Jump Those Hurdles!

It’s a miracle that selling with a catalog works at all — that in this world of skepticism a customer is willing to risk his money on a product he has seen only in a photograph. It’s also a feat that mail order is profitable considering that for every 100 prospects the catalog is mailed, generally speaking only one is willing to buy, and that among your better customers, only up to 15 out of every 100 are willing to buy from a given mailing.

Granted, for every 100 customers who actually open a catalog the percentage of buyers increases, but I’m sure it’s nowhere close to conversion rates of buyers who visit a bricks-and-mortar store. Consider this: Some may call me a good mail order buyer, having made approximately 25 purchases from the more than 200 titles I received last year. But because I shop several times from the same catalogs, my name graces only about ten 12-month buyer files.

Against all odds, the catalog industry manages to thrive. But how can you hedge your bets to ensure your catalog has every opportunity to sell off the printed page? Assuming that all of your marketing and merchandise ducks are in the proverbial row, creative can and should have a significant impact on the bottom line. Remember, your catalog is your store, and because the products are not tangible, the creative presentation must work extra hard to compel a person to buy.

The hurdles to getting the elusive purchase are many, but if your team understands them, chances are you will produce a creative presentation that is able to sell off the page.

Hurdle #1: Equipping the creative team

Before the first product is committed to page, your creative team must have the tools that allow them to sell. Without the tools, what you’ll get is an assembly line of products thrown on spreads with no compelling reason for recipients to buy. The tools include:

  • A clear understanding of your brand positioning and what you provide your customers. Successful catalogs provide a unique assortment of products and price points that cannot easily be found at retail. Your team must understand your unique differentiation if they are to accurately communicate it to potential buyers. Your creative team should be able to fill in the following blanks:

    “Our customers choose to shop in our catalog because they might need/want __(general)__, and we will meet their expectation by providing an assortment (or service) of __(specific)__.”

  • Key marketing and merchandise information, such as the special offers and important brand messages that need to be emphasized, and how many versions need to be created (and why). Also provide a detailed pagination — a blueprint of what goes where — explaining the potential of best-selling categories or product groupings. Sharing with your creative team the key price points (the prices that your customers are most comfortable paying for various types of merchandise) will enable them to position products that will intrigue the reader from a value position. Likewise, if you identify for them your best-selling or most-profitable products, they can position these products throughout the catalog in key hot spots. These positions include the back cover, the spreads at the beginning and end of your catalog, those pages closest to the order form (if the order form is an insert), and those pages interrupted by an insert.

  • Accurate product information so that the team really understands what they are selling. Whether you provide product spec sheets or conduct formal merchandise hand-off meetings, the designer and the copywriter must know what makes a specific product worthy of going into the catalog. Some of the critical information needed includes what product looks like, what the key features and options are, what the product does, its unique benefits, any special offers, and which products might be referred and sold together.

While it may seem like a lot of work, empowering your creative team gives them the ability to use the power of persuasion with design and copy.

Hurdle #2: Convincing the recipient to open your catalog

Assuming that you are presenting your catalog to the right audience at the right time, the single biggest hurdle is achieving the customer’s consideration. This is best done with well-planned and well-conceived covers — both front and back. The covers are your most important selling space and therefore must accomplish many things.

First, realize that customers need to immediately recognize your catalog in the mail. Having already purchased from you, they understand your merchandise concept. A consistent cover presentation will automatically narrow their consideration by creating an emotional connection. As for prospects, who do not have an emotional connection, covers must work doubly hard in earning consideration.

For any recipient to consider your catalog in the mail, covers must:

  • Grab attention with an interesting visual or known product winner. Winning covers will always include interesting images that are unusually cropped, presented with striking colors, include one or two unique or appealing products, or otherwise encourage a second glance. Less is usually more when trying to grab attention.

  • Quickly tell who you are and what unique service you provide. On the front cover, this means using a consistently displayed masthead and tagline, as well as visuals that represent your brand and merchandise concept. The back cover should also quickly tell who you are by featuring carefully chosen items that represent your assortment of products and price points.

  • Present any offer that will compel the reader to consider purchasing from you. Offers are typically created for a reason: to get the recipient to respond in a specific way. Such offers do not work, however, if they are hidden or complicated. A short, succinct, and noticeable presentation will help an offer do its job.

  • Get the reader inside. If the recipient has already picked up your catalog, a little extra nudge is sometimes all it takes to get him “into the store.” This can be achieved with an inside page reference placed next to a product shown or the promise of other intriguing information (a special value proposition, new products). On the back cover include inside page references pointing them to where they can find other merchandise in the same category as the products shown.

Hurdle #3: Providing the right merchandise assortment, organized appropriately

The method in which you organize your catalog is critical in encouraging recipients to make a purchase. But first you must understand how your readers process your catalog. Do they shop by price or by specific product? Or do they prefer to browse?

