Theme Players

After spending countless hours traveling to merchandise shows, meeting with sales reps, and viewing and reviewing products, you finally have the goods to make your next consumer catalog a success. The next step is pagination-determining which products should go on which pages, which items should be shown together, and the order in which the pages should appear.

But the creative part of the merchandising process isn’t over. Now’s the time to develop themes and spreads, which can enhance your merchandise presentation and boost sales. Some mailers may dismiss the concept as frivolous, but themes can substantially increase sales and profits. Sales of a specific product can increase five to seven times when it’s moved to a themed page. Remember that one of the first definitions of a catalog was “a wish book,” a concept that still holds true for many mailers today. If you present merchandise in an environment in which consumers can-or would like to-envision themselves, you can increase sales.

Defining a theme As a few words at the top of spread, a theme might best be compared to a book title. Your theme needs to draw the customer in and motivate the reader to stop, look at the products, and seek more information about them. Beyond a headline proclaiming “cold weather gear” in a fall/winter catalog, a theme is closer to an image evoking a mini-story, such as “What you should wear on the streets of Aspen this season.”

A theme should also be no less than two facing pages, for maximum visual impact. Specific themes can be more than one spread but should generally be presented in multiples of two pages. When a theme is more than two pages, the mini-story should be continued but not repeated exactly on each spread.

For instance, if you were to use the “streets of Aspen” theme for the first spread, the next spread might say something like, “Lunch for both of you in Aspen.” You want consumers to envision themselves having lunch with a friend in Aspen (or Albany, for that matter) while wearing a fabulous outfit that they can buy from your catalog. In this example, the first spread enables you to present outdoor garments, while the second spread lets you sell indoor clothing.

It’s important to use the word “you,” either in the headline or through the copy, so that readers feel they are participating in the story. But it’s not necessary nor desirable to use “you” in all headlines. The word can become boring and lose its desired impact, so use it judicially.

You may want to use a product’s brand name in a headline, but only if the brand has a strong following with your customers, or if you are introducing a highly recognizable brand to your catalog. Even then, you might consider a tag line after the brand name, such as “Styles to keep you cool from Brand X” in the summer book and “Warm evenings with Brand X” in your fall book so that you can re-use the name without becoming stale.

On location A men’s apparel catalog several years ago based the central theme of a spring book on a visit to Spain. One of the mini-stories, “A day of leisure in Barcelona,” took up six pages. The first spread, “Breakfast in Barcelona,” presented four models dressed in casual knit shirts, shorts, and sandals, while the second, “At the sea near Barcelona,” showed the same models in swimsuits, sun-protective tops, and beach sandals. The final spread, “Evening in Barcelona,” demonstrated the appeal of more formal spring apparel, such as pants, woven shirts, and casual shoes.

Most of the copy blocks included words that reflected the image of participation. For example, the opening line of copy for one of the breakfast spreads selling a knit shirt declared, “You will stay cool and comfortable in this 100% cotton XYZ-brand mesh shirt while enjoying breakfast at a sidewalk cafe in Barcelona.” Having tied the shirt to the central theme, the copy then described the item’s other benefits.

Of course, it helps theme development if you can shoot catalog photos on location, even though traveling to exotic destinations can be expensive. But you can minimize location expenses by enlisting an airline or a resort to foot part of the bill in exchange for a mention in your catalog. The apparel catalog in the previous example, which shot its spring book in Spain, had Iberia Airlines pay for travel and lodging in exchange for a footnote in the book.

But you don’t have to shoot on location to create effective theme spreads. The same men’s clothing catalog that traveled to Spain has also created many outdoor themes suggesting numerous geographical locations without leaving its San Diego location. And another apparel catalog once created a theme over three spreads depicting two women on an extensive shopping spree, even though the models never left the photo studio.

Using models Although models provide the most effective opportunities to develop themes, you don’t always need people to create a theme. A new kitchenware catalog that closely resembles Williams-Sonoma faced the challenge of standing out in what is already a crowded marketplace. The answer was to use the entrepreneur’s impressive country house as a backdrop for entertaining themes.

For example, one theme, “Breakfast at home,” used the kitchen to show small appliances and gadgets without the use of models. The food preparation area and stove provided a setting for a number of utensils, while a second theme, “Lunch preparation for eight,” used the same kitchen area to showcase seasonings and cookbooks. The spread “Lunch for eight, the table” depicted tableware and accessories.

Although this catalog didn’t use models in the kitchen spreads, it added people to the spread entitled “Greeting the guests,” in which the living room became the display setting for barware, vases, and framed paintings. To involve the reader even more, the cataloger included sidebars describing the background of the house and the history of the area.

Developing themes Planning a theme presentation in your catalog may raise a chicken-or-egg question: Should you first develop the theme and then search for products to fit, or do you select the product andthen try to work it into themes? Without question, the product must be the most important element of any catalog. But you might consider holding a planning session prior to reviewing product for your next book, during which the merchandising and marketing teams can discuss a preliminary central theme. After the scheduled period of product review, hold another meeting to finalize the preliminary feature theme-or to select an alternative theme. As your merchants finalize product selection, they’ll find it easier to winnow their samples into subthemes that will revolve around the central theme.

Most catalog merchandisers separate their products into A, B, and C grades for space allocation; some will have a fourth category for test products. Each theme spread should include no more than three A products; a spread featuring only four equally large shots would have less impact than one featuring a few large and several smaller shots. By limiting your A product shots, you can allocate remaining space to B and C products and increase their sales.

But you should not consistently construct your themes on the basis of always using a fixed number of A products per spread. Some spreads might use only one A product, three or four B products, and three C products, while others might use three A products. It becomes a question of how best to stop readers long enough so that they will give more than just a passing glance at the product. Just like an author, you must keep readers’ attention by ensuring that the next spread does not look exactly like the one before it and the one after it.

In most themes you can effectively show the benefits of the product while it’s on the model or in the setting. At other times, however, it may be necessary to use product drop-in shots to demonstrate all product benefits. If the main photo has sufficient room, you may be able to place the product drop-in within it.

Getting into the flow After you’ve assigned the products to themes, you must now finish the pagination of the book by establishing the “flow.” Just as you need to create themes in which readers can see themselves participating, you want to sequence themes logically throughout the catalog. An athletic apparel and accessories catalog did this for a fall catalog by starting with themes built around activities appropriate for cooling weather and moving into those appropriate for cold weather as the book progressed. Magellan’s travel products catalog creates a progression by showing items to get organized for a trip, business travel essentials, inflight accessories, and safety, comfort, and convenience items for arrival.

Don’t assume that you must assign all products to themes. In most catalogs, you’ll find some products that will just not intelligently fit into any of the themes. This is acceptable, providing you develop a creative presentation for them that reflects the image you have built for the themes-and that you don’t make them into a rogue gallery with a headline “Miscellaneous.” For instance, the Early Winters apparel catalog uses “Cool comfort, cool colors, high performance” as a good catch-all headline for a selection of biking outfits and accessories that don’t fit with the book’s other themes.

Above all, don’t feel you must eliminate a potential hot product that does not appear to fit into any of the themes. Product drives the catalog, no matter how creative you become with presentation. When you find an exciting new product, make it the star of a new or revised theme with complementary products supporting it.

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