Opinion & Response

Nov 01, 2002 10:30 PM  By

Down on UPS

Over the years we have heard and seen how the United Parcel Service seems to do everything it can to show its lack of concern and sheer disdain for the direct marketing industry. Yet we as an industry never seem to talk about fighting back and showing UPS that we are important to its business and that it cannot take our business for granted.

I rarely talk to anyone in our industry who has anything very positive to say about UPS. It seems that UPS only “works” to get our business when some other company is asking for it; otherwise hearing from a representative is rare. At the same time, UPS is the biggest opponent to the postal reform that our industry needs. Think of it this way: If you are using UPS to ship your packages, then you are “donating” to the fight against postal reform.

So why do we continue to support UPS by giving it our business? I would hope that we as an industry could stand together and tell UPS that unless it is willing to work for us and not against us we will find other suppliers that will.

I challenge the DMA leadership (who have said that UPS has very little concern for our industry) to help coordinate this effort. And I strongly encourage all of my fellow direct marketers to take a stand and show your disdain for UPS’s attitude by spending your shipping dollars with shippers that care about your business and the future of our industry.

If we as an industry can’t stand together and fight for our collective well-being, then we could be, and should be, damned to our collective failure.
Mason Young, president/CEO Summit Creek

HAVING HIS SAY

San Francisco copywriter/teacher EVAN ELLIOT sounds off on copy and copycatting:

If you, like many others, mourn the passing of the “old” Restoration Hardware catalog, I feel your pain.

Until last spring, much of the Restoration Hardware catalog was written by Stephen Gordon, the company’s founder. Often faulty in grammar and shaky in structure, Gordon’s copy was nevertheless smart and daring and funny. In its wake we now see the same slick, slightly snooty, and quietly desperate prose found in nearly every catalog that woos upscale consumers (note the words “deem” and “concurred” on successive pages of a recent edition).

Of course, Restoration Hardware is not alone. Many other prominent companies play it safe with corporate copy, and if this copy sells their products, so be it. But when the catalog world loses the gusto of Stephen Gordon, whose very audacity fueled his company in the first place, it’s cause for mourning.

Fortunately, original voices survive elsewhere in the industry. Most often, these voices spring from the pages of niche-market “microcatalogs” and from the tongues of founder/writers who, like Stephen Gordon, are largely self-taught. These people don’t conduct focus groups. They don’t tremble in the presence of unusual ideas. They’re in business to please themselves and their fellow enthusiasts, and some of them produce terrific copy.

Consider Kermit Lynch. More than 20 years ago, he abandoned his quest for rock-and-roll fame and, using borrowed funds, set up shop as a wine seller. Today, the Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant catalog reaches thousands of customers who appreciate Lynch’s love of earthy wines — and his lively copy.

Instead of writing typical wine-tasting hooey, rich in adjectives and thin on substance, Lynch loads paragraphs with concrete images and humor. A recent copy block on a favorite red: “I should have ordered this wine in magnums, so I wouldn’t have to pull corks so often.” An essay on wine’s natural appeal proposes that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” is not really a story about a doctor who tries to remove his wife’s birthmark but rather an allegory about winemakers who filter their wine, and in so doing destroy the beauty that they seek to enhance.

Lynch trusts his readers and assumes that they’re intelligent. His approach has evidently paid off: Even though he runs one small shop in Berkeley, CA, he has achieved cult status among wine lovers nationwide. His writing even landed him a book deal for a memoir of his adventures in search of new wines from proprietors of small wineries who ignore modern marketing.

Grant Petersen is also an author. About 15 years ago, he wrote two bicycling guides for the San Francisco area. But most of his writing these days appears in mailings for Rivendell Bicycle Works, his small bike company in Walnut Creek, CA. Petersen has written odes to handmade leather bicycle saddles, Grandpa’s Pine Tar Soap (“with a strong tar scent that cuts through the stench”), and old-fashioned cork handlebar grips (“Glue them on with 3M Spray Adhesive, Permatex, or Super Glue Gel. If you’re uneasy about gluing them securely, or you tend to fail at things and then sue, please don’t buy them.”).

Next time you find yourself snoozing through a macrocatalog, do yourself a favor. Find a microcatalog in your region, buy something from it, and help to preserve honest copy. In an industry tainted by slick professionalism, these two men are inspired amateurs. In a field marked by safe and mediocre prose, they stand out for their intelligence, their humor, and their courage. I, for one, applaud these two eccentrics, and I hope they never go pro.

Going, Going, Gone!

When is a catalog sale not a sale? When the cataloger decided it’s an auction, and presumably has already done the final bidding for you. Confused? So were we when perusing the Autumn 2002 edition of gifts and home decor catalog Williamsburg. On one spread, for instance, a Delft candlestick lamp that normally sells for $260 has the words “Final Bid! $199” printed in red. OK, so sale prices are actually fake auction bids. Cute. But on the next spread, a Noah’s Ark quilt that normally sells for $85 has “Sale! $59.50” printed in red type. In fact, all the specially priced items on the spread are offered at “sale” prices, not “final bids,” and several other “sale” prices appear throughout the book. (There’s also “Special Value!” pricing on some products — don’t ask.) If the price is right, Williamsburg can call a sale whatever it wants, but we remain slightly puzzled. Even Jefferson would be scratching his head on this pricing.

Dude Looks Like a Lady

What’s under Harvey Fierstein’s housecoat? If the actor is appearing in character as Edna Turnblad in the new Broadway smash musical Hairspray, he’s sporting women’s undergarments from The Vermont Country Store. Before each performance as Edna, the full-figured hausfrau mother of hefty hoofer Tracey Turnblad, Fierstein first slips on a carved foam rubber figure that’s been stitched onto a bodysuit with a corset. Next, the actor dons a bra, a slip, and pettipants purchased from the Weston, VT-based cataloger. Finally, Fierstein is ready to wear one of Edna’s fabulous frocks. To be sure, the 56-year-old Vermont Country Store probably never expected to play a part in helping dudes get dolled up as dames, but Broadway sends its regards anyway.

Ugly Couch Contest Crowns a Real Winner

It’s our favorite time of year: when slipcover manufacturer/marketer Sure Fit, publisher of the Slipcovers by Mail catalog, honors the ugliest couch in the country. And this year’s winner did not disappoint. After an online vote on more than 1,000 entries, the winner of the 8th Annual Ugly Couch Contest, an oversize and fittingly crown-shape beauty, was announced Sept. 18 on the talk show Live with Regis and Kelly. The multihued, mirrored monstrosity, which belongs to Tim Finn of Bullhead City, AZ, boasts a colorful past. Custom-made for the owner of the infamous Reno, NV-based Mustang Ranch, the couch wouldn’t fit through the bordello’s door. Its maker used it to pay off a debt to a man who in turn traded it to Mr. Finn in exchange for a remodeling job. Said Sure Fit president Bert Shlensky about the best in show: “I’m sorry to say that no slipcover will fit this unique couch.”

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