Catalog Critique: SmileMakers Gets a Creative Lesson

With its serious selection of classroom activities, school prizes and rewards, arts and crafts supplies and much more, SmileMakers sets out to make education fun for children and easier for teachers. But is shopping with the marketer’s print catalog fun and easy? Or does it need to be schooled in catalog design?

Critiquers Sarah Fletcher, president/creative director of Catalog Design Studios in Providence, RI, and Glenda Shasho Jones, president of New York-based catalog consulting firm Shasho Jones Direct, reviewed the 234-page June 2010 edition of SmileMakers. Here’s what they had to say.


The SmileMakers catalog targets teachers who are spending their own money for extra classroom supplies, prizes, stickers and other teaching aids for grades K through 8th. The mailer, part of office supplies cataloger/retailer Staples, also sells some traditional office supplies used in classrooms — such as folders and staplers.

The cover is bright and shows an array of products that would appeal to teachers. I like the tagline “Create. Motivate. Educate.” It is small and a bit of a throwaway, though, since it is never used again. I would make more of it.

What I don’t see are children. Kids are a quick way to establish an emotional connection between the product and why the teachers are buying it.

There are three main callouts on the cover. One promising “Over 650 NEW products plus NEW Staples products!” is confusing because it differentiates SmileMakers merchandise and Staples products.

If having more Staples products is important, add why it is important. Are they less expensive? Do they make the classroom more organized?

There is a section of the catalog called “Staples Office Essentials.” Changing the callout to “NEW Staples Classroom Essentials, turn to page 212” would help. And changing the Office Essentials to Classroom Essentials will resonate more with the target audience.

The second callout is “We have everything you need for your classroom!” That’s a broad, general statement, and it isn’t selling the catalog’s strengths. This is where reinforcing the tagline could be helpful. I would suggest something like these:

  • 400 ways to add creativity!
  • 200 fun stickers to motivate your students!
  • 50 educational aids for your classroom. See page xx for our favorites

The third callout promotes “FREE Staples Assorted Neon Brights Copy Paper” and advises readers to “See back cover for details.” This callout is a waste, since there is no mention of the offer on the back cover.

The same offer is promoted again on page two, also with a callout to turn to the back cover. When I turn to the back cover, there is only an offer for a free Paw Prints Notepad with every order of a Monsters Back to School Bulletin Set.

Huh? Color me confused. Having unexplained offers is a quick way to frustrate and confuse customers.

Aside from the offer for the free copy paper that needs to be explained, I do like the tabs and table of contents on the page 2/3 spread. They are easy to use and don’t take up too much space.

SmileMakers’ “Teacher Perks” is a great loyalty program. It could be scattered throughout the catalog with a callout teaser like “Get FREE shipping on your order, join Teacher Perks! See page 3 for details.”

Page 3 also explains Smile Scholars, a group of area educators and administrators who act as an advisory board to SmileMakers. The “Meet our Smile Scholars” section is compelling and adds credibility to the products with the “recommended by Smile Scholars” icon.

A big problem with a catalog of this density is navigating back to items of interest, so I’d recommend testing removable tags and pointers. These tags help customers shop and can increase both loyalty and average order size.

It is really hard to do a catalog like this well: There are thousands of small, low-priced items, the average order is low, the inventory is huge, and the space allocation per product is small. Add bright, kid-oriented colors, and you have an eye-popping riot of color on every page.

But SmileMakers does a good job of keeping the riot of clutter organized. The tabs make it easy to navigate, and the sections are intuitive for the target audience of teachers.

The catalog would benefit from pacing with larger images of key items. It could also use more editorial to break up the monotony and add visual cues that customers can use to find their way back to products they are interested in.

Adding more space to best-selling products may not increase demand enough to justify the additional space. But you will see an overall lift across the entire catalog that makes the additional space worth allocating.

I would recommend creating full- or half-page section starts focusing on top products. If possible, try to show teachers interacting with kids who are using the products.

My favorite section is the Classroom — it should be the model for the entire catalog. It features products with Smile Scholar recommendations and benefit-driven headlines such as “Keep it neat and organized!”

There are photos of both teachers and children using the products. I’m not crazy about the dark purple color blocks behind the black type headlines, because they reduce readability. The copy is a bit of a mixed bag. Many items don’t have any, which is a shame, since even the lowliest item will sell better with benefit-driven copy.

SmileMakers also has a big opportunity to differentiate categories that have similar products, like the crayons. There are six offerings of bulk crayons on page 35. Although they were created to meet the needs of different customers, the copy isn’t helping customers self-select. What is the advantage of Prang vs. Crayola? Why do I want packs versus bulk? The only product that sells benefits is the Crayola Triangular Crayons Classpack.

