Vendor works of art

Photographing the thousands of products that appear in 1,000-plus-page catalogs couldbe like trying to mow a lawn with a pair scissors. To save time and money, most big-book business-to-business catalogers-as well as many smaller specialty books-use a substantial amount of vendor-supplied stock photography.

But using vendor photos supplied by dozens of different manufacturers poses the challenge of making many different images fit together, and work with the in-house photos.

Fisher Science Education, a Burr Ridge, IL-based cataloger of science tools, uses 60%-70% vendor-supplied photography for its 1,000-plus-page book. Vendor photos save 10%-20% compared to Fisher taking its own photos, says art director Tony Horvath. “When you shoot products yourself, you have to get the product from the manufacturer, look it over, and take a sketch of it so the photographer has a reference,” he says. Moreover, most of the vendor photos sent to Fisher are of acceptable quality. “Of course, if we receive a unusable shot from a vendor, we’ll reshoot it ourselves,” Horvath says.

Fisher creates a consistent look by silhouetting and running its own drop shadows behind images. “We outline them, take out backgrounds and just leave the products, creating a drop shadow with Photoshop design software,” Horvath says. “We create a simulated cast shadow so the photo looks more like the environment it’s in, rather than just floating there.”

Many vendors today send their photos on CD-ROM instead of transparencies, Horvath says. “A photo on disk is 50% cheaper than a transparency, because all you have to do is archive it and separate it,” he says. “But when you have to scan a transparency, the scanner operator may set up the scanner to interpret colors in a way that gives you a flat image or too much contrast.”

The downside with digital photos, Horvath claims, is “you’re stuck with the size they come in,” he says. “And if you want to blow up a picture, you’ll degrade the image quality. But about 99% of the pictures we get are around the same acceptable range of sizes for us to use.”

The opposing viewpoint Braintree, MA-based educational products cataloger J.L. Hammett isn’t as high on using vendor photos. “A lot of things sour in the quality of the images, because they come from a variety of different media,” such as disks, slides, and transparencies, says art director/production manager Jack Laidlaw. Still, most of the photos that run in the J.L. Hammett catalogs are vendor-supplied, “because of the time and cost involved with shooting internally.”

To make its outside photography fit in with the rest of the book, Hammett does “a lot of doctoring to vendor-supplied photos,” Laidlaw says. “For our new big book, we had more than 8,000 images retouched, and we cleaned them substantially, doing color correction.” Laidlaw is trying to budget for more in-house photography, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars more, but would give the mailer more artistic control.

Knowing who’s a bad risk For the latest fiscal year ended March 31, 1998, 52,638 companies filed for bankruptcy, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. That doesn’t include the hundreds of small businesses that quietly close up shop overnight without filing for anything.

Some business-to-business catalog mailers claim that wasted mailings to such business customers without cash can add up to 1% of their mailings; others claim to lose as much as 0.4% of their annual revenue due to cash-poor business customers defaulting on merchandise payments.

Yet most catalogers contacted for this story admit that they’re not paying that much attention to suppressing mailings to bankrupt or struggling companies. While most do use some sort of credit-checking system, few have any automated or scientific methods of red-flagging these potential bad bets ahead of time.

“Based on any sales reports I see, I don’t find lost business due to bankrupt customers to be a significant problem. But that might mean we haven’t recognized it as a problem,” says Miles Hoffman, manager, database marketing for Lincolnshire, IL-based business forms cataloger Moore Business Solutions Direct.

Similarly, Dennis Inch, vice president of sales and marketing for Rochester, NY-based archival supplies mailer Light Impressions, says he doesn’t believe wasted catalog mailings and lost sales due to bankrupt customers or prospects represent a significant problem. Still, he admits that it “would be interesting to track” how much the company spends on mailings to bankrupt customers.

Some b-to-b mailers have monitored these expenditures, however-and the results have been sobering. For instance, WearGuard, a $200 million-plus work clothes cataloger, loses 0.4% of net sales annually to bankrupt customers who default on payments, according to CFO Brian Tomlinson. Unfortunately, like so many other other mailers, WearGuard “has no automated method” to determine whether individual business customers are in financial trouble. “We really have no proactive method, but it might be worth looking at somewhere down the line,” Tomlinson says.

Risk avoidance basics To flag cash-poor or financially unsound prospects, some b-to-b catalogers run their mailing lists through database compiler Dun & Bradstreet’s file of companies with bad credit histories. “And many b-to-b catalogers build name suppression into their order-entry software so they can flag a record if a company’s either not been paying its bills or has been slow in paying,” says catalog consultant Tony Cox, president of LCH Direct. Beyond that, “I’m not aware of anything else you can do other than overlaying every name that goes into a merge/purge,” which would be cumbersome to do with hundreds of thousands of names, Cox says.

Moore Business Solutions Direct tries to identify problem prospects before mailing to them by running lists through the mailer’s own credit suppression file-after its list broker has already run the names through a bad credit file, Hoffman says.

For its existing customers, Moore has its own file of businesses that have had payment problems, Hoffman says. Although he can’t estimate how many names get purged from catalog mailings, it’s a big enough portion of names to devote the staff time to the ongoing suppression practice.

Light Impressions performs aggressive credit checks on customers using its open account process, in which the customer runs a tab, and receives periodic bills for purchases. “We send a credit application out that must be filled out before any business is transacted,” Inch says. Once credit references pass, the customer’s ratings are checked by Dun & Bradstreet.

Meanwhile, Wear Guard, whose average order is “more than $100,” according to Tomlinson, runs Dun & Bradstreet financial verification searches and credit checks on companies that place orders of $500 or more-primarily new customers. “Otherwise,” he says, “if an existing customer has a good payment history, we won’t waste the Dun & Bradstreet fee, which runs $7 per search.”

And when Wear Guard finds bankrupt customers that have already received merchandise, it puts them “in the hands of a collection agency; they know how to deal with bankruptcy laws.”

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