Entertaining a redo

Selling fine linens and tableware, Gracious Style aims to help consumers entertain with elegance and flair. The Los Angeles-based merchant graciously accepted our invitation for critique subjects. Our reviewers this month, Mark Gilchrist, principal of Madison, CT-based design agency Bulldog Studios, and Carol Worthington-Levy, partner, creative services with San Rafael, CA-based catalog consultancy Lenser, gave the 48-page Holiday 2005 edition of Gracious Style a thorough inspection, and determined that with a few tweaks the book can be even more inviting — and successful.


The overall look and feel of Gracious Style Holiday 2005 is elegant and refined, as it should be for a catalog that specializes in high-end linens and tabletop items. But with a few key refinements its product presentation could be enhanced and the shopping experience made easier and friendlier.

In keeping with its name, the Gracious Style catalog should be sophisticated yet approachable. While the sophistication is there, several opportunities to make the book more approachable are missing. For instance, background materials included with the catalog mentioned that it was started by a couple. Why not include a photo of them with the well-written welcome message on page three and have them sign it? This would humanize the book and make the message more personal.

Another, more glaring omission is the failure to even mention the company’s exemplary service. In fact, the welcome message would be the perfect place to mention Gracious Style’s devotion to customer service. The book sells expensive, heirloom-quality products such as monogrammed dinnerware for $250 per place setting and a $1,200 Italian duvet cover, so it would be important to me as a customer to know that someone can help me with my purchase.

Gracious Style does in fact employ personal shoppers to “answer questions, offer purchase suggestions, or seek out special products not found in the company’s current offerings.” They can even handle special requests for custom sizes, colors, embroideries, and designs, yet none of this is mentioned anywhere in the catalog.

Another potential spot to promote services would be the order form, which could benefit from a few other modifications as well. The 800-number and the Web address are all but hidden, and though there is a space provided to include a gift message, there is no way to ship to multiple addresses or to indicate which items ordered are gifts.

While the free shipping and free gift-wrapping offers are appealing, they are given less emphasis than the “prices are subject to change” disclaimer. And why not include a photo of the company’s “beautifully wrapped…signature yellow box” to really get people in the gift-giving mood? This is, after all, a holiday book.

Though one could argue that most of the products in this catalog are appropriate for the holidays, several items are holiday specific. But they are not showcased in any way and don’t appear until page 10. The opening spread is the perfect place to showcase a catalog’s breadth of merchandise and to emphasize a particular theme or product relevant to the time of year, so why not move at least one of the holiday products there? This would set a festive mood early in the book and let readers know what’s in store.

Taking that thought one step further, except for a fleeting mention of embroidered bedding in the welcome message, the reader has no way of knowing that, in addition to table linens, Gracious Style also sells a large selection of bed linens, bath linens, flatware, stemware, and dinnerware — even luxurious robes and a teddy bear! The photo on page 2 shows table linens along with a charger, dinnerware, and stemware, but the accompanying copy describes only the table linens. Why not sell the other products along with the linens to make shopping for them easier, or at least cross-sell the other items by including their respective page numbers?

The lack of cross-referencing aside, the copy as a whole is well researched and well written, though it would help if the type size were a tad larger. In several instances, the copy is placed on top of rather busy patterns, which along with its size makes it difficult to read.

The styling of the product shots is consistently clean and elegant throughout the book; the quality of the photographs, however, varies. Virtually all of the photos on pages 2 through 12 show some kind of damask pattern. But while some of them are rich and sharp with just the right amount of contrast, others look washed out and almost fuzzy.

The back cover is a waste of prime space. Gracious Style might consider reducing the overly large mailing area and using that space to promote its five product guides, devoted to topics such as how to select the right size tablecloth. Customers can download free PDFs of the guides from the Website, but the mention of this is all but lost at the bottom of page 42.

Curiously absent from most of the linens copy is how to care for the product. Though a few of the copy blocks say “durable for everyday use,” and still others do specify “dry clean,” with heirloom-quality linens such as these the required care should be clearly stated for each product.

Carol Worthington-Levy

The Gracious Style catalog is best described as taking a “less is more” approach. This catalog is for those who insist on only the best. The design and copy are understated in order to best appeal to these people.