The easier you make it for customers to find exactly what they need, the more they will buy and the more often they will shop with you instead of your competition.

I like the headlines, though I would keep the focus on benefits and resist the urge to describe the items on the page, such as “Glue, Glitter & Scissors” or “Keep them smiling with these fun Smiley Toys!” or “Stickers, Stickers, & more Stickers online!” When in doubt, fall back to the tagline “Create. Motivate. Educate.” and reinforce key brand attributes.

All in all, SmileMakers is on the right track; it just needs to stay focused on keeping it clean and easy to shop. Every product should have clear, benefit-driven copy, keep the excitement up with strong benefit headlines and make sure the offers are clear.


The folks at SmileMakers should feel good about the results of their catalog’s recent redesign. This book’s well organized and chock full of great products for educators. It’s easy to see how someone would enjoy shopping from the catalog. I’d say that some of the best opportunities for this catalog involve using creative more strategically — in areas that support the marketing and merchandising efforts.

The front cover is colorful and engaging. The vibrant photograph draws the reader in. The logo is prominent at the top, and the phone number and website address are easy to read on the bottom.

Does the Staples connection deserve more prominence? Maybe. And how many more recipients would spend time with a catalog “Brought to you by the folks at Staples” or “Part of the Staples family” instead of it being “a Staples Company”?

Since the front cover shot represents only one category (Arts & Crafts), I would recommend using inset shots with captions along the bottom of the page to represent other important merchandise categories, such as Celebration, Writing and Prizes & Rewards.

The messages on the front cover need to be prioritized: In large colorful type, they compete with one other. Actually, the most important message should be “FREE Shipping & Handling with an order of $50,” which currently resides on page two.

The opening spread is organized and filled with helpful and meaningful information. The clear list of services reflects a professional organization. This is strengthened by the presence of a Staples representative talking about the Staples products within.

The “Smile Scholars” photo and explanation underscore the company’s authority and hint at a better selection of product. The color-coded table of contents helps with shopping and searching. All good.

Navigation is great in this catalog — each spread has tabs with the category name, so you always know where you are or how to get where you’re going. Overall, the product is organized by grid formations, so it’s easy to take in the assortment.

But too many things are the same size in this catalog. There’s a big opportunity to create more features and subfeatures that create interest and pop products.

Certainly, some of the few expensive products deserve more space; right now, a $179.99 Gorilla Block set receives the same allocation as products for $19.99. Complicated items often have the same amount of space as simple products. Creating features and subfeatures would do three things:

  1. Emphasize and hopefully improve sales of more important products,
  2. Improve pacing and energy, and
  3. Underscore SmileMakers’ authority in educational tools if the features are treated in a manner that communicates knowledge and experience

Copy is a big opportunity area for SmileMakers. Right now, most selling copy is bare-bones or just adequate.

I would recommend beefing up the copy for the more complicated products. And I always like to see recommended target ages or grades where it is absent and needed.

SmileMakers should choose key products and tell us more about them, whether it is a story about product construction/quality, cognitive learning enhancement, or building self-esteem.

The cataloger could also increase the number of endorsements it has from “Smile Scholars,” which are nice and a good way to highlight special products.

I found the “word bands” popping up across the middle of a page distracting. Since they don’t seem to have very meaningful content (for instance, “Puzzles help students put the pieces together!”), I would eliminate them.

Instead, I would employ headlines at the top of a page when they help the reader shop. Examples would be calling out prices (“24 prizes under $24!), promises (“Improve literacy by as much as 50%”), and end-use person (“Rewards for Pre-School Students”).

Authority and marketing go hand in hand. There are many instances in which SmileMakers could better motivate and assist customers as they shop.

In several cases, the shopper has to work too hard to understand the offer — comparing crayons or pencils requires a calculator!

“Cost per stick” might help the frugal shopper make a bigger purchase. There might be opportunities for comparison charts, bullets or “good, better, best” treatment to clarify product differences.

“Our Choice,” “Teacher Favorite” or “Best Seller” are also great ways to call out great products and further move the customer to a decision.

Teachers want to make educated decisions. If ever a marketer wanted to be smart, it’s when they’re marketing to our teachers!


Would you like your catalog to be reviewed by our industry experts — for free? Simply send four copies of the same edition, along with basic information about your target market, merchandise niche and competitive advantages, to: Catalog Critique, Multichannel Merchant, 11 River Bend Drive South, P.O. Box 4949, Stamford, CT 06907.

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