Live from Catalog on the Road: The Good, the Bad, and the Oversize Tops

Cambridge, MA–Apparel cataloger/retailer Urban Outfitters went with the trends last year: It replaced the flared bottoms and tight tops it had been offering young women with the tight pants and loose tops that the fashion magazines were heralding.

But the Philadelphia-based company didn’t get the results it had hoped for. In fact, sales bottomed out by midyear, though the multichannel merchant rebounded financially in the second half of 2006.

“They bought in pants with skinny legs and oversize tops, and their core customer didn’t know how to react,” said Erinn Murphy, an associate research analyst with Minneapolis-based Piper Jaffray, at the DMA’s Catalog on the Road event here on Tuesday. “They didn’t listen to what their core customers wanted, and [those customers] wound up telling them it wasn’t time for tight pants and loose tops yet.”

Its fashion faux pas wasn’t the only cause for Urban Outfitters’ decline during the first half of last year. Murphy noted that of the apparel, home goods, and cosmetics merchants she covers, Urban Outfitters was the only one that cut circulation in 2006.

In discussing one of those home goods marketers, San Francisco-based multibrand merchant Williams-Sonoma, Murphy said that the company had a decent year despite a softening housing market and a competitive landscape. She attributed to rise in sales for the namesake catalog to the refreshed creative it unveiled in early 2005.

“They realized it was a confusing catalog, and they made it much more of an editorial-driven cookbook,” Murphy said. The company added a table of contents to the Williams-Sonoma catalog and, on select pages, recipes that showed customers how they could use certain products.

Overall, Murphy said, the merchants she covers saw an average catalog and Internet sales increase of 17% in 2005. She expects them to have grown their direct sales an average of 18%-20% for 2006.

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