Catalog Copy: Popcorn and Warm Towels

One of the most exhilarating indoor sports any catalog critic can enjoy is comparing the way competing catalogs describe similar items. • A benefit — and a problem — of current database sophistication is that our best targets often receive parallel catalogs from our competitors. So comparisons are considerably more common than they were even a few years ago.

Add to this heady mixture online search engines such as Google, which can bring up a competitor’s Web catalog alongside our own, and the increasing need for positioning becomes obvious: Why buy from us instead of from those guys?

Which one grabs you?

Let’s start at the top — an expensive “theater quality” popcorn popper. You have two catalogs side by side. Which of these headlines spurs you to read on?

This commercial-quality popper makes theatre-style popcorn for movie-time munching


Pop corn just like at the movies

Neither one is a barn burner, but I’d opt for the second one. Why? Two reasons. The first description has three hyphenated word combinations in what becomes an overlong headline. I’m all for word hyphenation, but three in one heading? Too much. Too, the second description is an imperative and avoids awkward, unstimulating terms such as “commercial-quality.” (The first one sells for $1,495, the second for $750, but that doesn’t enter the copy-judging mix.)

Let’s try another, from the same two catalogs. This is a more mundane item, a drawer safe. Catalog one maintains its multiworded pace:

Brinks Drawer Safe gives quick access to valuables when you need them, locks them away when you don’t

Catalog two gives us a more specific motivation:

Electronic safe secures small laptops, handguns or other valuables

Not an easy choice here, but again I prefer the second headline because it includes what so many headlines lack: specifics. But hey, both of you: When your headline is a complete sentence, why can’t you end it with a period?

Now we add a third catalog to these two, for a bike rack. Our first catalog leads with this:

Kickstand-free parking for every bike in the family

The second catalog competes with:

Enjoy easy storage with our Bicycle Rack

And the newcomer enters the fray with:

Space saving rack holds 2 bikes securely and needs no installation

No ball game here. “Kickstand-free” is a difficult concept. “Enjoy easy storage” draws no word image, and “Enjoy” is mildly out of key. So the newcomer, dealing in the two key elements — clarity and specific benefits — wins the cigar, although apparently that writer’s keyboard also is period-free.

Does copy justify price?

One rack deserves another, so let’s compare the same three catalogs for a different type of rack — a heated towel rack. Catalog one has what seems from its price ($1,295 or $1,995 depending on wattage) to be the Rolls-Royce of heated towel racks. The heading is one of those infuriating chest-thumpers that proclaims superiority without evidence:

Introducing the newest [NAME OF COMPANY] Towel Warmer — superior in every way to any other towel warmer

Catalog two sells the concept of heated towels, for its comparatively bargain-priced ($129) rack:

After one morning with luxurious, warm towels, you’ll never go back

Catalog three has a middle-priced ($209.95) heated towel rack. Lacking the bombast of catalog one and the promise of catalog two, the mild headline hardly justifies that price:

NEW! After bath or shower, treat yourself to the luxury of a clean, warm towel

Curiously, about 30 pages beyond, this catalog has another heated towel rack for $149.95. The heading is even more generic:

Wrap yourself in a wonderfully warm towel

Equally curiously, catalog one has a nonheated clothes-drying (not towel) rack for $59. It benefits from a benefit-laden headline:

Wall-mounted, retractable Rack dries a lot of clothes without tying up lots of space

Know what? That last nontowel copy outsells two of its glitzy uptown relatives and proves that benefit isn’t that difficult to figure out.

The catalog that suggests we pop corn just like at the movies, enjoy easy storage with their bicycle rack, and won’t ever go back after one morning with their luxurious towels has headings ranging from brilliant to dull. Could the same writer have produced these headlines spelling out clear benefits…

Flexogen Garden Hose — if it ever fails, we’ll replace it free

Move 200 lb. of wood with the greatest of ease

Electronic dartboard keeps score automatically …and these weaklings?

Premium shoe brush and dauber

K40 Pedestal Grill

Stackable wine racks change with your needs

(A sudden thought, and no, it isn’t that the wording should have been “200 lbs.,” not “200 lb.” You may think “Premium shoe brush and dauber” exemplifies superior catalog copywriting talent. No problem with that point of view. Well, maybe just one: “Benefit” headings invariably outpull flat descriptions.)

We can draw two conclusions from these comparisons: First, many catalog copywriters are unaware of the competitive catalog ambience and feel that announcements or pronouncements have as much impact as a statement of benefit.

Second, many catalog copywriters don’t know that a complete sentence ends with a period.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 25 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles and the recently published Marketing Mayhem, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.

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