A Date with Density

Given the cost of producing and mailing a catalog, density — the number of products per page — is a crucial consideration. Catalogers may try to save money by packing more items on a page to reduce the number of pages, but they then risk reducing revenue, because products are harder to see on crowded pages. Conversely, a lower-density presentation can drive up costs, but it can also drive up sales.

Generally speaking, catalogers specializing in low- or moderate-priced items can get away with denser product layouts than their higher-end counterparts. Price points are generally parallel with density, says Glenda Shasho Jones, president of New York-based catalog consultancy Shasho Jones Direct.

“We know, as a rule of thumb, that lower price points require higher density presentations to pay for themselves,” Jones explains. “Companies that offer more-expensive product don’t typically have a high-density presentation, because the higher price points generate the needed revenue.”

What’s more, before someone commits to buying an expensive item, he is likely to require more information than he would prior to snapping up a low-cost trinket. In its catalog of high-end outdoor furniture, Gaithersburg, MD-based Country Casual generally showcases just three or four products per spread. This enables the company to display products such as a $3,150 teak bench and a $1,595 table in garden and patio settings, says vice president of marketing Dana Goldstein. The low density also allows for a generous amount of descriptive copy. Country Casual’s consumer book caters to customers with annual incomes of $140,000 and higher.

Purveyors of luxury goods aren’t the only ones that opt for relatively airy page layouts, of course. A typical page in the catalog of apparel merchant J. Crew, for instance, might include just one model wearing three items. For J. Crew, says Jones, its signature low product density reflects its branding as a source of high-quality, classic clothing that also happens to be affordable.

A matter of brand

For Portland, OR-based Norm Thompson, decreasing product density went hand in hand with a decision to focus less on price and more on unique merchandise, says Ann Hjemboe, general merchandise manager/vice president of merchandising for the apparel and gifts merchant. During the past three years it has lowered density from an average of 3.88 items per page in 2002 to 3.1 items per page in spring 2005. This coincided with a renewed emphasis on the brand’s tagline, “Escape from the ordinary.”

“We want to hit a certain density at the end of the day,” says Hjemboe, but ensuring that the product comes across properly is more of a priority. Norm Thompson’s catalogs will often highlight items that the company “believes in,” she adds, showing it in multiple colors and sizes and allowing it to be a pace breaker, rather than merely featuring items it knows will perform well.

Norm Thompson’s strategy has apparently paid off. sales per page increased 100% between spring 2004 and spring 2005, despite a density drop from 3.36 items per page in the 2004 catalog.

Unlike Norm Thompson, pet products cataloger Doctors Foster & Smith has slightly increased the density of its catalogs during the past two years. The Rhinelander, WI-based company must put enough product into the catalogs to make them pay for themselves, says manager of creative services Barry Benecke, as well as to appeal to a broad audience. The majority of its catalogs average anywhere from four to eight products per page, says Benecke, though some of the specialty titles, such as its fish and aquarium catalogs, are more dense, averaging 10-12 items per spread. In comparison, the dog and cat books average 8-10 products per spread.

The Doctors Foster & Smith catalogs feature a fair amount of editorial space as well. “We like to build breaks or pauses into the book,” Benecke says, by including articles about breeds and caring for pets.

General merchandise cataloger Fingerhut keeps its overall product density to five or six items per page, says John Damrow, executive vice president of merchandising. The Minnetonka, MN-based company averages 5.77 products per page in its 2005 Holiday Big Book, whereas 2004’s holiday catalog averaged 5.78 offers per page. Although Fingerhut targets a less upscale audience than Norm Thompson — Fingerhut buyers have an average income of $33,000 compared with $62,000 for Norm Thompson buyers — Damrow agrees with Hjemboe on one key point: that the main goal when designing the catalog is to effectively present each offer rather than to hit a predetermined merchandise density per spread.

In the Fingerhut catalog, density varies among categories based primarily on the amount of copy needed for descriptions, the amount of specifications needed for products such as home electronics, and the space required to show color and pattern swatches. That means designing high-density spreads for some jewelry items, with a page headlined “Dazzling diamonds…brilliant ideas” featuring 21 diamond rings and another page displaying nearly two dozen gold chains. But it also means creating a hero presentation in which a new bedding pattern is given an entire page.

Damrow says he creates flow throughout the catalog by using real estate for clear, concise, and visually stimulating presentations. “We stand back and look at the graphic presentation in a spread,” he says. “Is that spread message going to resonate with our customers? We use that basic fundamental premise to make decisions.”

Damrow says Fingerhut’s catalogs can handle a 5% swing in density from one year to another without hurting sales or profits. Under its previous owners, he adds, the cataloger had tested density swings of 10%-20%.

Testing the waters

Altering product density isn’t something to be taken lightly, says David Kuettel, president of Minneapolis-based marketing consultancy Gem Group. He recommends that catalogers perform tests to determine the affect of page density on response rates and sales of specific products.

Doctors Foster & Smith is running its first major density test this year, in the dog beds sections of its fall and holiday catalogs. This year it’s featuring two beds per spread compared with four beds per spread in previous catalogs. So far, Benecke says the less-dense pages are performing well, although the catalogers won’t tally the final results until late December or early January. In total, Doctors Foster & Smith will test four layouts, with results affecting layouts for spring and summer catalogs and possibly other product categories in the future.

The risks of altering density vary, depending on how dense a catalog is to begin with, according to Katie Muldoon, president of Tequesta, FL-based marketing consultancy Muldoon and Baer. “High-density catalogers are already walking a pretty thin line,” she says, adding that if they increase density the selling ability of the entire spread could be sacrificed. Low-density catalogers face less of a risk by adding products per page because customers may not notice a small increase. “You generally try to add more items until you feel it’s compromising the integrity of layouts or the return in sales,” says Muldoon.

Kuettel doesn’t think catalogers — of high or low density — can hurt themselves too much by altering density, although they may have to give up some romance copy to accommodate more products.

The good news, says consultant Jones, is that “no one has to lose sleep over increasing product density. It can be done slowly, over time, in order to understand the impact adding product has and where there might be more or less tolerance and rewards.”

Is your catalog or Website a winner? Find out by entering Multichannel Merchant’s MCM Awards. For more info, see page 33, visit www.MultichannelMerchant.com, or e-mail hretzlaff@primediabusiness.com.

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