All of the words in the subject line were spelled correctly.

Another subject line that caught my eye was from Celtic Sheepskin: “At last! The sun has got his hat on!” I received it Friday night, as we headed into a glorious weekend. This message really made the most of the immediacy of the medium; Celtic Sheepskin was able to wait until a sunny weekend was a dead cert before hitting the send button, with no worries about missing the limited window of opportunity. I do wonder, though, how many weeks the cataloguer had to sit on this particular message until we were finally graced with the appropriate weather!--SC

A brief interlude of horn tooting

Mail Media Centre, a website of business-building content from Royal Mail, recently published two utterly brilliant articles on print catalogues in the 21st century, written by a true wordsmith.
Okay, okay. Here's the real story: Mail Media Centre, a website of business-building content from Royal Mail, recently published two articles on print catalogues in the 21st century, written by yours truly, Sherry Chiger, editorial director of Catalogue e-business.

If there's any brilliance to be had in the first article, "Do Print Catalogues Have a Future?", it's down to the five cataloguing pros I interviewed: Christian Robinson, managing director of; Nick Begy, marketing director of Baker Ross; Paul Cunningham, managing director for Aspace; Dara O'Malley, managing director of House of Bath; and Wayne Lysaght-Mason, managing director of Ironmongery Direct.

The second article, "How to Make Print Catalogues Work with Online Marketing", offers 10 tips to help you get the most from both media, gleaned from my experience covering what all of you have been doing.

So do take a gander, and let me know what you think. Thanks!--SC

Friday, 7 August 2009

Third time’s the charm

We weren’t enamoured with Very’s catalogue or its website at all (see Doing less with more and Very ambivalent). And consequently we didn’t have high expectations of Very’s customer magazine either. So when it landed on my desk this week, I was pleasantly surprised.
The first 11 pages of the magazine are dedicated to introducing Very, its core values, reasons to join its shopping network, and the content you can expect from its contributors. I particularly like the way it spells out the benefits and advantages of shopping with Very on pages 6 and 7 and its emphasis on the word you—“gorgeous buys for you, your, family and your home”, “if you become an insider…” “Very customers like you can write reviews… share your online experience”. Not very subtle, but on target in positioning Very as a customer-focused “community”.
And where the Very catalogue failed in its salesmanship, the magazine excels. Unlike the catalogue, the Very magazine varies the pace and layout to actively sell the merchandise. Whilst product copy is still minimal, many spreads feature customer testimonials that add to the community feel Very is striving to create. The fashion spreads are nicely done and seem to hit the right balance between looking aspirational but affordable. Similarly, the “get the look” section in the home department looks to current trends to help customers update their homes without it costing an arm and a leg.
Granted there isn’t that much to read, the kids section for example would have benefited from more editorial, such as some suggestions for outdoor games, or a craft section to keep children occupied during the summer holidays. But already this is a huge improvement on the catalogue.
This is just the preview issue, we’re promised much more in September's “bumper” edition. If the magazine continues along this path, it looks set to become a handbag staple. Finally, it looks like Very got one of its social-shopping components Very right.—MT

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The hardest working catalogue in the business

The Argos catalogue is such a part of everyday life that one can easily take it for granted, like indoor plumbing or EastEnders. But there’s a reason that the catalogue has become an institution: It is very, very good at what it does—sell product.

The autumn/winter 2009 edition is 1,814 pages, yet in its way it’s a model of efficiency. So I’ll try to be equally efficient in spelling out its strengths:

1) The layouts are dense but not overwhelming. Open any spread and you’ll see that there’s nary a wasted millimetre. Despite the product density of the pages, though, they’re not dizzying. What the design lacks in cutting-edge aesthetics it makes up for in tidiness. Although a basic grid is the dominant layout theme, the designers vary the sizes of the product shots enough that and toss in just enough in situ photos to stave off monotony.

2) The footers work damn hard. Every footer includes not just the page number and product subcategory but also other pertinent information. Sometimes the info is relevant on to the particular page. On a spread of irons, for instance, one of the footers includes a key to the steam-rating and soleplate-rating icons; a page selling duvets features a cross-reference to bedding, complete with page numbers. Other times the information is more generic: reminders of Argos’s delayed-payment and product-reserve options, blurbs for the website. But the real estate isn't wasted.

3) The product copy gives you the vital information. There’s no space for Argos to wax lyrical about its merchandise. But it does make sure that the product blurbs include all the pertinent details: sizes, materials, what is and isn’t included, whether assembly is required. I’m continually amazed at how many catalogues neglect to include the basics like product dimensions in their descriptions. The copy for big-ticket items even manages to highlight product benefits. Here’s the description of the £346.89 De’Longhi Bean to Cup coffeemaker: “Adjustable amounts of coffee and water to make your individual cup of coffee. Adjustable strength from extra mild to extra strong...” Booker Prize-winning prose? No. Copy that gives shoppers a reason to fork over big bucks for a coffeemaker? Yes. (Although as a coffee hater I must admit to remaining mystified as to why anyone would pay several hundred quid for a machine that makes the stuff.)

4) The sidebars deliver even more important info. Did you know the difference between V brakes and disc brakes on a bicycle? I didn’t, until I read the Argos Guide to Bikes on page 903. Similar sidebars explaining product features and options abound, for everything from digital photo frames to electric radiators.

