The Market Is the Message

If you’d told me a few years ago that Alloy would be buying rival Delia’s, I would have said, Are you sure you don’t have things backward, and that Delia’s is buying Alloy?

But as Mark Del Franco reports on page 7, relative upstart Alloy is purchasing the company that started the teen-queen catalog scene. Before the first Delia’s book mailed in 1994, catalogers didn’t spend much effort courting teens. Sure, they spent their babysitting money (and with what sitters charge today, that’s no small change) on clothes, makeup, and more clothes. But teens were relatively hard to find, and unlike their parents they didn’t necessarily have credit cards.

Delia’s worked around those hurdles. And in part because teen girls loved leafing through the catalog with their friends, and because Mom didn’t mind lending her credit card for an online purchase if it meant not having to schlep to the mall, Delia’s thrived. Alloy cofounder/CEO Matt Diamond, for one, recognized the significance of what Delia’s did. Two years ago he told Catalog Age, “In many ways Delia’s pioneered direct mail for teens. Before Delia’s, kids weren’t buying by direct mail. Then Delia’s began circulating its catalog and introduced the whole phenomena.”

You could blame Delia’s subsequent tumble off its pedestal on several factors: overexpansion of its retail chain, buying into the dot-com hype. But I think one of Delia’s bigger missteps was in trying to expand beyond its core teen/young adult market. It purchased two children’s titles, Storybook Heirlooms and Just for Kids in 1998. But marketing to the parents of young children is far different from marketing to teens, never mind the back-end efficiencies people speak of when justifying roll-up strategies. With that acquisition, Delia’s stopped being a teen marketer and became a multititle cataloger — joining the ranks of such “sucesses” as Hanover Direct, Spiegel Group, and Genesis Direct.

Alloy, meanwhile, made plenty of acquisitions too. Many of them weren’t even catalogers. But they all targeted the teen/young adult market. And that may be one reason that the upstart came out from behind to outpace the older rival. Never mind Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message.” For Alloy, the market is the message. And that may be something for growing catalogers to keep in mind.

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