Monday, 30 November 2009

Why catalogues are like Marmite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 27 November 2009

XX marks the spot

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

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

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Vive la difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The “big book” isn’t dead yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Huh of the day: Hyperdrug

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Compare and contrast: L’Occitane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 November 2009

Striking while the iron's cold

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Comfort and joy

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The October Catalogue Log

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Call for an intervention

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Book learning

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

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

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