Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Best and Worst Catalog Copy of 2015

About a hundred years ago, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made this telling remark about the perils of being in the position of making an evaluation:

“When I make a political appointment, I create 99 enemies and one ingrate.”

That seems to be implicit in judgmental relationships, and we prove it year after year in the annual “Best and Worst Catalog Copy” column. In defiance of inevitable counter-criticism, here’s this year’s batch.

But quick, quick! Read the headline again. We’re analyzing catalog copy. Copy. COPY.

Got that? Layout, pricing, product sourcing? Those are other aisles in this store.

Once again, the annual double disclaimer that has applied since we started reviewing catalog copy some years ago comes into play.

First disclaimer: I‘m analyzing copy, and copy only. The beauty of the layout is another topic. We’re in search of superior copy, inferior copy, and just plain workmanlike copy.  So the most brilliantly-produced catalog may not meet our peculiar qualifications.

Second disclaimer: I get printed catalogs galore – believe me, plenty exist – plus more online catalogs than I ever can remember offhand. But I can’t claim exposure to every catalog.

Before you tell me, I’ll tell you a third disclaimer: These are my opinions. Facts? They’re just the starting point.

Big year just around the corner

Catalog historians tend to date their assessments of the semi-modern era from the years 1896 to the mid-1980s. Is that in sync with the prediction that 2016 will be a mammoth year for catalogs?

Uhhh … you mean printed catalogs with hundreds of pages? They’re for historians, not 2016 competitors. If you’ve been locked in a time machine for 25 years or longer, you may not have heard the clarion call. Sears heard the call … and ran for help.

Catalogs are online, in force. Oh, from a handful of catalog competitors you can get a printed mini-catalog, 24 to 96 pages, featuring specialty items. But you won’t become top-dog that way. (One exception: pinpointed industrial catalogs.)

In its most powerful moments Sears couldn’t have competed one-on-one with the empire Amazon has built. Sears never could have sold as many shoes as Zappos sells today.

Were you cataloging catalogs in 1896? That’s when Sears & Roebuck burst from the pack and sprinted past Montgomery Ward and Spiegel by splitting the Sears catalog into seasons and assuming a posture of dominance in cataloguing. The mid-1980s? That’s when the world wide web nibbled, then by the millennial year 2001 swallowed catalogs and spat them up bigger and stronger and more in lock-step with retailing than Sears ever could imagine.

So, to repeat a prediction you already may have been aiming at yourself: 2016 will be a mammoth year for catalogs. Just don’t expect to spend a lot of time sorting through pages and none of your time clicking on the keyboard.

Sidebar: You have two major sources to match up.

Proof that today’s challenge exceeds yesterday’s is a major marketer, Coldwater Creek.

It its printed origin, Coldwater Creek attracts applause for its careful brilliance of word use. That reputation now spreads to the web version. Or does it, especially since a printed catalog may appear to be “live” for months after another catalog has succeeded it, or a newly edited description and/or pricing structure appears online?

Unclear? Visualize this procedure, your own hands holding the evidence: Open the printed catalog and turn to a random page. Headline: “so many ways to enjoy TEXTURE”

Two pages later: “velvety soft and ready to adore CORDUROY”

Organized, clear, and salesworthy? Certainly. Coldwater Creek doesn’t falter. (Lack of finial punctuation is theirs, not mine.)

Online, the landing page jumps out at the visitor, loud and clear. Specials have an expiration date, a benefit the printed catalog would have trouble matching. Included is an invitation – “Have you seen our latest CATALOG? Request one now.” The familiarity-reducing word “Request” gets in the way of a spontaneous yes, and it also separates web offers from what one might expect to see in a printed catalog.

Enough blabbering. Let’s specify…

NEXT PAGE: Best, No. 1…

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