The elusive impulse factor

Dec 01, 2007 10:30 PM  By

Since the declining days of the Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward “big books” — or maybe earlier than that — catalogs have been in a competitive battlefield. The explosion of online catalogs has turned the battlefield into a minefield, especially for print books that adhere to the once-safe tradition of glorified description. A hypercompetitive ambiance has raised both the prominence and the benefit of product descriptions whose effectiveness stems from generating a previously unexpected buying-impulse.

Catalogs can stand in place, as traditional enthusiastic describers. Or as just a few already have done, they can shift their sales approach to generating an impulse buy.

Our great-grandparents may have regarded the delivery of a new catalog as an event. Descriptions of what might be available, and at what price, were newsworthy.

Shift ahead one generation: Media output had increased considerably. Competition among sales methods, and the arrival of television as a key medium in the post-World War II era, made catalog offers less competitive on a comparative basis; but comparing catalogs with conventional media was only a nominal factor.

The exponential shift: Let’s spawn an impulse. We’re on the cusp of the year 2008. History doesn’t help us compete. What does help us compete is the realization that in this Web-driven era (and it’s permanent, barring a worldwide disaster), all who have buying power of any significance are assaulted by informational/persuasional output from multiple competing sources.

Does imperative really outsell declarative? That question is easier to answer in 2008 than it was in 1998. Shift your crystal ball to 2018, when force-communication clutter will be multiples of what it is now, and the question itself will be academic.

If you leaf through the last 50 catalogs that came across your desk, chances are about 80/20 that most — or all — the product headings are descriptive.

Here’s a well-known catalog of upscale home and novelty items. Obviously by executive fiat, every heading begins with the word “The.”

Hey, there’s a classic two-edged sword. “The” is a definite article. So “The LP-to-MP3 Converter” and “The Best Electronic Pants Presser” are both attempted positioning statements.

The other edge is a casual browser’s reaction to a heading such as “The Five-Stage Air Cleaner.” Does anyone want a five-stage air cleaner? Within the text — whose opening includes the word “robust” (popularized to the point of disrepute by government news releases) and the marching-in-place word “available” — are impulse-motivators, buried in copy some potential buyers won’t reach. Opinion: Opportunity lost because of slavish adherence to style.

Another catalog, whose product mix only occasionally competes with the previous one, leans toward impulse-impelling headings. A couple of examples:

  • Make and serve mouth-watering theatre-quality popcorn at home!

  • How would you like to increase your gas mileage by up to 25%?

  • Carry a digital camera, camcorder, MP3 player & more in the palm of your hand!

  • Vacuum your floors while you watch TV, go shopping or take a nap!

Yeah, the copywriters at this catalog are exclamation-happy, but they’re thinking in terms of salesmanship rather than making flat and possibly irrelevant claims of universal superiority.

Does a discount start an impulse? Of course an apparent discount can bring an order that otherwise wouldn’t have come. That truism isn’t unique to catalogs.

The introductory issue of a high-fashion catalog shouts, in the biggest type on its cover, “A special invitation exclusively for you — Take $10 off! just for shopping with us for the first time.”

Then, lower on the cover, “Save up to 50%.” (Accepting the questionable child psychology of “A special invitation exclusively for you,” a potential customer may still be puzzled that this offer seems to be so exclusive it isn’t mentioned elsewhere in the catalog, even on the order form.)

Recognition of the competitive catalog universe is becoming commonplace. The cover of one apparel catalog yells “SALE — save up to 70%.” The cataloger’s home page has this same pitch, plus a second incentive the printed catalog doesn’t include — “Free shipping.” The invariable winner among online incentives, free shipping has been a major obbligato theme of so, so many online marketers. This contrasting example to the contrary, it’s becoming commonplace among printed catalogs.

An insert, between pages 2 and 3 of a competing catalog, says, “Please enjoy this exclusive offer: $20 off any purchase of $80 or more.” And these selling weapons aren’t unusual.

Oh, certainly discounts have been around as long as catalogs have been around. But the trend toward discounts as a principal impulse-buy hammer stems from contemporary marketing reality.

Is market share slipping? Consider leaning on headings that stop, grab, and shake the reader…leading directly to an impulse buy.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 31 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Effective E-Mail Marketing, and the recently published Creative Rules for the 21st Century, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.