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” 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 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, 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 (, 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

Monday, 12 October 2009

Which is the tail and which is the dog?

In the years since ecommerce arrived on the direct marketing scene like an unexpected and not-all-that-wanted younger sibling, cataloguers have viewed it as an auxiliary channel. The print catalogue was the core business, and any sales generated via the website were considered ancillary.

That may have been the correct attitude a decade ago, but not anymore, says Bill LaPierre, senior vice president of list and marketing firm Direct Media/Millard. Direct marketers have to realise that now the web is the core business, he explained last week during his ECMOD session “Crucial Techniques for Your Survival That Successful Catalogues Don’t Want You to Know”. The catalogue’s primary purpose is to drive business to the web, LaPierre says; any sales that result directly from it are ancillary.

Of course, this is counterintuitive to most multichannel marketers. As a result, LaPierre contends, they’re not leveraging the unique benefits of the internet to their fullest potential and are wasting money on less-than-effective catalogue mailings. “The successful cataloguers we work with focus on having a website that’s better than their catalogue,” he said. “The successful cataloguers understand that the web is the cheapest way to acquire a customer.”

Which is not to say LaPierre thinks catalogues should go the way of the Betamax and the eight-track player. But they do need to be reevaluated as website traffic drivers first and as standalone sales vehicles second. “Instead of mailing a 150-page catalogue,” he suggested, “you might mail three 50-page catalogues that are better targeted.”

LaPierre cited US womenswear merchant Chadwick’s as an example of a print catalogue that has evolved into a web traffic driver. Product copy is virtually nonexistent; the images sell the apparel, and the callouts of specific web features—customer reviews, the ability to view the looks on models, the search and sort options—sell the website.

Another US cataloguer/retailer, outdoor gear seller Cabela’s, produces similar versions of its catalogues: spread after spread of products, with copy limited to the product name, the SKU number, and the price. Want to learn more? Visit the website—and while you’re there, you can see Cabela’s entire, exhaustive product line, read customer reviews, watch product videos, and more.

Cabela’s hasn’t killed off its traditional-format catalogue; it still mails its “big book”, complete with detailed product copy, to some of its stalwart customers. But by analysing and segmenting its customer file it has determined which customers are just as likely to order from the smaller traffic driver as from the more costly traditional catalogue and sends them the cheaper-to-produce version, enabling Cabela’s to cut costs without cutting response or sales.

For this strategy to work, your website needs to be top-of-the-line. It should offer alternative search and sort options (for instance, search by size, by colour, by material; sort by price, by popularity, by newness), extensive product specs, customer reviews, effective cross-selling, multiple imagery—in short, the elements that distinguish the web as a marketing and sales channel.

One last caveat, which you no doubt know but which we feel compelled to say anyway: Don’t forge ahead with any huge changes without testing them first.--SC

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Royal Mail v the CWU: misconceptions and misdemeanors

News that the Communication Workers Union (CWU) had voted to strike against Royal Mail raced through the ECMOD conference like Caster Semenya after several cups of Red Bull-spiked cappuccino. That’s no surprise, given that just about everyone attending ECMOD--the UK’s annual conference for cataloguers and other direct sellers--would be affected.

A few talking points:

* Reports that three-quarters of CWU members voted to strike are erroneous. Yes, 61,623 out of 80,830 members voted in favour: 76.2 percent. But 121,000 members were balloted; 40,170 members did not vote. Many observers say that in union votes, members who abstain tend to disagree with the union leadership but fear casting an opposing vote. In other words, of the one-third of members who did not vote, the majority are likely to be against a strike. But even if you don’t want to make that assumption, the fact is that only 51 percent of the CWU members voted to strike--hardly a mandate. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the 20,000 postal workers who, according to Royal Mail, aren’t even CWU members.

* Mainstream media outlets are rushing out with articles offering alternatives to Royal Mail. But while alternative parcel carriers exist--and direct marketers will no doubt be hearing from them in droves--no viable options exist for getting catalogues and other print marketing pieces to customers and prospects. The Wednesday morning ECMOD session “Mail and Parcel Options--The Lowdown”, featuring a panel of carriers and consultants, was in fact misleadingly titled.

Panelist Andrew Goddard, national sales director of TNT Post, which provides downstream access (DSA) services into the Royal Mail mail stream--drop-shipping post so that Royal Mail is responsible only for the proverbial “final mile”--emphasised that cataloguers that avail themselves of DSA services would get their catalogues delivered faster in the event of a strike than those that don’t, because their post will be that much closer to their final destination. But when I asked the session participants point-blank, "What alternatives for catalogue delivery can any of you offer should there be a Royal Mail strike?" they had to admit that there were none. As Graham Cooper, managing director of postal solutions provider Onepost, said, “There’s no magic solution if there’s a mail strike.”

