Small Catalogs Forum: A Sane Approach to Samples

If you are part of a small catalog company, you probably have enough to do without worrying about a merchandise sample system. But implementing a program to organize samples can save you from wasting time hunting down lost samples — and from paying for never-received or never-returned items.

First things first: You should assess how many samples you are likely to gather in the course of sourcing your catalog. Leila Griffith, a Jacksonville, FL-based catalog merchandising consultant, says the rule of thumb is to get four or five samples for every one item you intend to introduce into the catalog. For example, if you want to incorporate 100 new items, plan to gather 400-500 samples.

Of course not every mailer samples so extensively. Cary Tennis, co-owner of the Wilson, NC-based Crow’s Nest Trading Co. catalog of rustic-themed gifts, says that her catalog maintains about 250 SKUs and adds about 40% new product, or 100 SKUs, each season. But she typically gathers only 200 samples, in part because her niche is well defined.

Marsha Zimmerman, co-owner of Twins Help, a Columbus, OH-based catalog of merchandise for twin children and their parents, also modifies the rule of thumb. “We have about 177 products in our catalog, but we are so specialized that I cannot set a goal for collecting samples. If it fits the parameters of our catalog and I think it will sell, I try to find a way to fit it in,” she says.

A room of their own

It’s also important to have a space, no matter how small, dedicated only to samples, Griffith says. This will help you focus on selecting product without distractions.

“We maintain a sample room so that all of the samples are in a central location, and we have room to see how they stand together and compare to other products,” says Michelle Moon, president of Arcadia, CA-based Dancing Dragon, a catalog of dragon-themed gifts.

Crow’s Nest’s Tennis also uses her sample room to begin visualizing a merchandising plan by leaving the samples in the boxes and affixing a Polaroid of the product to the box. “That way, if I decide against it, I can send it back right away,” she says.

Dancing Dragon also tries to get an early jump on merchandising, Moon says, “so having all of the samples grouped together helps inspire page layouts, and we use the sample records to help our copywriters get a jump on their work too.”

Keep your space limitations in mind when requesting samples of oversize items. “If you are looking to add a coffee table to your catalog, make sure you have the room for it in your sample space,” cautions Griffith. “And bear in mind that even if it is on loan, you will still be paying the hefty shipping costs — both ways.”

On the record

Once you gather your samples and set them aside in a dedicated space, you need to implement a record-keeping system. Some vendors may ask you to buy the samples, while others will use memo billing (the product is loaned to you for a predetermined time period, and the vendor will bill you if it is not returned within that time frame). If you lose track of when samples are scheduled to be returned, you can end up wasting a great deal of money.

When requesting samples, always keep a clear record of what you have ordered and actively watch to make sure you receive the requested items. Match up any invoices with original orders as well to make sure you are not being billed for items not received.

At shows, where record keeping can be difficult, Griffith suggests keeping a notebook with a separate page for each item you’re considering. List the vendor name and contact info as well as the product name, price, discount information, colors, and if it is offered as an exclusive. She also advises taking a Polaroid and attaching it to the record.

“I keep a paper record of everything, regardless of where the sample order originates,” Moon says, “but I also enter everything into [my computer] so that I can search based on everything from vendor name to product name to color.”

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