Playing with the Big Boys

Jan 01, 2001 10:30 PM  By

What’s an advantage small catalogers have over large companies?

‘Customers are realizing that the category killers have product breadth but little depth’

“Big box” retailers such as Wal-Mart and Kmart have created formidable competition for mom-and-pop shops. But how are small specialty catalogers faring against mail order category killers? Just fine, thank you, say the small catalogers interviewed by Catalog Age.

“Initially, `category killers’ came in and caused small companies to take a nose-dive,” says Beth Marcus, who owns Bedford, MA-based Glowdog, a $500,000 catalog of reflective apparel and accessories for pets and people. “But as consumers are realizing that these `supercatalogs’ have breadth but little depth, customers are migrating back to the small catalogs.”

Know your niche “Our brand is competing head to head with the big brands,” namely manufacturer/marketer Patagonia, says Paula Quenemoen, executive vice president of Telluride, CO-based athletic gear catalog Jagged Edge Mountain Gear. Although Jagged Edge sells the same type of product as Patagonia and uses similar adventure photography in its catalog, Quenemoen contends that the athletic experience of her company’s employees give Jagged Edge a marketing edge.

Not only do Jagged Edge employees understand every facet of outdoor adventures and mountain gear, but they also serve as the models and photographers for the book. In other words, Jagged Edge makes it clear to consumers that it offers accessibility to experts who live the lifestyle they are selling. “The big books create – “We do,” Quenemoen says.

Using creative – as Jagged Edge does, with action photos shot by and featuring employees – to differentiate a smaller catalog from the bigger, more established competitors is key, says consultant Chris Carrington, president of King of Prussia, PA-based Catalogs by Design. For example, when Carrington and her creative director, Carliss Million, worked on the first catalog for teen shoes marketer Journeys, they knew they would be competing against heavyweights such as Delia’s and Alloy. So they shot the cover for the debut edition, which mailed during the 2000 holiday season, on location in San Francisco at the X Games, an extreme-sports competition.

“The cover is the first chance to appeal to the customer,” Carrington says, so it makes sense to establish yourself as different from the pack. “Otherwise, customers will gravitate to the name they are familiar with.”

On a mission Creating a meaningful mission statement is also vital, Million says. “Although it may sound like a cliche, this statement is a way of keeping everything in your business, from marketing and design to service and operations, streamlined and consistent with the customer’s expectations.”

The mission statement of Bear-in-Mind, a Minnetonka, MN-based catalog selling nothing but teddy bears, is “to appeal to bear collectors and make finding and ordering merchandise easy,” says president Andrew Skorupski. The catalog, which has annual sales of about $500,000, sells exclusive merchandise from well-known manufacturers such as Gund and Ganz, as well as nonexclusives that can also be bought from gift shops and toy retailers. Bear-in-Mind also competes with Vermont Teddy Bear and its own line of proprietary merchandise, but Skorupski says the Shelburne, VT-based cataloger appeals to gift givers – his book targets collectors.

To compete with the many other teddy bear purveyors, Skorupski relies on providing a high level of customer service. Service has proved to be an edge over retail in particular, he says, since help tends to be scarce in stores. And even if customers can find assistance in a store, it’s not likely that they will encounter the same level of expertise as at Bear-in-Mind.

Glowdog’s Marcus believes small catalogers and large mailers could benefit by working together. “I think that in the future, more and more larger catalogers may try to partner with small catalogs that offer-and often manufacture-unique products. While larger catalogers have a real hold of operations and marketing, they can benefit from the product knowledge and expertise of smaller catalogs and have them drop-ship orders to their customers by linking the back ends of the two companies.”

The Nurtured Baby: Staying on Message As the leader of her local branch of breastfeeding organization La Leche League, Beth Long wanted to find a way to inform a larger audience of mothers about the benefits of breastfeeding and cloth diapers. She also wanted to start a business that would enable her to stay at home with her three sons. So she and her husband, Keith, acquired The Nurtured Baby – then a struggling catalog business – and relaunched it out of their Charlotte, NC, home in May 1997.

The relaunched catalog mailed to about 7,000 names, including members of Long’s La Leche chapter and names from rented lists. The company also placed ads in publications such as Mothering, Pregnancy, and Fit Pregnancy.

Nearly four years later, The Nurtured Baby no longer rents lists. Even customers aren’t mailed a print catalog unless they request one. Instead Long (who answers all calls herself) urges buyers to refer to the company’s Website for future orders. It’s all part of her plan to convert buyers to the Web as a means of conserving paper. “After all,” she explains, “cloth diapers and breastfeeding help cut down on the amount of wasted materials that sit in landfills, so I bring this philosophy into the operations of the business as well.”

Because she is the company’s sole order-taker and customer service rep, Long can provide customers with first-hand mothering experience – not to mention maintain high service standards. Although her annual sales have a way to go until Natural Baby is in the same corporate league as

$1 billion-plus cataloger Lands’ End, Long nonetheless aspires to provide the same level of service. When faced with a difficult customer service situation, Long asks herself, “What would Lands’ End do?” In time, if and when the business grows too large for her to answer all the calls herself, Long aims to remain true to her mission by hiring mothers to take orders and provide customer service. But Long says she doesn’t plan to grow by expanding her product line to include items that don’t mesh with her company’s mission: “I wouldn’t start carrying baby bottles just to add more merchandise.”

The Nurtured Baby Annual sales: less than $150,000 Annual circulation: 16,000 Target market: breastfeeding mothers and environmentally aware parents