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

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