As you might expect, different categories of customers shop differently. For example, the need for a specific product typically drives business-to-business customers, so a b-to-b catalog should include a table of contents or an index. But while finding that product, the shopper may nonetheless be attracted, thanks to a special offer or attention-grabbing creative, to a product that he forgot he needed but now realizes he must buy.

On the other hand, a gift buyer will typically shop by price point, having a list prepared of who he needs to buy for and what he is willing to spend. Therefore gifts catalogs should present the key price points in noticeable locations, and thus the “average price sold” metric is an important one.

Most catalogers know their average price offered — the average price of all their products. The average price sold is the average price of the products that were purchased. In fact, if you sell different categories of product, such as dresses and footwear, you probably should figure out the average price sold — and therefore the key price point — for each.

Hurdle #4: Piquing their interest

At this point customers have opened your catalog and are emotionally “ready” to find something that meets their expectation. So how difficult can it be to get that order? Very, if you are not able to grab their attention and appropriately present the product.

To ensure your best shot at making a sale, take advantage of what you already know. Always place past product winners — items that generated profit or demand — in the coveted upper right-hand position of a spread. Ditto products with key price points.

Remember that a catalog shopper is looking at pictures first unless a headline or an attention-getting graphic is prominently presented. Photographs should be shot with the product as the key element — not the background, the props, or the models. Additional elements in a photograph should be used only to enhance the product — not distract.

A picture is not always worth 1,000 words, because it cannot always accurately tell the whole story. A combination of visuals and copy must tell the whole and truthful story of a product — at a glance. To complement and expound upon the photo, a designer often needs to take advantage of one of these “storytellers”:

  • Captions that will explain a key benefit
  • A second photo or illustration that quickly explains a key benefit (for instance, an in-use shot or before-and-after photos)
  • Call-outs explaining what a product feature will do
  • “Copy violators” overlapping a photo that quickly explain a benefit that cannot be photographed
  • Testimonials or endorsements that demonstrate how the product helped someone else achieve a result

Another key consideration is making sure your image supports the published price point. If you were selling a decorative box with a published price of $1,500 and readers were bewildered at how expensive it was, chances are the visual did not accurately depict the box. Maybe the item was larger than the image represented, or maybe the photo did not vividly indicate that it was hand-carved. To support that price point, you could use copy violators to quickly explain those expensive features, or you could use a prop to show scale.

Hurdle #5: Getting them to a decision

So now you have a customer who is interested in a product, and the price point is within his budget. To help the reader make an educated decision, copy must not only reiterate the benefits of this product but also succinctly include all of the features necessary to persuade the shopper to pull out his credit card.

The operative word here is “succinctly.” Don’t make the reader wade through superfluous information. Provide an easy-to-read path that speaks to him emotionally and allows him to pick out the need-to-know information. For instance, by running headlines that don’t tell part of the benefit story, many catalogers aren’t taking advantage of the most prominent — and most likely to be read — part of their copy package.

Another mistake is not helping the reader narrow his options. Any time you have a group of homogeneous products or are providing options for the same item, create a decision path for the reader, such as with a “good-better-best” presentation. Why is one product better or more expensive than the others? Answer this question for the reader with quick, easy-to-read graphics or copy.

Hurdle #6: Getting another sale!

Why stop at one unit per order? A key metric in catalog profitability is the average order size, and creative can push the number upward. Many catalogers have already experienced the value of creating bundles — two or more products grouped together that can be purchased at a value. Another take on this is selling at a volume discount (i.e. the more you buy, the more you save). Unfortunately catalog creative does not always do an adequate job of calling out these special values. Use special graphic treatments to call attention to a bundle or value proposition.

Hurdle #7: Finalizing the sale

At this point you’ve got a buyer ready to order. So your creative must make it easy to order. The phone number must be easy to find, the order form must be placed in a logical place and easy to fill out, your Website URL must be easy to locate, and if a retail option is available, customers must quickly know where they can go. The common thread? Location, location, location. Don’t make the customer hunt for this information. While this sounds simple, it’s amazing how many catalogs still do not place key contact information in an accessible spot on every spread. If in doubt, always place it in a footnote at the bottom of the spread.

Hurdle #8: Getting them to come back

While creative cannot always ensure a future order, it can certainly inspire a customer to come back if the shopping experience was enjoyable. Catalog creative should always attempt to inspire and entertain readers. If your catalog manages to do this but a sale was not made, there is still a greater chance for a sale in the future.

After every campaign, conduct a post mortem or critique of your creative. Noting your mistakes and what could be improved will serve your team well on future efforts. Vigilance is key when trying to sell a product off the printed page, and your creative team must take advantage of every means known to present every product in its true light.


Lois Boyle is president/chief creative officer of J. Schmid & Associates, a catalog agency/ consultancy in Shawnee Mission, KS.

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