Opening Up

As you check out at the Website of The Baker’s Catalogue from King Arthur Flour, the screen informs you of the total cost, including shipping and handling — and then suggests several products that you could add onto your purchase without causing the weight to bump up into the next S&H price category.

I learned this not from shopping on the site — though if you like to bake, I recommend the site and the catalog heartily — but because I sat in on a session entitled “This Worked, That Didn’t” at June’s Annual Catalog Conference (ACC). P.J. Hamel, the senior editor of The Baker’s Catalogue, detailed this and other “secrets” of the company’s success.

The tips, examples, and advice shared at the conference were innovative, creative, and at times beautifully simple — ideas that make you smack your forehead and declare, “Geez, I cannot believe that never occured to me!” But what really impressed me was that catalogers were so willing to share this information.

Before joining Catalog Age back in ’95, I covered the professional beauty industry. And let me tell you, there wasn’t much sharing going on among the manufacturers and marketers there. The stylists and salon owners were open, but as for the people behind the products…let’s just say that I could tell stories that would make your hair curl.

So in the spirit of glasnost, for those of you who couldn’t make the show this year (though I know we’ll see you next year, right?), I’m going to share some session highlights:

  • Linda Spellman, vice president of direct marketing for gifts cataloger/retailer Chiasso, warned marketers to discuss results rather than methods when working with the creative team. When you see a doctor because you’re feeling sick, you tell him your symptoms, not what disease you think you have. Likewise, when talking about creative with designers, don’t dictate particular colors, layouts, and whatnots; instead explain what you want the finished catalog to achieve. They’re the pros, Spellman said, and if you try to micromanage, “you lose their expertise.”

  • “Just because you get bored with something doesn’t mean your customers do” was a lesson from Lillian Vernon Corp. president Kevin Green. For about a dozen years, he said, Lillian Vernon had used the same photo to sell a particular bath mat: a shot of the mat in the tub, with a rubber ducky sitting on top of it. Tired of running the shot over and over, the creative team photographed the mat anew, from a different angle and without the ducky. “Sales plummeted,” Green admitted. The next edition of the catalog featured the ducky once again.

  • Plow & Hearth, which sells rural-influenced home and garden products, is owned by gifts marketer 1-800-Flowers, which also owns the HearthSong toys catalog, among others. So Plow & Hearth prospects to names from those sister files. According to vice president of creative services Jean O. Giesmann, adding on the cover a dot whack with the endorsement of the catalog whose customers Plow & Hearth was targeting boosted response 10%-20%.

  • If your marketing dollars are limited (and whose aren’t?), you may want to focus more on increasing customers’ average order size rather than response. As Steve Trollinger, vice president of client marketing with consultancy J. Schmid & Associates, pointed out, it’s easier to improve the average order value — by bundling products and offering volume discounts, among other methods — than it is to bolster response. And of course, the higher the average order, the lower the response rate needed to break even.

That’s just a smattering of what I took away from the conference. (And I’m not even thinking about the stacks of business cards, barely legible notes with story ideas, and suitcase full of dirty laundry.) It’s far different from when I would return from a beauty-industry event, with little more to show for it than a few sample bottles of shampoo.

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