Equine mailer gets groomed

SmartPak Equine, a Pembroke, MA-based merchant of equine supplies and gifts, bravely trotted its catalog out for a critique. Our reviewers this month — David Christenson, president/chief creative officer of Kreber, a creative agency based in High Point, NC, and Lynda Dahlheimer, director, business development for marketing communications consultancy GEM Group in Minneapolis — went over SmartPak Equine’s Complete Gift Catalog volume 8 2004 edition with a fine-tooth comb.


SmartPak Equine, declares itself to be the source for “Smarter Horse Care,” but it needs to be smarter with its design and pagination. This 100-page catalog fails to present the merchandise strategy to customers in an organized and user-friendly structure. Refining the design and pagination would help improve the presentation.

SmartPak’s basic merchandise strategy is to offer a wide range of products for the horse lover, with a special focus on medicinal and nutritional supplements. Although not alone in the industry, the company is virtually unique with its sealed supplement packaging. This product line, a competitive advantage, is combined with a vast array of merchandise for horses, dogs, cats, and riders and products for barns and stables.

Products are organized in three categories: supplements, general merchandise, and holiday gifts. This book tries to take advantage of the holiday season by isolating items that would be considered good gift choices. The customer has an excellent selection of products that appear to be from the best brands in the industry.

For a more effective selling vehicle, SmartPak would do well to imagine how it would group its merchandise for presentation in a store. The company needs to address questions such as “What do we put in our store window?” — in other words, on the cover — “What should the customer see first?” and “What should be in the back?” This exercise should result in well-organized pagination and simple, consistent design.

SmartPak also needs to take advantage of the standard catalog “hot spots” to maximize selling impact. The pagination starts out well, with the front cover trying to demonstrate the selection of “Great Gifts for Horse Lovers.” The second best hot spot, the back cover, promotes personalized items, and the inside front cover spread displays three choices of “Gifts under $15,” “Gifts $15 to $30,” and “Gifts $30+” in addition to a table of contents. This is good merchandising strategy and properly paginated.

But the book then switches to supplements and causes the customer to shift motivation from gifts to horse care. The care-product section proceeds to page 32, where the merchandise changes again, to basic animal products such as boots and blankets. The catalog then meanders to the end without any pacing, impact, or section-opening spreads. It is too similar to a “parts catalog,” and it shouldn’t be. My suggestions for improving the pagination:

The cover should promote gifts and new products, while also referring to the SmartPak continuity program, in which a month’s supply of supplements is delivered every four weeks. And while we’re at it, the logo should be better emphasized. “Massing” the gift items into a smaller area would allow them to be framed by the background holding the logo. What’s more, four photos would have worked better than eight — and one photo of an array of gifts would have been best. Also, the “Great Gifts for Horse Lovers” and “Complete Gift Catalog” subheads seem redundant and should be combined. In short, the eye flow does not focus on the important elements: logo and photos.

The opening section should highlight the gifts or new items appropriate for the targeted mailing while offering a simple table of contents. This should be followed by as many spreads as required to spotlight items considered gifts, or “want” items. These can be a mixture of new items and best-sellers. Right now, the inside front cover spread needs a stronger graphic approach. The green type used for “List Prices” gets lost within the green background, and the index and the “Gifts under $25” promotion run together, creating confusion. Also, there are too many type fonts and colors; they detract from the photos, which in turn are too small.

The back cover and the last 30-some pages should be devoted to the supplements program. The back cover would serve as space for the latest supplements promotion or offering. As much as the supplements are the heart of this business, the basic horse lovers’ merchandise is also key. As the customers begin to know the company, they will learn that the back of the book is the home for the supplements and other “need” products, as opposed to the items they “want.”

The center of the book should be used for the basic merchandise offerings but divided logically by subcategory and promoted with impact and pacing spreads.

The SmartPak Equine book averages between 15 and 18 items per spread. With this much product, simplicity and consistency are required.

SmartPak Equine has the potential to achieve substantial impact on the equine industry. Founder Becky Minard would be smart to focus on the branding of her company to leverage the good job she has done with merchandising.


The first thing I ask when reviewing a catalog is “Does the presentation match the target audience?” SmartPak Equine targets 30- to 50-year-old women who own horses. Price is not a main consideration of a purchase decision. SmartPak Equine is known and trusted to sell only the best of the best, and it does a great job communicating product benefits to its audience. The catalog’s educational information, tips, customer and professional-athlete testimonials, competitive comparison charts, and “how to” features greatly support its mission as a premier supplier of horse-care products.