(As an aside, TNT’s Goddard said that his company is working toward unveiling next year an end-to-end service that would include final-mile delivery to about 50 percent of the country.)

* Cataloguers aren’t even certain what contingencies to plan for. Numerous mailers that rely on Royal Mail to deliver some or all of their packages are busy contacting independent carriers. David Price, managing director of multititle mailer Foot Shop, uses Royal Mail to deliver parcels for its Cosyfeet catalogue. Another of its brands, Walk Tall, uses Parcelforce, so Price can shift its Cosyfeet volume to Parcelforce relatively simply. Other companies may have to work harder to find alternatives, however. Parcel carriers have only so much capacity, and cataloguers, particularly smaller ones, might not be able to negotiate terms as favourable as those they have with Royal Mail.

As for their catalogue mailings, in what for the vast majority of business-to-consumer merchants is the critical selling season, the fact that it’s not yet known where and when the strikes will occur makes planning that much trickier. Most at ECMOD assumed that the CWU would conduct 48-hour rolling strikes at differing locations and facilities as it had during the strikes of 2007, rather than a simultaneous nationwide walkout. So should they go ahead with their holiday campaigns and hope that the catalogues arrived in homes eventually--the old “better late than never” philosophy? Should they reduce circulation? Eliminate entire mailings? Graham Winn, owner of gifts mailer Flowercard, said he was “looking at potentially cutting our risk by reducing our acquisition plan”. Unfortunately he’d been planning a big prospecting and sales push for Christmas, so that sales for the season would exceed turnover for all of last year.

* Attendees were hugely sympathetic with Royal Mail. Cataloguers rarely hesitate to criticise Royal Mail. But at ECMOD nearly all of them vented their spleen toward the CWU and sided with Royal Mail and its modernisation efforts. (We'd already done so, pretty much calling CWU leaders a bunch of babies in a post last month.)

Interestingly, two of the panelists at the session “UK Brands Taking the USA by Storm” compared the US Postal Service unfavourably to Royal Mail, with Long Tall Sally chief executive Andrew Shapin calling USPS “a total nightmare” because of its sluggishness and unreliability. If Royal Mail can take any consolation in the ongoing follies, it’s that mailers are finally beginning to show the organisation some love.--SC

ECMOD quickies

One drawback of attending a conference with an especially good programme of sessions and speakers: There’s no way to cover everything you want to. Such was the case at ECMOD this year. Nonetheless, here’s a selection of notable quotes and quick takeaways that I’ve gleaned fromt the conference, which began yesterday and ran through today at Earls Court in London:

  • “The successful catalogues we work with focus on having a website better than their catalogue,” said Bill LaPierre of list and data firm Direct Media/Millard during his Thursday morning session. This ties in with one of his truisms of direct marketing in the 21st century: The website is the core business, and the catalogue brings in incremental sales—the reverse of the longstanding conventional wisdom.
  • Also from LaPierre: Sixty percent of the success of a catalogue is down to the merchandise, 20 percent to the mailing list, 10 percent to the creative, and the remaining 10 percent to customer service.
  • In addition to helping ecommerce sites with their search engine optimisation efforts (by providing more content for search engine spiders to crawl), a blog “kind of builds a personal trust, as people want more and more information about companies these days,” Karen Watson, co-owner and managing director of The Real Flower Company, said during a Wednesday morning session on social media.
  • At the same session, Wiggly Wigglers founder Heather Gorringe said, “Podcasts aren’t always thought of as social media, but I actually think they’re the start of it all.” Wiggly Wigglers has had great success with its folksy yet informative podcasts, as well as with other social media. Facebook, for instance, drives about 7.5 percent of all traffic to the rural-lifestyle cataloguer’s website, and Twitter drives another 7.5 percent. Of Twitter, Gorringe said, “It puts us on an even platform with companies that have an enormous budget.”
  • Another panelist of the Wednesday morning social-media session, Asos’s James Hart, said, “Your community is not just your customers. Your community is you and your customers.”
  • Discussing his company’s launch in the US market during a session on UK brands expanding overseas, Boden managing director Julian Granville noted, “In the US we planned for just about every disaster scenario there is, but we didn’t plan on this much success.” The message: Just as you should have contingency plans for underperformance, be sure you are prepared for greater-than-expected demand.
  • Think “free” is the most effective word you can use in an email subject line? Think again. In her Thursday afternoon session, Michelle Farabaugh of consultancy Lenser said that of the emails her company had tested, seven of the 10 most-effective ones had “New” in the subject line.