But it’s possible to understate to the point that sales are lost. The Gracious Style catalog loses sales and misses getting new customers due to its cool, detached style.

Creatives in particular tend to stereotype the ultra-upscale customer as scorning promotional treatments, being embarrassed by copy that is expressive and personal, and preferring photography that is “sophisticated” and treated with blurring, short focus, and toned-down color. But in my experience, this audience prefers clear images of the product they are considering, and they respond favorably to personal copy that highlights benefits, uses aspirational language, and calls for action. In other words, these buyers are human too.

The close-up photo of a place setting on the front cover of Gracious Style is somewhat sterile. Consider that a cover’s primary job is to get the catalog opened and to create curiosity and reflect product breadth. Customers would also no doubt appreciate a teaser providing a page number for the product shown.

Keep in mind that front cover teasers don’t have to be loud and obnoxious. I’d suggest some teasers such as

  • Treat your guests to the finest in linens

  • Shown here: our embroidered cocktail napkins — page X

  • Our Manor Collection redefines fine bed linens — page X

  • Free shipping when you order by 12/31/06. See page 2 for details

In addition, selling your front-cover product on your back cover is a lost opportunity. These covers are the most valuable real estate in your catalog. It’s essential to put your most popular product or something exciting and new in those positions. So I’d sell the front-cover product inside, perhaps on the second or third spread, and then guide the customer to it with teasers. Then show products in additional categories on your back cover, to educate the customer about the variety of your goods. I’d be inclined to use that front cover to sell a set of dishes or a wine goblet and to show some luxurious bath towels on the back. In doing these things, you immediately have shown prospects four or five of your product categories. They have that many more reasons to look inside.

Inside, the opening spread has some good elements in it, but in a different order than I’d put them. Eye-flow studies tell us that the right-hand page is the “hotter” of the two pages, so I’d put the welcome message on the left with some other institutional information and sell on the right page.

I applaud selling product on the inside front cover — also very important selling space. I also am pleased to see Gracious Style’s URL there, but displaying the phone number is essential too! This opening spread would be better if it accomplished a bit more in that space: an explanation of the offer and a slightly shorter letter (if it’s too long, prospects will ignore it), plus details about the shipping options for faster delivery.

Including the toll-free number and the URL in the lower right is a good idea, but it’s poorly executed here. Few people in this wealth category are younger than 45 or 50. They often express frustration and even anger when they are presented copy that is too small to read. So you must place key information in at least 9-point type, and don’t reverse it out to white. You can create a band that is lighter in color, and then set the phone number and the URL in black.

Here the type is a point too small, and when it’s set that small in a sans serif font, it’s difficult to read. It may look “upscale,” but we are here to sell! Other things interfere with the legibility too, including overprinting the copy on a photo background. Show your customer what great service you offer by making the catalog a pleasure to read.

From a design standpoint Gracious Style does a great job of varying photo sizes while keeping to a template that provides order. I also like that it places the body copy close to the photos, and the way it has used ink to color the page so that instead of type being against stark white, it’s against a neutral, muted sage. The sage border is also muted enough that it is not heavy, and it gives the feeling of damask and detail that reflects the beautiful product line.

But some of the photography goes over the top as far as the “effect” is concerned. No consumer likes out-of-focus photos of merchandise. The short focal length is fine, but you shouldn’t make your product blurry. In the shot for the Palazzo table linens, for example, the stacked white napkins have so little focus and contrast that they look like white streaks.

Some shots do a good job of expressing the textures of the linens, but in others it’s not going to “read” as texture since it’s so low-contrast. Gracious Style might consider reshooting for products like the Chrysanthemum white linens, where the beautiful texture is not seen.

Instead of paginating the catalog to place the order form on the inside back cover, I’d move it to the center spread, where most people look for it. Also, that inside back spread is too valuable as selling space to use it for an order form.

It may be tempting to market to high-end consumers with a conceptual, nonpromotional approach. Instead, though, work harder to appeal to their need to look good and feel good, and make it clear that you are glad they are there and that you appreciate their order.

Speak to them more personally so that you can establish a long-term relationship with them. And give them visuals that clearly show your gorgeous product, so that they can have a nearly tactile experience by looking through the book.

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