The 10 BEST Catalog Concepts Ever

Jun 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

Why these guys? As you read this, you’ll likely agree with some of the selections, and disagree with others. Maybe strongly.

After all, some of these catalogs are out of business. Some stayed around too long, got outdated, lost their audience. Some may not appear to have relevance to your business, and some may not seem relevant to successful catalogs today.

But all these catalogs share one trait: They were seminal in creating and influencing the catalog business. Most of them spawned scores of imitators, in business model, merchandising, or copy and creative approach. Many of them brought new segments of customers into the mail order world. Some of them made catalog successes out of products no one thought would sell through the mail.

Granted, it was hard to keep the list to only 10, and even harder to rank them in their importance, given that each catalog created its own kind of influence. So we fudged a little. We listed the “best” alphabetically, and we added “near best” at the end. Herewith, then, are our picks for the best catalog concepts, ever.

THE TOP 10 1. BANANA REPUBLIC Launched: 1978, by Mel and Patricia Ziegler.

Significance: First catalog to turn selling into armchair adventure. Illustrated clothing items played starring roles in the Zieglers’ well-penned personal tales of mountain hiking and Amazon rafting. For “readers,” buying the clothes was the next best thing to being there.

History: Having first opened a military-surplus clothing store (hence the name Banana Republic), Mel, a writer, and Patricia, an artist, decided to exploit their talents in the catalog market. The hand-illustrated catalog, stapled together on the Zieglers’ kitchen table in Mill Valley, CA, was first mailed to friends, but it quickly gained a wide following among what Mel Ziegler calls “independent-minded people, like us.”

The Gap’s buyout of Banana Republic in 1983 enabled the Zieglers to expand circulation, open more stores, and even briefly publish a travel magazine. But, says Ziegler, “we wanted to go out and blaze new frontiers, to become an almost American Express-type company, but for an eco-minded traveler.” The Gap thought otherwise. By the time the Zieglers left in 1988, the Banana Republic catalog was up to about $40 million in sales, in addition to its 100 stores, but The Gap folded the catalog that year. Currently, Banana Republic is primarily retail-though this past fall it relaunched the catalog, albeit in a slick version that bears virtually no resemblance to the original-selling upscale apparel, says Ziegler, “that imitates Ralph Lauren.”

Influenced by: According to Ziegler, no one. “We didn’t even know what a catalog was.”

Influenced: J. Peterman, and by extension, any catalog that knows the value of selling the sizzle, not the steak.

Endorsements: “It was a brilliant spark of creative.”-Coy Clement, president of gifts catalog company The Paragon.

“Banana Republic and J. Peterman would be my candidates for best copy.”-catalog consultant Jack Schmid, president of J. Schmid & Associates.

2. HANOVER HOUSE Launched: 1950, by Boris Leavitt, who named his original apparel catalog Lana Lobell after his daughter.

Significance: First catalog company to create the “stable” catalog concept. While other companies conceived and grew a single catalog, Hanover House grew by cell division, both by spinning off specialty titles from its general merchandise core and by acquisition, with each new catalog using the same fulfillment, circulation, and back-end resources. Ostensibly, that allowed for minimal overhead and maximum growth opportunities.

History: What went up, came down. Leavitt, owner of a dress shop, began the Lana Lobell catalog as the mail order arm of the store, then launched the general merchandise Hanover House catalog in 1962. It was a hit, so Leavitt renamed his company Hanover House Industries and 10 years later sold it, along with five other spin-offs and acquisitions, to restaurant chain Horn & Hardart. Until the late ’80s, the company steadily acquired and launched a score of value-priced catalogs, from hugely profitable linens book Domestications to now-defunct lingerie title Night ‘N’ Day Intimates.

Horn & Hardart milked the cash cow to support its restaurant business, then sold the books in 1991 to luxury retailer NAR Group Ltd., which promptly acquired gifts marketer Gump’s and other expensive, high-end catalogs. By 1995, in the face of falling demand and rising paper prices, the company shuttered or sold many of its books, chalking up a $30 million loss. After a drastic restructuring under current president Rakesh Kaul, Hanover-now Hanover Direct-has 13 books, $546 million in sales, and a $7 million loss for 1998. Hanover’s current mission is to “transform from a catalog company to an Internet-driven company,” says spokeswoman Paula Zwerdling.

Influenced by: Initially, low-end digests such as Spencer Gifts.

Influenced: Every multititle catalog company since then, from International Cornerstone Group to Proteam.com (formerly Genesis Direct).

Endorsements: “The concept truly has become a major part of the way the catalog business operates. When it’s done right, it really works.”-Bill Nicolai, senior vice president of co-op gifts marketer Good Catalog Co.