I’ll be posting more-extensive coverage of ECMOD on our Catalogue e-business website ( and in the November issue of Catalogue e-business magazine—once my brain cells have processed everything and, just as important, once my feet have forgiven me for wearing court shoes two days in a row for the first time since last year’s ECMOD.--SC

Monday, 5 October 2009

The September Catalogue Log

In last month’s Catalogue Log, we were wondering why we’d received a scant 71 catalogues in August. No matter: Volume picked up in September, with a vengeance. We tallied 212 catalogues in September, the most in one month so far this year. To put it in context, in May, the month with the second greatest volume, we'd received 155 catalogues. Or, for more context, of the 1,081 catalogues logged during the first nine months of 2009, nearly one-fifth were received in September.

While the number of catalogues received had nearly tripled from the previous month, the percentage promoting sales and discounts dropped appreciably, from 43.7 percent in August to 34.4 percent in September. That’s somewhat higher than July’s 30.9 percent but nearly on a par with June’s 34.1 percent.

The percentage of the September catalogues offering free delivery was 18.4 percent, up from August’s 16.9 percent. It’s also the second highest rate so far this year. Top honours go to April, in which a full 20 percent of the books received had some sort of free P&P offer. Several of the September delivery offers were pegged to deadlines. Fashion brand Joe Browns, for instance, promised free P&P only on orders received by 18th September; fellow apparel brand White Stuff extended its offer till 15th October; yet another fashion brand, Fat Face, offered free delivery but only till 30th September and only on web orders.

The percentage of catalogues offering a gift with purchase was a fairly modest 10.8 percent in September. That’s down from August’s 14.1 percent and the high, in June, of 17.8 percent. Among September’s gifts-with-purchase were a £20 cosmetics kit with orders of £25 or more from; £12.50 worth of chocolates with each order of £50 or more from the Hotel Chocolat Corporate Christmas Gifts catalogue; and from apparel cataloguer Boden, a Jewelled Pebble Necklace worth £39 for new customers.

The Boden offer appeared in the mini-catalogue inserted in an issue of the Sunday Times; the catalogue cover also offered a 15-percent discount, free delivery, and free returns. Far be it for me to question the wisdom of Johnnie Boden et al, but one could argue that the plethora of promotions makes the brand seem a bit… needy. Yes, annual turnover rose 9.4 percent last year, to £168.1 million, so the company is undoubtedly doing many things right. Then again, pretax profit fell 9.5 percent, to £24.8 million, and while some of this was due to expanding its US facilities, could Boden be overspending on some of its customer acquisition?

Enough speculation; let’s get back to cold, hard percentages. Among the September catalogues, 42.5 percent promised no special offers at all. That’s a significant increase from 31.0 percent in August, though down slightly from 43.6 percent in July. As we get closer to Christmas, it might be interesting to wager how low the percentage of promotion-free catalogues will fall before the end of the year. My money’s on 20 percent: I predict that by December, four out of five catalogues will be touting some sort of discount, freebie, or other promotion. Your predictions?--SC

Friday, 2 October 2009

Compare and contrast: Hotel Chocolat

Why is Hotel Chocolat the subject of this month’s “Compare and contrast”, in which I look at the UK and US versions of a particular merchant? Well, I could say it’s because Halloween takes place in October, and you can’t have Halloween without sweets. I could also say it’s because Royston, Hertfordshire-based Hotel Chocolat launched its first US store, in Boston, last month, two years after entering the market via the web.

But I’d be lying. The real reason is that I figured, if I’m going to be staring at web pages, those pages might as well offer something lovely to look at—something like chocolates.

Neither Hotel Chocolat site disappoints in this regard. On the home page of the UK version (above) a good-size image of a chocolate skull and gravestones accompanies the headline “Boo!” and copy challenging you to “discover our hair-raising Halloween chocolates if you dare...” followed by a link to a page of Halloween sweets. The company makes sure to emphasise its unique branding proposition—that the chocs its sells aren’t your run-of-the-mill goodies but are instead top-of-the-line—with the headline “Luxury Chocolate Gifts” directly below the Halloween image and, to the right, a list of the site’s top five best-selling “luxury gifts for him & her...”.

Having determined, no doubt correctly, that Americans are less familiar with its brand, Hotel Chocolat uses the home page of its US site (above) primarily as a branding vehicle. Rotating images emphasising the decadence of its chocolates (a woman in evening attire feeding a blind-folded man sat at a grand piano a bonbon) and their premium quality (a close-up of a cocoa bean, simply propped shots of its chocolates against a dark background) take up most of the screen, selling Hotel Chocolat rather than the individual chocolates. Below the slide show are links to “our finest Champagne Truffles”, information about the company’s cocoa plantation, an introduction to the company (“A state of mind, a place, a feeling... Why Hotel Chocolat?”), and the email sign-up.

