When Spiegel Met Godot

If you relied solely on the consumer media, you’d think that Spiegel’s woes stem primarily from its failure to get rid of its archaic “big book.” Indeed, even in our pages over the years (as evidenced in our cover story “Dead Man Walking: Spiegel Sell-off Begins”), critics have sniffed at Spiegel’s core general merchandise catalog. Today’s consumers want specialized catalogs and Websites targeted specifically for them, these critics cried. No one has time to leaf through a catalog that weighs as much as the Manhattan phone directory.

No one except J.C. Penney’s customers, apparently.

Penney’s year-over-year March catalog and Internet sales increased 10%, exceeding expectations, while its combined direct and retail sales rose 11%. The company’s success so far this year led it to raise its first-quarter expectations. And for fiscal 2003, after several years of repositioning, circ cuts, and sales declines, Penney reported an increase in annual direct sales.

So maybe the big book is getting a bad rap. It seems that consumers will buy from a general merchandiser if that merchandiser gives them a reason to buy.

When I read through the latest Spiegel catalog, I found my thinking, “Hmm, that’s a nice shirt…I saw one like that at the mall on the way home from work. Let me stop there and see” or “I bet I could get towels like those but cheaper by checking out MySimon.com.” The products were neither distinctive enough nor presented enough of a value to move me to buy.

What distinguishes most of Penney’s merchandise is the value proposition. Those red jersey sheets I bought last year weren’t unique — but the price sure was good. And Penney is working to create products that are distinctive in terms of design as well as price. Just as Target has set itself apart from other value-conscious general merchants by signing exclusive contracts with Michael Graves, Isaac Mizrahi, and other “names,” Penney is aligning itself with women’s apparel brand Bisou Bisou and interior designer Chris Madden.

Yes, Spiegel tried that tactic too. But nothing in the Spiegel catalog told me why I should spend $42 on the exclusive but basic three-quarter-sleeve T-shirt from cult brand Three Dots when I could buy from Penney a similar shirt in the same fabric for $26 — let alone for $17.99 on the day I happened to visit the Penney Website. Target’s Michael Graves teapots and Penney’s Bisou Bisou blouses have character; the Three Dots shirt doesn’t.

And here’s the beauty of big books (and department store Websites): While buying the shirt at Penney, I’m likely to click my way to the men’s and children’s apparel pages to see if there’s anything I can buy for my husband and daughter while I’m at it, and from there to the home section on the chance that there’s a good deal on sheets, or pots, or one of the myriad items I kinda, sorta need but won’t make a special visit to buy.

But before I increase my order with add-on items, the marketer has to give me a reason to make that initial purchase. With Spiegel, I’m still waiting.

If you’re attending this year’s Annual Catalog Conference in Chicago May 3-5, please say hi to me or any other Catalog Age staffers you run into — we’d love to meet and chat. And if for some reason you can’t make the show this year, be sure to check out our daily coverage at www.CatalogAgemag.com.

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