3. HARRY AND DAVID Launched: 1934, by Harry and David Holmes.

Significance: First to open up the lucrative food-by-mail market. Early on, the company’s folksy Harry-in-the-orchard tone established its solid quality brand, whetting consumer appetite (so to speak) for a premium-price version of a product-fruit-ostensibly available in any local market. Moreover, with its Fruit of the Month offer, Harry and David introduced the profitable continuity concept, which allowed the company to collect money up front for products it would ship later.

History: Brothers Harry and David Holmes took over their father’s Bear Creek orchard in 1914, shipping Royal Riviera pears from Medford, OR, to hotels and resorts worldwide. When business fell off during the Depression, the two decided to sell the pears by mail as Christmas gifts. Following an initial sale of 489 meticulously wrapped orders, repeat business, the high quality of the produce, and the down-home appeal of the catalogs kept the business spiraling upward.

The company added the Jackson & Perkins garden catalog in 1966, went public 10 years later, and after spending two years with R.J. Reynolds, was bought by Shaklee in 1987, when sales were about $160 million. Under president Bill Williams, who came on board in 1987, Bear Creek Corp. has more than doubled in sales, to $325 million; added a gifts and apparel catalog, Northwest Passage; and recently opened Harry and David stores in shopping malls in Denver and in Farmington, CT. The company currently mails 90 million catalogs annually.

Influenced by: No one.

Influenced: Almost any food cataloger that you can name, and any marketer offering “of the month” plans.

Endorsements: “It’s clearly the standard-bearer in the food area. The spring catalog is so well done-it’s such a model for every food mailer.”-Jack Schmid

“Fruit of the Month Club was a great concept in terms of creating cash flow. And it worked in creating the biggest food catalog in the country.”-Bill Nicolai

4. THE KENTON COLLECTION Launched: 1971, by Roger Horchow.

Significance: First specialty, mail-order-only catalog to tap the lucrative upscale market. Both in creative and in concept, The Kenton Collection stood out in an era of “big books” and downscale digests by using lush full-page spreads and high-end photography. Items from Cartier, Mark Cross, and other high-end brands flourished in lavish, airy spreads designed by Jo-Von Tucker. “We were doing more than offering products for sale,” says Tucker, today the president of New England food gifts cataloger Clambake Celebrations. “We had to establish ourselves in the mind of the consumer as being authorities on the products we offered” by displaying an upscale presentation.

History: The catalog’s bold, expensive launch, a Christmas book, ran 64 pages and was mailed to 1 million gifts buyers, mostly selected from retail lists. According to Tucker, it got a 2% response, and the business was profitable within a few years. In 1974, Roger Horchow bought the catalog from its investors (for whom the catalog was named) and renamed it after himself. The Horchow Collection hit its profitable earnings peak during the luxury-conscious ’80s, reaching about $60 million in sales before Neiman-Marcus bought it in 1988. Currently, Neiman-Marcus produces five Horchow catalogs, including editions for home decorating, cooking, and gardening. The company discloses neither sales nor circulation.

Influenced by: The luxurious Neiman-Marcus Catalog, where both Tucker and Roger Horchow had worked.

Influenced: Nearly every upscale gifts catalog that came later, starting with Kaleidoscope, leading to American Express, Gucci, Gump’s, and so on.

Endorsements: “Roger Horchow really redefined the upscale lifestyle catalog business. There was nobody back then who was a full resource for affluent customers.”-Coy Clement

“In the modern era, The Kenton Collection was clearly the trendsetter. It became the model in the upscale gifts catalog category in terms of merchandising and creative.”-Jack Schmid

5. L.L. BEAN Launched: 1912, by Leon Leonwood Bean.

Significance: First true brand-name presence in the mail. Diligent attention to service, quality, and customer focus established unshakable consumer faith in the L.L. Bean name. The word “Bean” itself has become shorthand for solid, tested, unfussy product and exceptional service, and the catalog is arguably the most reassuring in mail order.

History: Leon Leonwood Bean’s first catalog description set the tone: “The Maine Hunting Shoe is designed by a hunter who has tramped the Maine woods for the last 18 years. We guarantee them to give perfect satisfaction in every way.” Significantly, Bean kept his word. After 90 of the first 100 boots fell apart, Bean refunded the money, fixed the shoe, and kept mailing. Camping and fishing equipment were added in 1927; sales reached $1 million in 1937 and $2 million in 1960, when grandson Leon Gorman took over.

By introducing credit card services, toll-free numbers, and on-call product experts while also expanding product selection and circulation, Bean capitalized on the yuppie outdoor/fitness boom of the 1980s and reached $1 billion in sales by the mid-’90s. Since then, Bean’s market has drifted somewhat to more contemporary merchandisers (Coldwater Creek, for instance), prompting the cataloger to update and refine its product and creative. Bean currently mails 30 catalogs for a total circulation of 140 million.