Another reason Hotel Chocolat plays up the gourmand extravagance of the brand in the US may have to do with its pricing. A box of 16 Champaign Truffles on the UK site costs £15 ($23.83); on the US site, $36 (£22.64). The Halloween Pick-Me-Up Gift Bag (which is seriously adorable, by the way) is £10 ($15.89) on the UK site—not cheap, but accessible enough that I may buy one for my daughter. On the US site it costs $25 (£15.73), which means if we were still living in the States, my daughter would definitely be making do with some Hershey kisses.

Then there’s the shipping. Next-day shipping is available on both sites, though only the UK version promotes it on the home page. Perhaps that’s because figuring out shipping costs on the US site is overall a bit of a trial. The UK site offers two tiers of shipping rates (for one item and for multiple items) for standard and “gold” (next-day) delivery within the country as well as flat rates for standard delivery to the rest of Europe and other parts of the world except the US. If you’re on the UK site and want to send an order to the States, you need to click the link to the US site.

Fair enough. But not only does the US site not offer any sort of flat rate, it doesn’t even show you the delivery cost until you’re about to pay for your order. And shipping isn’t cheap. It doesn’t help that Hotel Chocolat fulfils its Stateside orders from Massachusetts, far up north on the East Coast. Even so, delivery of a $16 (£10.06), 3.53-oz box of Caramel Canapes to New Rochelle, NY, just outside Manhattan and no more than 300 miles away from the fulfilment centre, would cost $7.53 (£4.74)—and that’s without the $7 (£.4.40) insulated packaging, which is “strongly” recommended if temperatures at the delivery destination are above 70F (21C). Shipping to Arizona, say, or southern California would be prohibitive. Those Caramel Canapes had better be damn good.

In comparison, another upscale chocolatier, Godiva, charges $6.95 (£4.37) for shipping of orders under $18 (£11.32), regardless of destination. And it does not charge extra for “climate-controlled packaging”.

Hotel Chocolat's UK and the US sites both underscore the brand's expertise in all things chocolate, with links on the home pages to glossaries and recipes. And both aim to simplify gift selection: The US site enables you to browse by occasion, product, and person; the UK version adds another option, attributes, to the list.

The browse function is not only more thorough but also sleeker on the UK site, however. When browsing by occasion, for example, a drop-down menu offers a list of 10 choices, including “dinner party” and “self-indulgence”. The menu on the US site is much clunkier and, oddly, more downmarket in appearance, and it offers just five choices. Apparently in the UK “autumn” is occasion enough to indulge in chocolates, but not in the US. Then again, given how much more costly the products are in the States, it's much tougher for Yanks to justify dropping that much dosh merely to celebrate the falling of the leaves.--SC

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Catalogue we love: Bravissimo

Nature dictates that I will never be a Bravissimo customer, but that’s no reason not to love the catalogue that caters for buxom women for its friendly yet informative copy and figure-enhancing advice.

Yes, nearly every lingerie catalogue features some sort of explanation of bra shapes like the difference between a balconette and a full-cup bra. And yes, it may also highlight which bra can be worn strapless. What I especially like about Bravissimo is that it goes that extra step. The copy for every item in the catalogue includes a benefit. Take the Tutti Frutti bra for example: “Perfect for parties, this boob-boosting silk plunge bra will give you an eye-popping cleavage and plenty of va va voom!” or the Porcelain bra: “Some booby girls prefer this seamless bra for its cut, which is slightly higher in the cups to comfortably accommodate more ample boobs”. Unline some lingerie catalogues, which get away with simply stating the fabric, colour and cut, Bravissimo advises which bra gives better support, which looks good under T-shirts, and which is super-stylish but comfy enough for everyday wear.

Even more I like the catalogue’s clothing section. As well as bras Bravissimo sells dresses, tops and coats that flatter bigger busts. One of the pages features some tips to “find a coat that flatters your boobilicious shape”. It compares a size 8 mac bought on the high street with a Bravissimo mac. Arrows point to the ordinary mac’s shortcomings (“double breasted adds extra bulk”, “waist appears thicker”) and to Bravissimo’s triumphs (“unique tailoring allows space for your boobs and defines your waist”). To find out your Bravissimo clothes size, the catalogue has a handy guide to “curviness size”—ranging from Curvy to Super Curvy depending on bra size. Customers order their regular dress size and specify where they are on the curvy scale—that’s what I call hassle-free shopping!

What this catalogue shows is that Bravissimo knows exactly who its customer is and what her concerns are. It knows that she struggles to find the right fit on the high street and gets frustrated with tops that gape. It does an excellent job of making it as easy as possible to find the right bra for the right occasion, at the right price with minimal fuss. It’s so hard to find fault with the catalogue, I’d definitely be a Bravissimo customer if I could.—MT