A Touch of Serendipity

Jul 01, 2004 9:30 PM  By

We all know the word “serendipity” — finding what we’re not looking for. (If you’re a lexical history buff, you know the origin of the word — Horace Walpole’s 18th-century story “The Three Princes of Serendip.” These travelers constantly and accidentally discovered what they weren’t looking for.) Clever catalog copy in the year 2004 tells the casual, previously uninterested customer-prospect, Ah, but here’s something extra, something you didn’t expect to find.

The eBags catalog fascinates me because its descriptions run a wide gamut, from serendipitous to Spartan. I stumbled onto a serendipitous selling point for a laptop case whose description I almost bypassed because its name didn’t connect: C-Drive.

If you carry a laptop when you travel, you know the choices: Bury it in a suitcase, risking having the suitcase arrive sans the computer; haul it around, sensing an increase of two pounds for every 100 paces; or hook the case over the handle of a carry-on, destroying the balance. The description of this case strikes home:

“We took our best selling laptop case and made it mobile. Featuring one of the tallest handles on the market at 44″, plus…” Stop right there. Yeah, that’s it! A 44″ handle, solving the laptop-hauling problem. A serendipitous description.

A suggestion, if you have an item that includes an unexpected benefit: Test a description that leads with it. Why? Because encountering an unanticipated use won’t deter the casual reader from scanning on through the text, but burying the unanticipated use may cause the casual reader to move on without noticing a buying-impulse-generating advantage.

An example is a description of Minaret Shorts in a catalog of women’s apparel. After about 70 words of introduction, the writer adds, “The stretch in my shorts came in handy, and the wide leg openings allowed for last-minute leaps.” Nothing in the photo nor in the previous text referred to stretch or wide leg openings. I’d have led with those factors.

Suppose you’re interested in baking. Here’s a two-page spread in The Baker’s Catalogue, with the overall heading “Ingenious tools for perfect pies.” So far so good. You slow down to check the pages. Now a perfect heading brings you to a dead stop: “Having an apple ‘lava flow’?”

The product is called Pie Dam, and the sprightly description points out that it prevents a problem anyone who ever has baked a pie has encountered — filling flowing out as you cut the first slice of hot pie. No, we didn’t know a Pie Dam exists. Yes, we want one.

Looking for serendipity

Computer catalogs have two serendipitous advantages over most other catalogs. First, the entire computer universe is ever-changing, and we have to keep up with what the manufacturers tell us is progress. Second, invariably something — something — in that catalog will make our jobs, our lives, or both our jobs and our lives easier.

Recognizing that, smart computer catalogers gear their copy to what we might call proactive (I’m not enamored of that artificial word) serendipity — an apparent paradox in which the peruser is looking for something he or she isn’t looking for. The concept isn’t as complicated as the wording suggests: Heading and initial benefit should highlight the two advantages — progress plus making life easier.

So a PC catalog errs, in my opinion, by following a big “New!” exclamation with the heading, “Multimedia Made Fun and Easy” and a subhead, “Snap photos, capture video, record voice, and more” — neither of which exploits newness.

The gadget is a tiny, Minox-size device. Would your heading have emphasized the difference between this and previous camera/recorders? Mine would have.

Johnson Smith revisited

When I was a kid, I always looked forward to the Johnson Smith catalog. As I remember, the company was in Detroit or somewhere, and the catalog was loaded with oddball novelties. Now in business more than 90 years, Johnson Smith is still selling stuff nobody expects to see. I think it’s in Florida now, but its Website, which doesn’t reveal its physical location (why not?), can startle even the most jaded catalog hound — Billy Bob teeth, many scatological fun-makers, a talking Gollum figure.

And who would order one of those? Any of us, on impulse. That’s the whole serendipitous nature of buying what you never expected to see.

Home Trends is another catalog whose contents are roiling with serendipity, on a more sedate level than Johnson Smith. In the pages of Home Trends, along with what we expect to see — bath accessories and wart-removal compounds — are half-toe socks that let you look like you’re not wearing any…an egg separator…and a butter slicer whose description is terse and beneficial:

“Our Butter Slicer makes 16 uniform slices with one smooth cut. Restaurant sized pats are perfect for potatoes, buttering rolls, veggies and more. Dishwasher safe. Aluminum body/stainless steel wire.”

That serendipitous copy typifies another serendipitous benefit: It can (and often should) be short. So serendipitous copy also includes serendipity for the copywriter who creates it.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 27 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Marketing Mayhem, and Effective E-Mail Marketing, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.