Catalog Copy: So It’s Listed in the Catalog? So What?

Jun 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

I sometimes wonder whether the people who write catalog copy and the people who buy merchandise for a catalog ever talk to each other. ▪ The people who write the copy understand very well: A casual catalog reader sees an item, forms a buying impulse, and lifts the phone then and there. Delay is deadly, which is why the toll-free number is (or should be) omnipresent.

That scenario was exactly what occurred when I was idly leafing through a catalog that had come in the day’s mail. Excelsior! Here’s a Classic Travel Blazer that, according to the copy, “defies wrinkles and pickpockets.” Perfect. And here are some trousers to go with it.

I have no shortage of garments, but the idea of getting off an airplane and not looking like a hobo appeals to me. Let’s see — do they have my size? I wear a 41-long jacket. No problem. Copy says: “Sizes Regular or Long 38-54, Short 38-44.”

So, naïf that I am, I called the toll-free number. A personable chap answered the phone. I told him I wanted to order two jackets, one in navy and one in Stone — a sort of demi-tan.

What size? 41 long. “Oh, these jackets don’t come in 41 long. They only come in even sizes.”

“Then why doesn’t the copy say ‘even sizes’? It does for some of the other merchandise.” Of course, I was asking the wrong person. It’s like attacking the postman when you get an IRS notice in the mail.

The telephone rep did say that others had asked for size 41. Oh? I still had the company’s Spring Preview catalog, and there was the same blazer, with the same “Sizes Regular or Long 38-54.” So the felony was compounded, because the question had come up before and nobody made any move to clarify.

Eventually I agreed to get a 42 long, knowing I’d be stuck for alterations so that I wouldn’t look as though I got the jacket secondhand from Jesse Ventura. But my travails weren’t finished: “The Stone jacket is backordered. We can’t ship it now.”

Hold it, guy. The catalog arrived today. What Martian is in charge of inventory control?

Martian? Try the planet Pluto, because when I asked for trousers — staring at them in the catalog — my unhappy contact told me, “They don’t come in that color.”

A puzzlement: I’m looking at them. The color is printed on the photograph of them. Ridiculous.

So what’s the point?

We who toil in the ovens of this complex industry know how fragile customer loyalty can be. Here’s a case in which not one but three items were either unavailable or misrepresented.

Now, suppose I weren’t a catalog nut, tied to the world of catalogs by so many strings I’m straitjacketed. Would I ever, ever consider ordering anything from this catalog again? Once confidence flies away, it finds a home elsewhere. And in the Internet era, customer loyalty is so fragile that one pull on the thread can snap it. Here we had three pulls out of three tries.

Ah, the Internet era. Just for kicks, I moseyed onto the cataloger’s Website and clicked on “Men’s Travelwear.” That’s funny: No Classic Travel Blazer in evidence. Well, okay, here’s something similar — Tropical Microfiber Travel Blazers.

In the printed catalog, the Tropical Microfiber jacket is described this way: “The revolutionary woven microfiber has a silky, substantial texture that magically sheds wrinkles.” On the Web, the jacket is described as “Natural Silk — a natural traveler.” The price is $4.00 less, and obviously it isn’t the same jacket. Size availability is murky: “L, M, S, XL, XXL.”

So another problem surfaces: The left hand and the right hand are attached to different bodies. On the page with the Tropical Microfiber jacket is a “search” slot. I typed in “Travel Blazer,” and sure enough, there it is. I should have made the Web the first stop, because in the list of sizes, 41 long is notoriously absent.

A negative side effect of my conversation with the telephone representative (who, despite my heckling, never lost his cool) was my decision to call off an attempt to order some shirts that “leave wrinkles behind.” I figured that even though my Brioni shirts don’t leave wrinkles behind, they’re my size.

They aren’t alone

I’ve singled out that catalog because it represented a personal frustration. But by no means is it the only example of information omission. Here’s a vitamin/supplement catalog with a “high potency” multivitamin. Okay, how much vitamin E is in each capsule? Not a clue. Then how about folic acid? The amount isn’t specified. Vitamin buyers want that information, guys.

Here’s a phone system with “intercom capability.” It has a base station and a bunch of cordless satellites. Can I put a call on hold and use the intercom to tell somebody at an extension, “You have a call”? Beats me. It also beats whoever generated this hit-and-run copy.

Ah, here’s a woman’s “sleeveless mock turtleneck sweater.” It comes in three sizes — S, M, and L. Nowhere does copy relate those letters to actual sizes. And how about this four-piece measuring-cup set? What’s the capacity of each of the four cups? Don’t you think potential buyers would like to have that information? This same catalog has a “complete set” of microwave- and freezer-capable food-storage containers. How much does each of the containers hold? I guess you have to wait until you get them to find out.

The epidemic spreads. What’s the capacity of the hard drive on that powerhouse computer with 256MB of RAM? Does the “30% off” reverse over part of the page refer to everything on that page? That Drop-Down TV — the picture is pretty, but what’s the size of the screen? And how about enhancing your description of the Mini Ironing Board by telling me the dimensions?

A modest proposal

My suggestion to any and all catalogers who don’t have a mechanism whereby the telephone staff can alert you to customer dissatisfaction stemming from unclear or misleading descriptions: Institute that mechanism now. We don’t have the kinder, gentler universe we had in pre-Internet days.

If you’re asking, “What’s the point?” you’ve missed the point: Assuming that it’s the customer’s job to interpret muddy product descriptions — especially relative to sizes, a crucial element — is both unprofessional and careless. Listing items in a catalog and being out of stock even as the catalog is distributed can be unavoidable, as any importer knows…but when that happens, the alert cataloger offers alternatives and maybe incentives, not necessarily to hold the customer’s loyalty but to avoid the kind of nasty criticism you’re reading right now.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 24 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles and Selling on the Net, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.