5 Things the Catalog Ninja is Doing Right Now

ninja-160-200No matter that seasonal orders are coming in later and later every year, Labor Day still represents the unofficial start of the fall/holiday season for most catalogers. So, with pools closing for the winter and retailers everywhere breaking out their Halloween candy, it seems that Labor Day has passed and the fall season is upon us.

I wanted to take a visit to the dojo and look at five things any catalog ninja should be working on as the biggest season of the year gets going.

Revisit the Forecast

If you’re like many of your catalog counterparts you built your fall plan and corresponding forecast back in January or February based on the results of the Fall/Holiday 2013 season, then moved on to developing new items, adjusting your pricing, re-paginating your catalog and so on. Each of those processes, and countless other “standard practices” in catalog marketing, will have an effect on the “next season’s” sales and unit volume which makes now a perfect time to re-visit your fall/holiday forecast to make sure that any last minute buys and final planning projects are in the works before you’re out of time.

How might your planning and development processes effect your forecast? Here are a few examples:

  • Price Changes – Depending on the price sensitivity among customers, it’s possible that even price changes you think are inconsequential can make a big difference in demand. Without going into the details of psychological pricing theories, just understand that crossing important thresholds (like going from $19.95 to $21.95 or from $54.95 to $49.95) can create big swings in demand.
  • New Items – Hopefully you conducted a comprehensive merchandise analysis after the Fall/Holiday 2013 season and identified new, brand-relevant item opportunities based on your findings. Keep in mind that new items that build upon existing best sellers will likely pull sales from that existing item, just as new items at critical price points will.

As you’re looking at item-level usage forecasts, don’t forget to adjust your items per thousand orders factors to account for these new items. If you had a $49.95 item that will now be priced at $52.95 and you’ve introduced a new $49.95 item that might appeal to the same customer, expect sales on the existing item to drop while the new item performs, possibly, as well as an existing item does.

  • Page Count – As a general rule, you would expect page count increases to produce half their magnitude in order increase. For example, if your catalog increased from 64 to 80 pages (a 25% increase) you would expect roughly 12.5% more orders assuming similar circulation, similar density and data-derived merchandise additions. With page count decreases, the anticipated drop in orders would be less – roughly 35% of the page count percentage decrease – because you’re removing poor performers to cut pages. As your order forecast changes with page count, so should your item forecast.
  • Pagination Changes – With pagination it’s important to consider what happens when an item is given more or less space on the page and/or when an item is moved from a hot spot to “standard space” in the catalog. Move an item from a low-visibility location to a hot spot on a strong spread and demand will rise, and vice versa.
  • Non-Catalog Promotions – If last year’s e-mail programs were so successful you just can’t pass up the opportunity to build on them, you’ll need to account for those more aggressive plans in your forecasting efforts. And the same goes for those promotions that blew the doors off last year but maybe lost money so they’re off the table this year.

Now’s the time to make sure these and other strategic initiatives that you’ve put in place based on last fall/holiday’s results have been included in your forecasts for sales, inventory, web traffic, staffing and fulfillment.

Confirm Your Timing

If you’re a cost-conscious cataloger, you probably printed all your catalogs for the season at once. If you’re not a cost-conscious cataloger, you’re probably an e-commerce start-up with outside funding who will soon be a cost-conscious cataloger that prints all of your catalogs for the season at once. Either way, having catalogs printed and a schedule in place doesn’t mean you can’t still make adjustments if they’re warranted.

The fact is, holiday ordering has pushed later and later. The American Research Group conducted a holiday shopping survey in 2013 and as of the survey date, 38% of respondents have started their holiday shopping. That was November 14! The same survey asked about intent to shop from catalogs and again, 38% of respondents said yes. These responses suggest that as of November 14, 2013, less than 14.5% of Americans had begun shopping from catalogs!

Making later ordering cycles worse is the fact that major retailers are bombarding customers with last-minute deals and discounts that, literally, let consumers wait until the day before (sometimes the day of) to make the purchase – without a penalty and often with a huge discount!

As a cataloger, you have to check your timing. Are your primary prospecting efforts timed for maximum response? Is your holiday shipping cut-off absolutely as late as it can be? Are there last-minute shipping options – even premium shipping discounts – that will allow your customers to order later? Have you done everything you can to optimize the timing of your mailings and offers? Even if your catalogs are printed, you can work with your printer to split drops for better timing and plan e-campaigns to push later cutoffs and last-minute sales.

Guarantee Clean Mailings

The catalog ninja is making sure that every catalog mailed has the maximum chance for success. In the dojo we know that your catalogs are your ammunition, buyers are your targets and response is your goal. The easiest way to improve chances for success is to guarantee your ammunition is being directed at viable targets, and that means mailing a clean list.

The merge/purge process is essential for identifying and removing duplicates but the step just before the merge is the critical one here: I’m talking about NCOA processing. Standardizing addresses and passing your input lists against the USPS National Change of Address (NCOA) file not only improves match rates in the merge but it also ensures that the prospect names you’ve spent so much money to rent and mail actually receive the catalog you intend them to receive.

Yes, NCOA processing and verification is a requirement for mailing but the key point is to make sure your prospects are being NCOA processed. I’ve seen cases where NCOA hits on some of the most popular co-operative databases have surpassed 35% even though the mailer was assured that the list was NCOA processed and “clean.” Those missed hits yield lower results overall. More important, though, NCOA for prospects is incredibly inexpensive considering the tremendous gain that it can yield.

Keep Your Cool

Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks for the catalog ninja during the fall/holiday season is to maintain Tō – your harmony – as orders start coming in and questions start flying around about whether sales will come and if you’re going to meet your goals. As mentioned above, the orders are going to come later and later so the key to maintaining your zen is to know you’ve put the work into accounting for all channels and all shifts in demand associated with your integrated multichannel marketing plan.

If you’re not sure you’ve put that work in, now’s the time to address your concerns so that you can rest assured that you’ve built a solid plan that is now in the works and will – because of good planning and a dash of luck – execute as intended. This is a hard thing to do but it will pay off. Let’s face it, your boss is already going to be asking you this question often enough … the least you can do for yourself is know that you’ve done what’s necessary to produce the best possible outcome and on-plan results.

Prep for Spring 2015

I know, it feels good to exhale once that first fall book is in the mail. Pat ourselves on the back, have a beer to celebrate, get ready for the orders to come a’rollin in. Yep, it feels good. Like Clark and the family, though, you’ve got to get a quick look and get to moving on. There’s a spring season to plan!

Start now pulling together the data you need to assess the full impact of last spring’s efforts. Don’t short shrift the spring/summer seasons just because you think your fall/holiday sales are so much more important than the orders and dollars you produce before September. Think of spring as the launching pad for a better fall. All the analysis, development, planning and testing that takes place in the spring gives you a head start on strategy and tactics for Fall/Holiday 2015.

Focus on aligning your merchandise analysis with your marketing analysis to accomplish two goals: building a better, more robust understanding and, more importantly, turning last year’s results into this year’s plan. If your post-season analysis isn’t culminating in an integrated sales pro forma and item-level forecast, you have some serious opportunity for better analytics – the kind that save you time and let you make better decisions. Every catalog ninja can use those.

Find Your Zen

There are a number of focal points for your start-of-the-season attention. Leave a comment and let us know what you’re doing right now to make sure your season goes off as planned. We want to know: what are you catalog ninjas working on in your dojos?

Steve Trollinger is a bona fide catalog ninja and President of RCMD Marketing Solutions, a strategic multichannel marketing consultancy and design agency specializing in converting comprehensive analytics into integrated understanding for greater response, stickier brands and a better bottom-line.

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