You Sexy Thing

Last year I spoke at a conference about what I considered the sexiest catalogs. One of the examples I cited was Caprine Supply, a two-color newsprint catalog that sells supplies for raising goats.

My example garnered a big laugh — and some questions about my personal life, I’m sure. But I was defining “sexy” not in the Playboy/Cosmo way, but rather as “encouraging or arousing desire or interest.” I don’t raise goats — much to the relief of my neighbors — but the product copy and the president’s letter in the Caprine Supply catalog aroused a desire to do so.

During the past several months, I’ve received several hundred catalogs, and I’ve read most of them. Few were as sexy as Caprine Supply.

Take the plethora of food catalogs that are as much a part of the holiday season as long lines at the post office and running out of wrapping paper. Williams-Sonoma is by far the sexiest of the bunch. The gorgeous photos, the distinctive product offerings, and the reassuring copy never fail to convince me that if I buy the products featured, I too will be able to produce one of the show-stopping recipes also featured in the catalog.

Penzeys Spices is sexy for much the same reason. Granted, its photography and overall production values aren’t as lush as those of the deeper-pocketed Williams-Sonoma. Nor are the recipes as chic. But the homier copy, the highly personal president’s letter (in the most recent issue, Bill Penzey discusses his recent honeymoon!), and the comfy cozy product copy are sexy nonetheless. Penzeys is Doris Day to W-S’s Marilyn Monroe.

But then there are the newly redesigned Martha by Mail (or Martha Stewart the Catalog for Living, or whatever the heck it’s now called) and Gourmet Center. Both have production values on a par with those of W-S, both feature recipes and how-tos, both have their share of unique merchandise. But both are also so imitative of W-S — down to the use of hairline rules to separate products on the page and direct eye flow — that they’re about as sexy as a Marilyn Monroe imitator. Sure, they’ll do in a pinch, but only until I can satisfy myself with the real deal.

In our cover story about the just-ended holiday season, we sought reasons certain catalogs beat expectations while others fell short. Why, for instance, were Bronner’s Christmas Favorites holiday catalog and Internet sales up 10% from the previous year? Maybe because when you visited the Website, cheery Christmas music welcomed you. The strains of “Winter Wonderland” may not seem sexy in the conventional sense, but the music, combined with the bright colors of the home page, had me ready to buy Christmas tree ornaments — and I don’t even celebrate Christmas!

Now, that’s sexy — and we all know that sexy sells.

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