Is this really a catalog?

Apr 01, 2006 10:30 PM  By

The cover of a catalog says, with ruthless competitive truth: “Whatever it is, you can get it on eBay.” Oh, eBay has a catalog? You bet it does, and it’s printed on heavy machine-finish paper, full bleed. Ah, here’s a photograph of a Sony 42-in. plasma TV. But the description is pluralized: SONY 42″ PLASMA TVs — Stunning picture enhancement and a slim flat panel design. Search: sony 42 plasma tv. New from $1,590.99. That rates a solid “Huh?” It’s apparent that this catalog is simply a feeder mechanism for an online version. But how does eBay, the online auction house, justify specifying a TV model and a to-the-penny price, muddied by the word “from”? Better take a look.

That meant abandoning the printed catalog and going online — not smart marketing, guys, if you want an impulse buy. At the bottom of the opposite page, the instruction is, “Shop this catalog online at ebay.com/catalog.” So okay, I punched that in and then searched for “sony 42 plasma tv.”

How odd: The first item listed was a Sony 42-in. plasma tv, but the “Buy it now” price was $1,729.99, plus $318.99 shipping. Hey, what happened to $1,590.99? Well, deeper in the listings — and damn it, these were nothing but the same old eBay listings — I found “Sony WEGA KE-42TS2U 42″ HDTV plasma TV” from Canada for $510…but there was still a considerable time for bids to up that number, as any eBay addict knows will happen. And here’s a Sony PFM 42V1 plasma TV with 21 hours to go, current bid $1,650, “Buy it now for $1,710.”

Oops. Even as I was reading, copying, and cursing, the $510 TV jumped to $1,449.99, with more than three and a half hours to go. Click! I’m outta here.

Progress is inevitable and inexorable. The prophets of printed-catalog doom have predicted for some five years that mailed catalogs would either disappear or become simple feeder mechanisms for online catalogs, where space is infinite, choices are huge, and printing costs are zilch.

To an extent, their predictions are coming true. The eBay catalog with its annoying unspecific prices may be the stalking horse of our muddy future. Certainly the printed version of almost (and the qualifier “almost” may disappear quickly) every business and consumer catalog that not only includes the company’s Web address but also invites comparative or expansive shopping there has become standard. No problem, unless a description drives us to a specific landing page and we land instead on another page or the home page.

Is the weather stormy or bright? Wind & Weather, an excellently written and produced catalog, includes an offer we no longer regard as offbeat:

“Shop online at www.windandweather.com. Our Web site features products not found in our catalog as well as long-time favorites. Send a Wind & Weather Gift Certificate, quick and easy, at www.windandweather.com.

“Email Special Offers — Sign up on our Web site, www.windandweather.com, or call us at 800-922-9463. Receive special discount offers only available to our e-mail friends.”

No, I don’t like the nondescript wording “features products,” and “only available” should be “available only,” but these are insignificant objections. While some who aren’t yet of the computerized world may toss the catalog because the (unfortunate) wording tells them they’re second-class customers, I can’t and don’t attack the concept because first, it’s 21st-century marketing, and second, it’s sound economics.

When I tested that concept, it was right on: The home page had a “weekly special,” and a link to “email specials” is a device to capture e-mail addresses (yes, I still use the hyphen but probably will drop it in 2007). There’s also an offer to ask for a printed catalog.

Are we losing business? How many prices are quoted in the gigantic (400-plus pages) 2006 B&H Photo/Video catalog?

None. None? This company, dominant in the professional audio-video world, explains nonpricing in incontrovertible terms: “We have omitted most pricing from the SourceBook for the following reasons. 1. We are unable to publish our regular discount prices for many products because they are much lower than the manufacturer’s minimum permitted advertised price. 2. Unpredictable price changes will inevitably occur during useful life of the SourceBook.”

Just to check, I visited www.bhphotovideocom to see what its price might be for the 42-in. Sony LCD flat screen TV I’d just bought locally. The description — at least I think it’s the same one I bought — is on page 332. In the huge morass of online product, I couldn’t find it listed. That doesn’t mean B&H doesn’t have it; it does mean a gap can exist between the two media, and that can be a dangerous maiming of the seller-sellee relationship.

So what does all this mean to the future of creative catalog salesmanship? Ask me again in two years.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and author of 29 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles and Effective E-Mail Marketing.