Cannibals in bedlam

Apr 01, 2008 9:30 PM  By

A given: Typically, a consumer prospect looks for the best price rather than relying on loyalty to a distant source. A given: A business prospect looks for the best price rather than relying on loyalty to a distant source. A given: In this Internet era, buyer loyalty is bought and sold, with a minimum of emotional content. A given: The Web is price-driven.

So what? You may or may not subscribe to another given: Web catalogs (and e-mail incentives by catalogers) cannibalize what used to be the sacred turf of printed catalogs. For printed catalogs to compete with online challengers, price has to be a major factor.

In one day’s mail On the same post-Christmas day, a stack of catalogs wound up in my mailbox. What triggered comparative attention — and this column — was the identical pitch on the cover of every one of those catalogs.

(I checked the Web equivalents of the same catalogs to see whether or not they were parallel.)

For a catalog of casual clothing: “Warehouse Sale! Save 45-80%.” (Web: “Year-End Warehouse CLEARANCE — 60% Off Footwear and Gear/70% Off Home and Apparel.”)

For a shoe catalog: “SALE.” (Web: a rotating series of images with no prices disclosed until the rotation stopped at an image exactly mirroring the printed catalog cover.)

For a bedding and home fashions catalog: “Annual Comforter Sale.” (Web: a group of products with no price reference other than “Save 20% on Every Comforter We Sell.”)

For a catalog of women’s fashions: “SALE — save up to 65% off.” (Web: same copy, plus “Over 250 Items Just Reduced”)

For a catalog of upscale men’s clothing: “Order now. Up to 60% Off. Catalog Clearance & Spring Pre-Season SALE!” (Web: same “60% Off” copy plus several specials, plus “Win a $1000 Gift Card.”)

For a catalog of upscale men’s and women’s clothing: “The Biggest Sale of the Year! Up to 65% off original catalog prices.” (Web: same copy and same photo.)

For a catalog of travel clothing: “Savings of the Season! Limited time only Up to 25% off.” (Web: pretty much the same copy.)

For an old-line outfitter: “Ultimate SALE / Save up to 50% / Our Biggest Sale of the Season.” (Web: same, except added to “Our Biggest Sale of the Season” is a Web partly-savvy line, “Save on More Than 400 Styles.”)

For a catalog of vitamins and supplements: “FREE SHIPPING! On any order over $65 / Our BIGGEST Weight-Loss Sale EVER! Save up to 50%. FREE Trail Mix. FREE Gift!” (Web: a group of “Buy 1 Get 1 FREE” offers.)

For a catalog of golf equipment: “Semi-Annual SALE & Clearance Event — Up to 60% OFF.” (Web: same copy, alternating with specials and markdowns.)

One catalog of men’s and women’s wear has big red reverses with imperatives such as “Save $44” and “Save $39” atop many items. Yet both the cover and inside cover direct prospects to the Website: “Right now, we have more than 100 web-only items in our online sale outlet! Check our site often for deep discounts on men’s and women’s clothing, gifts, and more.”

Does this invitation shoot the company in the foot, with “might-buy-now” customers deciding to hold off until they can check the Web — and maybe never getting around to it? For us outsiders, it’s a guess. (Once online, the consumer sees copy indicating “1200+ items up to 70% off.”)

A loose benefit the typical Web home page has over a printed catalog cover: Easily implicit in Web construction is a home page that includes either specifics, instant links to specifics, or both. The buying impulse is quickly sharpened, not dulled.

Competing in the Arabian bazaar We’re not so naïve that we believe the copy-thrust of all these catalogs might not lean toward “Bargain!” even if Web competition didn’t exist. But neither are we so naïve that we ignore the aggressive clamor for attention, totally unrelated to any pre-existing relationship.

The Web has brought “free shipping” into major prominence, and printed catalogs have begun to hug this incentive to their bosoms. A question remaining on the table is whether copy-slant would lean so decidedly toward “We have a deal for you” if the Web didn’t exist. The answer may not lie entirely in venerable pre-Web catalogs, but that’s as solid a criterion as we have.

We’ve only just begun Gross sales reports from the last holiday season verify that as retail struggles, Web sales are skyrocketing.

But the Web is no hothouse of brilliant copywriting. “Save on More Than 400 Styles” isn’t about to have writers of print catalog copy running in terror. We’re analyzing with an eye to the future and, as the old comic strip Pogo used to preach, “We have met the future and it is us.”

What catalogers realize is that easy availability of competition trumps loyalty. The typical catalog buyer is no more loyal to a single source than a supermarket shopper would be to a specific checkout-clerk.

Are printed catalogs on the cusp of obsolescence? Nah. Would they do well to adopt the same catering mechanism generic to online marketing? Yeah.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Pompano Beach, FL, and author of 30 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Effective E-Mail Marketing, and Burnt Offerings. Web address is herschellgordonlewis.com.