Creative Critique: A Hard Look at a Hardware Cataloger

THIS MONTH WE INTRODUCE “Catalog Critique,” a recurring feature in which industry experts review a catalog’s creative, providing a detailed analysis of what the cataloger is doing right, and what could be done better. Our first subject: Birmingham, AL-based HGH Hardware Supply’s 60-page, Summer 2003 catalog. The privately owned wholesale and retail supplier sells cabinet hardware, doors, drawers, organizers, and accessories.

Our experts this month: Lois Boyle, president/chief creative officer of Shawnee Mission, KS-based catalog consulting firm J. Schmid & Associates, and Kevin Kotowski, president of Redondo Beach, CA-based creative consultancy Olson/Kotowski.

REVIEWER NO. 1: LOIS BOYLE

Reviewing a catalog “blind” is always dangerous when you don’t have a clear understanding of its brand, merchandise concept, or product profitability. But several clues always reveal whether the company understands catalog creative best practices and if it is properly taking advantage of them.

First, the good

HGH Hardware Supply’s merchandise concept seems to be solid, offering cabinetmakers and woodworkers a wealth of cabinetry pulls and hardware as well as tools and accessories that such craftsmen might need. Overall, the cataloger carries a wide range of products and price points; it also has an appropriate page count for the number of SKUs.

Furthermore, the products seem to be well organized, with an easy-to-use table of contents found on the inside front cover. Page 2 also includes important customer service information.

The attractive front cover presents an interesting variety of door pulls, hopefully representing HGH’s best-sellers. The outer four pages are printed on a glossy cover stock, most likely increasing the book’s shelf life and extending purchasing activity.

Inside, HGH makes good use of insets, illustrations, and callouts to “tell the rest of the story” of products that are technical in nature. For example, on page 6, a cabinet tray for a kitchen sink counter includes a close-up photo to show a ring holder. This feature lets customers store jewelry while they wash dishes — a clear product benefit.

Now, the bad

It’s not clear from the cover what the overall merchandise concept is and whom HGH serves. The tagline, “hardware supply,” does not begin to indicate the breadth of products or any form of brand differentiation.

The back cover isn’t much better. It doesn’t take advantage of this critical selling space. It should focus on the merchandise concept, presenting products from key categories and price points using page references to draw the reader inside.

The opening pages (3-9) don’t reflect what is promised on either cover. Instead of door pulls and knobs, the pages are filled with shelving accessories. This valuable real estate should present the most profitable products. This disconnect with the covers will only confuse a prospect — and possibly even a customer.

The catalog is sprinkled with photos of customer service reps, which is a good idea, but the catalog falls short of telling readers what it really wants them to know. For example, a photo on page 24 shows one employee giving rabbit ears to another, with the caption “That’s Enough, Eddie.” Cute, but the space could be better used by focusing on the benefit of having talented reps ready to help.

HGH Hardware Supply also needs to work a little harder on making its catalog easy to shop. A few tips:

  • Use key codes consistently. Page 14 sells cabinet hardware using item numbers such as “3312-15” to tie product images to copy. Such strings of numbers can be confusing and difficult to match up. On the bottom of the same page, though, numbers from 1-10 are used to match product to copy — much easier.

  • Keep all product images, options, and pricing information together. On pages 10 and 11, products do not match up with the options and pricing information. For instance, a satin nickel door handle has a “rugged pewter” option that is on the same spread but very hard to find.

  • Help the reader with “good, better, best” descriptions. For example, page 51 sells eight different Nailer Kits. But there’s nothing to help shoppers easily discern why they should pay more for one kit than an other.

Overall, important branding messages are not evident. The catalog does not answer key questions such as “How is the merchandise selection unique?”, “How will it benefit the woodworker?” and “Why would or should woodworkers choose HGH over its competition?”

Last, the ugly

There are simply too many colors and typefaces and too much clutter. The book has at least five typefaces shown in at least five colors in 10 sizes. HGH would do well to create a clean design template that would better organize merchandise and information. A simplified color palette, a consistent pricing presentation, and a limited selection of type treatments would greatly improve the shopability of this catalog.

Eliminating “democratic” spreads, in which all products are presented the same size, would enhance usability as well. HGH could benefit from giving best-sellers the “hero” treatment, with more generous photos and descriptions.

“Ugliest” of all is the valuable space that’s been used on the front cover, the back cover, and the center spread to highlight the “Awesome ’80s.” It has no relevance to the merchandise concept, nor does it feature benefits relevant to customers. The center-spread collage of pictures from the 1980s appears to be nothing more than a company photo album.

If the goal was to use nonselling space to build a relationship with the customer, HGH would have been better off introducing any or all of these options:

  • Pictures of customer projects, with copy telling how HGH helped the craftsmen accomplish their goal.

  • More technical tips to help cabinetmakers in their business; this sort of editorial would also increase the shelf life of the catalog.

  • Testimonials from happy customers, which would add credibility to HGH.

Overall, the HGH Hardware Supply catalog seems to serve an important market niche. But it needs to stay focused on three key areas: emphasizing its brand differentiation as it relates to customers; taking better advantage of covers and other key hot spots; and creating a cleaner, more consistent presentation allowing for an easier buying experience.