5) It allows you to reserve a product and then collect it in-store. The Check & Reserve It service works via web, phone, and text messaging. Convenient or what?

6) It doesn’t make you hunt around for the prices—or the price cuts. The price comes before the product description, in a larger, coloured font, which helps you to immediately winnow out the options that exceed your budget. The copy and graphics also call out products that are lower-priced than they were in the previous catalogue, products that are the lowest price of that type, and products that are discounted. And the hierarchy of information is consistent throughout, making it a cinch to compare similar products.

There's one more thing I especially love about the Argos catalogue: the Hello Kitty jewellery on page 69. C'mon, how can you hate on any catalogue that includes Hello Kitty?--SC

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The July Catalogue Log

For the third consecutive month, the percentage of catalogues promoting sales and discounts continued to decline, according to the Catalogue e-business Catalogue Log.

In July we logged in 149 catalogues. Of those, 46, or 30.9 percent, touted a sale or discount on their front cover. That’s down from 34.1 percent of the catalogues tallied in June and a whopping 42.6 percent of those logged in May.

At 16.1 percent, the percentage promoting free postage and packing was down somewhat from June’s 17.8 percent but still up significantly on May’s 11 percent. The percentage of catalogues offering a gift with purchase, meanwhile, soared, from 8.5 percent in June to 15.4 percent in July. Among the freebies in July: a Snap N Slice kitchen tool that sells for £29.99 free with orders of more than £60 from homewares merchant JML; a free “deluxe wicker picnic basket” with orders of more than £39 from office supplies mailer Neat Ideas; and a free DVD player for new customers with orders of more than £30 from another office products mailer, Viking Direct.

Viking and Neat Ideas were among the catalogues with the busiest covers in terms of offers—not surprising given how competitive and price-conscious the office supplies sector is. For instance, in addition to the free DVD player, the Viking catalogue cited above promised “fast free delivery” and two Nectar points for every £1 spent. Another b-to-b catalogue, packaging materials merchant Rajapack, offered on its front cover discounts of up to 35 percent PLUS a free barbecue apron set with purchase PLUS free next-day delivery.

On the b-to-c front, home goods and apparel mailer Clifford James gave away a “solar light twinpack worth £14.99” plus promoted a buy-one-get-one-free deal on travel bags and a five-piece knife set “for just £24.99”. Not to be outdone, Home Essentials promised a free gift with order, the ability to “spread the cost with your personal account”, and a half-price quilt and throw set.

The percentage of catalogues that did not include any special offers on the front cover was down slightly from June: 43.6 percent versus 46.5 percent. Which is not to say that these catalogues didn’t put their covers to work. Homecraft’s Chester-care book, which sells living aids for the elderly and infirm, pointed out that the current edition included more than 80 new products. Housewares cataloguer/retailer Lakeland promised “over 530 exciting ideas for your home”. Direct Golf reminded customers that if they ordered by 2pm they could receive their goods the next day, while Teknomek, a provider of stainless-steel equipment, let readers know that it could create merchandise to customers’ specs.

A cover line on the Jigsaw IT catalogue is as informative but less enticing than the ones above: “Due to current fluctuations in international exchange rates prices printed may be incorrect. For our latest updated prices please see”. Granted, that’s important information. But by putting it on the front cover, Jigsaw seems to be saying, “Before you open this catalogue, bear in mind that some items will cost more than the prices listed here. Are you really sure you even want to open this catalogue and start shopping?”--SC

Sunday, 2 August 2009

The cute war

This weekend I received the debut catalogue from The Allotment Shop, which sells retro-inspired gardening tools and home accessories. The creative really hews to its theme of War War II nostalgia, with spreads labelled “Digging for Victory” and “On the Home Front” and “We’ll Meet Again”, and there’s a standalone flyer inside designed to look like a ration book.

The merchandise itself, while seemingly of top quality, is not unique. The canisters, for instance, would fit right in with a Pedlars catalogue; Wiggly Wigglers carries similar bird boxes. What really ties everything together and makes The Allotment Shop a distinctive brand is its theme: the best of British, inspired by Britain’s shining moment, when it kept its upper lip stiff and showed the Jerries what they were made of.

This theme is in keeping with the current “make do and mend” zeitgeist, though with some of its offering (the replication ID cards, the seed packages made to resemble ration cards) and creative (the models made up and posed to resemble ‘40s pin-up girls), The Allotment Shop catalogue and website are more blatant than most.

Now, maybe this is because I’m not a Brit, or maybe it’s because I just read a novel about the siege of Leningrad (City of Thieves, by David Benioff, which I cannot recommend enough--buy or borrow it asap). But glamourising what was a horrific war in order to sell upscale versions of everyday items (is spending £18.95 for a cute metal box to hold your seed packets really in keeping with an era of austerity?) seems a little tacky to me. Wouldn’t it be more of a tribute to our parents and grandparents who endured the Blitz and evacuation and D-Day, and more in keeping with their own no-nonsense spirit, to store our seeds in a shoebox that we would otherwise throw away?

It’s apparent, and ironic, that The Allotment Shop makes no effort to target older consumers. The T&C copy on the back of the print catalogue, for example, is printed in what must be seven-point type, if that big. Which is just as well. I’m sure my grandparents would have rolled their eyes and snorted if they’d lived long enough to see the deprivations they lived through dressed up so adorably.--SC