Designing catalogs

Cynthia Harriman is director of new products and communications of Philadelphia-based Computer Expressions, a manufacturer/wholesaler/cataloger of computer mouse pads, wrist rests, and CD holders. Annual sales, about $4.5 million; annual circulation, 30,000.

Before 1995, our six-page catalogs used to read, “Your logo on a mouse pad or a CD holder,” with group shots of a lot of products and some descriptions underneath. We were naive and didn’t realize people need to see the products separately with separate SKU numbers. But we quickly modified.

When my director of sales told me to picture every SKU separately, I gulped at what it would cost in photography and time. But we worked with a third-party design house that said, “Gee, most of your products are mouse pads. We can slap those on the scanner, and you won’t have to take the photos!” This cut costs and turnaround time.

Now the design of our 12-page book is informal, fun, and uncluttered so that the products get the attention without the graphic gazoops. We did a collage of all our products on one cover, and when we started selling to retailer Service Merchandise, it asked for a reproduction of that cover to display on the counter with our merchandise. We said to ourselves, “OK, this must have worked because our customers like it!”

David Noonan is general manager of Alaskan Harvest, a Seattle-based catalog of Alaskan seafood. Annual sales, less than $5 million; annual circulation, about 1 million.

We reduced the trim size a year ago, from 8-1/2″ x 10-7/8″ to 7″ x 10-1/2″. We wanted to put out a thicker book, and the new format allowed us to go from 20 pages to 24 pages. The pictures as a ratio of the page stayed the same-they became a little smaller as the page became smaller-but because we have more pages, we can include more items without spending more money on paper.

The catalog was light to begin with, so the change didn’t result in any postage savings for us. If we had been a thicker book and then made the change to the smaller trim size, it would have saved us postage. We did end up saving between $5,000 and $10,000 in other costs by changing the trim size, but that wasn’t our major motivation.

It’s hard to measure the success of the design change because of all the other factors that go into response rates. Our response rates have gone up, but we’ve also made a lot of circulation changes, and we changed the timing of the mailings. So I’d hesitate to say that the trim size change alone raised the response rates. But we certainly get more compliments on the catalog.

Kevin Conroy is president of North Sails Catalog, a Seattle-based catalog of apparel for the sailing lifestyle. Annual sales, around $2 million; annual circulation, less than 1 million.

When we took over the North Sails catalog after buying the division from sail manufacturer North Sails in January, we completely changed the way the book was put together. The catalog used to sell a great deal of promotional merchandise, and it was sterile-looking, with generic sailing shots in a methodical layout of 12 items to a page.

We changed the layout to feature real-life models wearing complete sailing outfits; there had been no models in the old catalog. Another big change is the cover, which in the past was always a shot of a boat or a regatta. Now we feature product on the cover, with someone who’s respected in the racing community as a model. We try to tell a story, with captions and lifestyle shots of people hanging out on boats in locations, like the San Diego Yacht Club, that our readers may recognize.

We also increased the page count slightly. It used to have 28 pages, and now it has 32 pages. Since January we’ve restyled the book to be more about lifestyle-based, sailing-inspired casual apparel, and we put all the gift items and promotional products in a special section in the middle of the book. We print that section on different paper stock, making it essentially its own catalog.

Sam Edwards is president of Virginia Traditions, a Surry, VA-based catalog of food and related products such as cookbooks. Annual sales, less than $2 million; annual circulation, 750,000.

We expanded from a digest to a full-size catalog three years ago, which significantly increased sales. But I don’t want to imply that a larger format will work for everybody.

If I sold something like fishing hooks, increasing the size might not have been as important. But we found the larger format works better for us because of the necessity of selling the product through photography. You want food to look as good as possible-it’s hard to get someone to buy a food item when the photography is the size of a postage stamp. The increased size format allowed us to use larger photos.

Compared against the previous year’s sales, we saw a spike in sales the year we went to the larger format. And because of a favorable paper market, the cost of printing the larger format was actually less than it had been to print the digest-size book. A consulting firm we worked with also helped us keep the production cost down.

The smaller format was the most cost-effective way of prospecting. We wanted to build our list without risking an enormous amount of money. I’ve seen other catalogers with deep pockets create glorious 8-1/2″ x 11″ catalogs, but because they had no list, they’d run out of money before they could break even. What I learned from that was to be patient and start off testing as cost-effectively as possible.

But once you get a core house list, you start to ask yourself, “How do we maximize our house list?” And for us, that involved increasing the format.

Have you made design changes in your catalog at any time? If so, why?

A catalog’s design changes tell the story of the company. This month’s small catalogers have all made design changes at some point for reasons that vary from refining their marketing position to trying to showing more product. Since myriad design changes are possible, it’s important for small catalogers to consider the type of merchandise they sell, what the target market wants, and of course, the costs involved. But once executed, a design change can boost sales growth.

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