Spiegel’s Big Mistake

“We’ll keep the big book going because according to our research in Europe — although we’ve not researched it here in the U.S. — people use big books for planning and what they may buy in the next couple of months.” — Spiegel Group’s Martin Zaepfel, February 2003 issue of Catalog Age

Martin Zaepfel, as you no doubt know by now, isn’t going to be keeping the big book or anything else at Spiegel going. On Feb. 28 he “resigned” as chairman/president/CEO of Spiegel, less than two years after he was plucked from its German parent company to reverse the vexed cataloger/retailer’s downward skid.

It takes a lot more than one or two bad decisions to bring a company as low as Spiegel is. And because its woes are well documented, I won’t rehash them here. But the above quote, from our February cover story on Spiegel (“Is Martin Zaepfel Spiegel’s Mr. Right?” — and yes, I meant the title to be skeptical), highlights a possible reason Spiegel hasn’t been able to right itself just yet.

If I understood Zaepfel correctly, Spiegel was continuing with its expensive big book because the format works in Europe. They eat mayonnaise on French fries in Europe, too, but I wouldn’t suggest putting that on the menu of the Burger Palace in Peoria.

Never mind the wrong-headed logic; what about the arrogance of the statement? Zaepfel admitted that he hadn’t even done any research here in the States to support his claim. Europeans get angry — and rightfully so — when Americans elbow their way into overseas markets without taking the local customs and preferences into consideration. Remember EuroDisney’s disastrous beginnings? So why would Spiegel assume it could succeed in the U.S. playing by European rules?

Which brings me to my other point: Do we need the Spiegel big book? As it turns out, we didn’t need the Sears Wish Book, and many consumers can’t even remember the days of Montgomery Ward. Giant general merchandise tomes once served a purpose by bring the store to rural U.S. consumers, but today they have a wealth of options. What is the Internet, in fact, but one humonguous general merchandise catalog? J.C. Penney’s big book at least has the advantage of doubling as a retail traffic driver. What’s more, Penney has a fairly well defined brand image. Not so Spiegel.

I should note that parts of Spiegel Group remain viable and valuable entities. Eddie Bauer may have stumbled during the past few years, but it’s still a well-known, well-respected brand with a loyal following. Its continuing repositioning, moving it back to its roots as a supplier of apparel for outdoorsy types, is starting to solidify where it stands compared with, say, Lands’ End and The Gap.

And while it’s too early to tell how successful the tweaking of the Newport News brand will be, I’d wager that the catalog’s impressive redesign and sharper merch mix will manage to attract more higher-income, but not necessarily affluent, buyers — young women whose needs aren’t met by J. Jill or Boston Proper or Talbots but who’ve outgrown Delia’s and Alloy.

Perhaps the way to save Spiegel is to kill Spiegel — the core catalog, that is. But don’t take my word for it, Spiegel. Do a bit of research first — maybe even in the country in which you operate.

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