Influenced by: No one.

Influenced: Lands’ End, Eddie Bauer, Coldwater Creek, and other mega-marketers of the outdoor casual look.

Endorsements: “L.L. Bean’s classic quote is ‘Sell a good product at a reasonable price, treat the customer as if they were your friend, and they’ll always come back for more.’ All these strong service elements were definitely not embodied before L.L. Bean. Before Bean, it was ‘Please allow six weeks.’”-Bill Nicolai

“Before anybody else thought of it, Bean really built a brand. The Bean catalog became a private-label outdoor equipment brand, which the company was able to foster and grow.”-Jack Schmid

6. LANDS’ END Launched: 1963, by Gary Comer.

Significance: First catalog to find a dozen creative, varied, and compelling ways to sell a polo shirt. Lands’ End never offered a huge variety of apparel, but it milked selling points from every seam, button, and thread. Selling innovations have ranged from adventure stories to provocative catalog covers to peel-off gift flags. Its liberal use of space ads, moreover, has reassured countless customers that they risked nothing by buying through the mail.

History: Founded to sell sailboat supplies by mail, Lands’ End began mixing classic clothes with its boat equipment in the early ’70s, and then switched to an all-clothing mix in 1976. By 1981, Comer, who’d been an advertising copywriter, began the company’s famed consumer advertising campaign, calling Lands’ End a “direct merchant” and emphasizing straight-up Middle American values: “Sell honestly, deliver promptly, guarantee unconditionally.”

The company went public in 1986, developed a series of spin-offs through the ’90s-including linens book Coming Home, tailored men’s apparel title Beyond Buttondowns, and a kids’ catalog. After an earnings drop last year, the company replaced CEO Mike Smith with David F. Dyer, but it continues to remain founder/chairman Comer’s baby. For the fiscal year ended Jan. 29, Lands’ End had net income of $31.2 million (down 50% from 1997) on sales of $1.37 billion (up 8.5%).

Influenced by: L.L. Bean, for brand-building in basics.

Influenced: L.L. Bean (in its more recent, livelier catalog creative), Eddie Bauer, and every other clothing catalog that uses the reassuring “quality” approach with its merchandise.

Endorsements: “Lands’ End took a very narrow range of goods and made an interesting catalog out of them. It can take a common shirt and think up a dozen ways to make it new and exciting.”-catalog consultant Dick Hodgson, president of Sargeant House

“It had a remarkably innovative approach to copy and the whole concept of basics and private-label. There were not a lot of people doing what Gary Comer did at that time, and it’s great when you see a business like that institutionalize its success.”-Coy Clement

7. LILLIAN VERNON Launched: 1951, by Lillian Vernon.

Significance: First of the celebrated kitchen-table start-ups, and the first (if not only) low-end digest to break out into a more affluent mainstream. Through shrewd business acumen, unfailing merchandise instinct, and her own personal identification with customers, Vernon turned an ordinary catalog concept into a brand-name powerhouse.

History: With an undistinguished product-leather purse belts-and $2,000 in wedding gift money, Vernon garnered $32,000 in sales from a single space ad in Seventeen magazine. Reason: She personalized the belts. From there, Vernon set up a manufacturing, wholesaling, and monogramming operation, and in 1965 mailed 16-page catalogs to 125,000 customers who had responded to her ads.

Sales hit $1 million by 1970, then $126 million when the company went public in 1987. The company introduced Lilly’s Kids in 1990, expanded to Japan in 1996, and took up a total of 1 million sq. ft. of facility space in 1996. Today’s sales are $258 million, representing 34 editions and 188 million total catalog mailings.

Influenced by: Walter Drake, Miles Kimball, and other low-end general merchandise digests. More recently, catalogs resemble Williams-Sonoma, Childcraft, and other upscale offerings.

Influenced: Any and all midscale gifts catalogs, as well as most kitchen-table start-ups. Vernon’s legendary first ad has fed catalog dreams for more than 40 years.

Endorsements: “She was the only real survivor coming out of novelty catalogs. She still creates catalogs that are innovative in their way.”-Dick Hodgson

“One of her lines is, ‘Let me shop the little shops of Europe for you.’ She is an inspired merchant.”-Jack Baer, vice president of catalog consultancy Muldoon & Baer

“From the standpoint of longevity, Lillian is way up there.”-Jack Schmid

8. SEARS Launched: 1888, by Richard Sears and Alvah C. Roebuck as a watch and jewelry catalog; the general catalog launched in 1895.

Significance: The big daddy of cataloging. Though Sears wasn’t the first catalog published-Montgomery Ward came out in 1872-it was the first to mail with breadth and depth. Customers who’d never stepped in a big-city store could order the same gold rings, buggy whips, and women’s fashions as their urban counterparts. At one point during the late 19th century, the story goes, Sears was so swamped with orders that it literally plowed them into the ground.