REVIEWER NO. 2: KEVIN KOTOWSKI

It takes courage to be a cataloger. And it takes a lot of courage to put your catalog up for review by a total stranger. So kudos to HGH Hardware Supply for its courage in allowing us to make some suggestions for improving their catalog. Let’s start where most customers start: with the front cover.

The front cover promotes “Excellent! Hardware from the Awesome ’80s” with a full-bleed shot of what I assume is hardware from the ’80s. The company logo sits above the words “hardware supply” and the dates “1963” and “2003.”

But in a quick survey around our office, seven out of seven people thought HGH was offering cabinet hardware from the 1980s. It’s not. The cataloger is actually talking about what a great time the ’80s were and the cool hardware you could get from HGH back then. If you’re a business-to-business cataloger, it’s almost always better to use the front cover to quickly tell the viewer what types of items you carry.

Our recommendation? Because the catalog does carry a lot of very cool items, divide the cover into quadrants, and use a couple of them to show product offerings, another to show a finished product, and perhaps the fourth to feature a lifestyle shot of the type of consumers who might be interested in products HGH offers to retailers. The lifestyle shot would add personality to the cover and remind retailers that HGH understands their customers. We also advise labeling the front-cover items and telling the viewer where to find more information on them by adding a page reference.

By the way, the HGH Hardware Supply Website has a very good tagline: “Everything you need to build incredible cabinets.” It pretty much says what the company does, and we’d recommend adding it beneath the logo to quickly brand and position the company in the reader’s mind.

We’re also big believers in using cover copy on b-to-b catalogs. A headline like “NEW Designs! NEW Finishes! NEW Options! And Wait Till You See Our Prices!” should intrigue readers enough to get them inside the catalog. That headline, by the way, has been tweaked a bit from copy on the catalog’s back cover.

Inside the book

Many b-to-b catalogs, including HGH, use the inside front cover and sometimes the entire opening spread to talk a bit about the company’s services and policies, tell a bit about the history, and list contact information. A table of contents is crucial.

In HGH’s case, the information is all there, but it’s hard to digest. We’d break it up into easy-to-scan sections. And while we like the line “From A to Z, Since ’63!” we wouldn’t spend as much space listing product lines beneath it. Instead, we’d talk about all HGH carries underneath that headline and bring the employee photo into this section and caption it.

The maps to HGH’s two showrooms and warehouses are useful, but we’d eliminate the photos of the buildings. They’re too small to make an impact. We would also change typefaces and use complementary colors to make the page more inviting and easy to read.

The biggest recommendation we’d make is to put together a catalog “grid.” A grid consists of the typefaces and sizes, color palette, headers, footers, and all other creative elements that will be used throughout the catalog. It provides consistency of look and keeps the catalog from becoming a mish-mash of colors, typefaces, type sizes, and treatments.

Less is more

Speaking of color, a little goes a long way. Instead of the colors in the HGH catalog pulling attention to special features, they compete with each other. On pages 4 and 5, we have pink, yellow, lavender, red, blue, and green all vying for our attention. Deciding on just a few colors and using them sparingly throughout the catalog would make the book more inviting to flip through and read.

To demonstrate the difference a grid can make, we’ve redesigned one spread. Take a look at the before and after photos (opposite page). Each spread has the same number of SKUs, but the grid we used on the redesigned spread allows the eye to rest as it scans the page.

We believe every spread in a catalog should have a “hero” product. Our spread hero is the G*300 snap-on hinge in the upper right of the page. It’s the largest section on the spread and subtly tells the viewer to start here and look at this first.

We’ve used the font Helvetica, a readable typeface for the body copy and charts, and tightened the leading a bit on both the body copy and charts for easier comprehension. We’d also recommend losing the “$” signs in front of every price within the charts. Just one dollar sign at the top of the chart is all you need.

The contact information currently runs across the bottom of the spread. We’d like to see it reformatted into a single unit. By using the logo as an anchor and listing the phone numbers beneath it, we open up the page. The contact info can then be placed wherever space allows on a busy page or spread. It’s a trick that works well when you have a lot of products and charts.

Another tip is to number the callouts that surround the photo of the Youngdale Hinge. If you’ve got more than three callouts, numbering them will help “walk” the eye from one callout to the next.

We’ve also added a couple of “grabbers” — short statements, usually within a box or an oval, that “grab” the eye and tell the viewer something special about the product. The one for the Unigrass Bottom Mount Drawer Slide reads “NEW Low Prices,” and the one on the Youngdale Hinge photo reads “This hard-working hinge comes with a lifetime guarantee.” Again, a simple technique that makes the product presentations sell just a bit harder.

Whether you’re a consumer or business-to-business cataloger, that’s what cataloging is all about: selling off the page. We hope these hints, tips, and techniques help HGH’s catalog — and possibly your catalog — sell just a bit harder.

WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR CATALOG TO BE CRITIQUED?

If so, send four copies of the same edition of a catalog, along with basic information about your company (target market, merchandise niche, competitive advantages), to:
Catalog Critique, Catalog Age magazine, 11 River Bend Drive South, Stamford, CT 06907

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