But SmartPak’s brand identity and catalog layout need to reinforce this mission. Here’s how I would go about doing just that:

The current type style of the catalog name is the same type style used for the other copy. SmartPak Equine needs to create a masthead to give an identity to its catalog that conveys the product offerings, quality, trustworthiness, and credibility. The horse logo used for its Website icon incorporated into the catalog name type style would create a distinctive masthead. The tagline “Smarter Horse Care” could be designed as an integral part of this logo treatment. The 800-number and the URL should be together somewhere on the cover to make it easy for the customer to find right away.

The grid layout on the front cover cheapens the catalog’s products. Too many products/graphics/elements on a cover typically conveys lower cost and quality. To offer a broad presentation of product categories, I would suggest one large lifestyle image that bleeds off the cover, with three to five small insets of product category images. The photography on the cover should be the best quality, since it’s the first thing the consumers see, and it should compel them to open the catalog. All the photography should be of the same quality and not look like a hodgepodge of photos from different sources. Also, SmartPak could consider a strong promotion on the cover, perhaps guaranteed Christmas delivery. The holiday catalog lists both “Complete Gift Catalog” and “Great Gifts for Horse Lovers,” which seems redundant and a waste of valuable cover space.

The first spread needs to communicate the company’s commitment to offering the best products and to reinforce it as a trusted source. A warm and friendly letter from the president with a picture of his or her horse would be appealing. This is also excellent real estate for a customer satisfaction promise statement, a professional’s testimonial, and a promotion for the Website. The index is too long and detailed for a catalog of this size. An index broken down into a maximum of 10 categories would be better. I would color-code the categories and repeat the colors throughout the catalog for easy shopability. The Gift Guide could also be reduced, especially since all the products are sold elsewhere in the catalog.

Organization and consistency are lacking throughout the catalog. The first category starts on page 6, but you can’t tell the difference from pages 4 and 5. It should be very clear as to where each product category starts and stops; adding a different color for each category and giving each category an intro page in the same graphic/ type treatment would help.

Likewise, the charts, offers, and information boxes should have the same graphic treatment throughout for easier identification. What’s more, the column widths throughout the catalog vary: On pages 8 and 9, there is a four-column grid; on page 49, there are numerous column widths. This makes it more difficult for the shopper to find products and related product information.

The denser the catalog, the more important organization and consistency are. Little things can add up to a lot of confusion to the shopper. For example, the insets should be inside the main photo or lined up with it. Photos should be lined up vertically and horizontally.

I would also be consistent when placing product photos and corresponding copy blocks. Some of SmartPak’s layouts do a nice job of clearly showing the merchandise and the product information together for easy identification. A spread of horse multivitamins and antioxidants, however, shows all the products grouped together in one photo. If such items must be grouped together, there should be key codes for easy identification. Ideally, though…

I would replace the group product shots with more lifestyle benefit shots, to elicit an emotional response from the customer. Also, the feature lifestyle or product shots should be placed in the “hot spots” — photos on the outside of the page with copy toward the gutter to maximize eye flow.

SmartPak should have a better balance of type styles. The differences are too dramatic. For example, on page 8 the headline “Joint: Combination Supplements” is very bold and heavy compared with the benefit copy underneath it. The sans serif extra-bold typeface for the headlines and price lines is too industrial-looking for a warm and trusted source of horse-care products. I would use a serif typeface of various weights to separate their functions.

The catalog uses far too many colors in both the type styles and the graphics throughout; this takes attention from the savings promotions and product photography. Also, the backgrounds with ghosted images, such as the page 46-47 spread (shown at bottom left), should be eliminated: It makes the copy too difficult to read, and makes the catalog look very dated to boot.

In general, the copy seems well written, informative, and benefit-oriented to the target audience.It could be a little more compelling, however, with bold benefit-driven lead-ins that include the product name rather than the label subheads currently being used. If a product is on sale, the catalog should promote that in the lead-in or with a graphic. Right now the savings are getting lost, especially since everything has a color to it. If color were used more sparingly these promotions stand out. The spreads could also use overall benefit-oriented headlines.

The SmartPak Equine catalog has great, targeted content. Better organization and presentation would really enable the company to lock up this market niche.

If you’d like your catalog critiqued, send four copies of the same edition, along with basic information about your target market, merchandise niche, and competitive advantages, to Catalog Critique, Multichannel Merchant, 11 River Bend Drive South, P.O. Box 4242, Stamford, CT 06907-0242

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