History: Even in 1896, Sears was big stuff, featuring 753 pages of merchandise-mustache cups to horse harnesses to parlor suites-targeted to farmers and families. Stores first opened 29 years later, but the bulk of the business continued in the “big books” and Christmas Wish Books, which had reached 1,600 pages apiece by 1993, the year of their demise. Sears’s sales first topped $1 billion in 1945 and reached $3.3 billion by 1993, at which point 14 million consumers received big books, along with 50 other seasonal, sale, and specialty books. The catalog shutdown eliminated 3,400 full-time jobs. Since then, Sears has licensed its name to specialty catalogs issued by Brylane, Hanover Direct, and others. It also mails three proprietary catalogs, including a Craftsman tools catalog, a home healthcare book, and a toy-and-gift Wish Book, which it revived in 1995. In total, 170 million catalogs annually still carry the Sears name.

Influenced by: Montgomery Ward.

Influenced: Spiegel, J.C. Penney, and in general, every catalog that seeks to profit from the trust Sears established in mail order.

Endorsements: “Sears, Roebuck truly revolutionized shopping and merchandising. For years, that was the way rural America was able to join the mainstream in terms of buying goods.”-David Leibowitz, managing director, Burnham Securities

9. THE SHARPER IMAGE Launched: 1977, by Richard Thalheimer.

Significance: First catalog to make it cool for well-to-do, educated guys to buy by mail. Thalheimer capitalized on two truisms: 1) up-and-coming professionals still liked to play with toys, and 2) the flashier, newer, and sexier the toy (i.e., the more show-off potential), the better. A pronounced yuppie male himself, Thalheimer created a catalog that was an icon of the consumer-driven ’80s and that remained fresh and relevant into the ’90s.

History: Thalheimer, a 29-year-old Yale-educated lawyer, launched The Sharper Image with a mail-order ad for a digital stopwatch. The long, personal copy (a` la direct marketing guru Joe Sugarman) sold status and cool innovation, leading to first-year sales of $250,000. Mailing the first Sharper Image catalog in 1979, Thalheimer tapped into a market of newly professional baby boomers seeking to indulge their growing wealth and quest for status with light sculptures and streamlined phones.

Circulation peaked at 42 million catalogs in 1984, at which time sales reached $87 million. Thalheimer opened stores in 1986 and went public in 1987. Over the past decade, Thalheimer flopped in several related ventures-spa, jewelry, and furniture spin-offs-but the company continues to profit with its proprietary product. Sales were $241 million in 1998, with $79 million from catalogs and $5 million from the Web.

Influenced by: Hammacher-Schlemmer, Joe Sugarman’s Products That Think.

Influenced: A plethora of short-lived gadget books (remember The Price of His Toys?), as well as every catalog that has capitalized on the now-open affluent male mail order market.

Endorsements: “The Sharper Image had a photographic technique and copy style that was unique. It has been copied many times, and it’s had its ups and downs, but it’s still there.”-Dick Hodgson

10.VIKING OFFICE PRODUCTS Launched: 1960. Irwin Helford, named president in 1983 after moving from Reliable Stationery Co., developed the current catalog concept in 1984.

Significance: Perhaps the most successful and aggressive noncomputer business-to-business catalog ever. In an era of discount office supplies superstores, Viking competes on service rather than price, ensuring high margins and loyal customers. International expansion has further earned loyal customers throughout Europe and Australia.

History: Prior to Irwin Helford’s arrival, Viking was a stagnant $15 million retail company with a small direct mail arm. Helford developed a “one customer at a time” catalog philosophy, designing personalized, consumer-friendly catalogs that would appeal particularly to small-business purchasers, such as secretaries. The catalog offered lavish guarantees, free overnight and same-day shipping, a vast product selection, toll-free fax lines, and superfriendly customer-service reps.

Helford also pushed the concept into international arenas, by 1998 establishing 26 fulfillment operations in 11 countries. Viking went public in 1990, cleared all debt with a second public offering in 1991, and merged with Office Depot in August 1998. Prior to the merger, Viking’s sales were $1.5 billion, of which nearly $1 billion were from non-U.S. customers. The catalog has 800,000 U.S. customers and 1.5 million overseas customers.

Influenced by: According to Helford, no one. It’s clear, though, that catalogs like Inmac and Quill earlier set a standard for personalized, friendly business-to-business catalog sales (see “Business-to-business: a tricky arena” on p. 114).

Influenced: Every b-to-b book trying to gain maximum market share here and abroad.

Endorsements: “Viking is the international trendsetter. It even last year went into Italy, God forbid. And it’s succeeded.”-Jack Schmid