Coping with tough times

Times are tough. They’re especially tough for print catalogs. They carry a cross Web catalogs don’t. And an alarming number of dispassionate observers sit with checklists to see which catalogs will fall victim to the deadly combination of reduced buying power, skyrocketing production costs, economic anxiety, and the fallen U.S. dollar.

I guess I should label this month’s set of comments as “opinion” — at least until more axes fall on the necks of struggling catalog competitors. But the economic indicators tell us the iceberg that has already sunk The Sharper Image and Bombay Co. and Bennigan’s restaurants and a batch of banks has a huge and sharp tip. Copy-unprepared catalogs can run blindly into that tip.

The Web has 2½ survival advantages — and one hazard.

Two implicit advantages enjoyed by Web catalogs make them less vulnerable to general economic hardship. One is their insulation against production costs. Paper costs more, printing costs more, postage costs more — and none of these are Web-related, except peripherally.

The second advantage is that the Web is price-driven, and every online visitor knows it. So as buying power declines, along with the number of people who can afford to buy new instead of shrugging sadly and making do with what they have, both consumer and business prospects turn increasingly to the source that better represents bargains.

That second advantage is also a hazard, because just as the Web is implicitly price-driven, so is it implicitly a hotbed of competition. If I buy sports equipment from a catalog and am interested in buying a dozen cans of tennis balls, the catalog in my hand is the only available source at this moment. I make a yes/no decision.

Online, I’ll use PriceGrabber or one of those other “bots” to check out prices. The traditional print-catalog-loyalty-factor is less likely to exist.

Proof? Boscov. Here was pure price as a weapon, but without a cadre of buyers the site couldn’t sustain itself. Copy had to be a factor here.

How about the “one half” in the 2½ advantages the Web has over its printed sibling? That half stems from printed catalogs using themselves as steering mechanisms, driving people to the company’s Web affiliate. It isn’t exactly cannibalizing, but the effect can be just that.

So what should print catalogs do? In tough times, a competitor competes. Or dies.

That means competing against the shortage of customers and their shrinking discretionary buying power, and also competing against the advantage Web catalogs hold.

So, starting with the cover, emphasis on timely discounts and bargains can jumpstart an otherwise blanked-out customer engine. I’m looking at an upscale catalog of art objects. The cover illustration is a neutral photo of native art on a wall behind a sofa. But two big impellers add incentive. One reads: “20% OFF EVERYTHING”; the other: “BUSINESS BUYERS EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNTS UP TO 30% OFF.”

Are these out of key with the sedate nature of the catalog? That’s of no consequence when survival in a brutal recession is at stake.

That’s why, to a huge segment of the populace, the standard (and expected) “save” imperative isn’t as effective as “spend less for what you need.” Basic psychology can drive copy power upward.

Wal-Mart, the bellwether of retail marketing, issues a hybrid publication, a cross between a free-standing insert and a conventional catalog. The one I’m looking at is an exact match for contemporary uncertainty. “Do the math and save” reinforces the standard “Save money. Live better.” Individual product becomes secondary to overall competitive appeal.

Office Depot’s seasonal catalog is headed, “WE’VE LOWERED THE PRICES JUST FOR YOU!” Oh, the “just for you” inclusion is sophomoric, but the cover is congruent with battling the challenges of tough times.

Riding it out unscathed?

Is a catalog merchant that chooses its own straight path and bypasses temporal circumstances safeguarding its future by not descending into the standard “Save! Discount!” depths? The answer lies in existing customer loyalty. Again tossing out an opinion: I wouldn’t count on customer loyalty, which in the 21st century has become a rarity rather than a criterion.

The wisdom of ignoring cosmic danger signals isn’t directly parallel to the Titanic ignoring floating ice in the North Atlantic. Just as many ships crossed the ocean unscathed while the queen of liners sank, so will many print catalogs survive as others flounder or fail.

As Samuel Clemens said a century and a half ago, all generalizations are false, including this one. Still, wouldn’t you rather be on the topside of a generalization rather than joining The Sharper Image and Lillian Vernon on the underside?

A few creative rules

The creative team and the executive team have to agree on both positioning and procedures. And if sales volume is static or declining, surgery should be only as radical as the situation demands.

Never should catalog copy broadcast, “We’re in trouble.” That doesn’t spur sales. “We overbought” is a milder admission, one that says to the potential buyer, “You can profit from our mini-mistake.” “We made the deal of the century” avoids the negative altogether.

If yours is a catalog that can defy recessions and mushrooming Web competition, you can smile from the foredeck as others struggle. But if you see an iceberg on the horizon, guessing you can slide past it can result in a breach in your bulkheads. People buy, as 2008 lurches toward a rocky holiday season, because of the “deal.”

So offer them a deal. It can’t hurt. And it might result in safe passage.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Pompano Beach, FL, and author of 31 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Marketing Mayhem, Effective E-Mail Marketing, and Creative Rules for the 21st Century.

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