Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Annual Best and Worst Catalog and Ecommerce Copy

I love this job.

What I don’t like is the increasing difficulty in making choices.

Printed catalogs seem to be a threatened species. The fittest do survive and, in fact, thrive. Many others thrive as online catalogs. So that “Save these, toss those” reaction we once had when catalogs appeared only in the mailbox is no longer quite so automatic. Oh, well, that’s the price of progress—and if we deny progress, we’ll wind up as parts of history too.

Point is, this subjective project of picking the best and worst of catalog copy is both controversial and inexact, based on a single scrutiny of the issue on hand or online at that specific date.

I can live with that.

The 5 Best

No. 1: Heartland America
If you get a chance to see this catalog, you’ll understand why I chose it for the top five. But remember, we’re evaluating copy here, not art direction.

From an art director’s point of view, Heartland America is no award-winner, with four to six items on each page and illustrations that depict rather than excite.

But from a selling point of view, it’s a catalog worth studying by a lot of competitors whose attention to art direction and dismissal of selling copy has them wondering why they can’t increase their share of market.

Just about every copy block, from heading to body copy, is benefit-laden. Similar to Solutions (in the list of catalogs that almost made it), readers flip through the catalog, stopping constantly to consider buying something they had no intention of considering before being seized and shaken by copy that made them want what they had never even thought about before.

No.2: Crutchfield and crutchfield.com
It’s been a while since I ordered anything from Crutchfield. One reason is that the catalog is aimed at a higher level of electronic technical know-how than I can claim.

But that’s exactly why the catalog is in the top five. It’s superbly targeted, so much so that most of the (lengthy) descriptions are bylined. For example, a two-page spread has a 72-point bold heading, “Is bigger better?” followed by a 24-point subhead, “Choosing towers or a bookshelf/subwoofer combo for your room.” Then comes a byline (“By David Bar”) and a description that carefully balances sales pitch against practical specifics.

Cross-references to the website are logical and sometimes necessary because, occasionally, the printed price is crossed out and followed by, “Price Alert: see our website or call for up-to-the-minute prices.” I don’t like that because, even on this level, the technique has to damage response. But then I’m not privy to Crutchfield’s ongoing bottom line.

Web copy is in the same admirable expert-to-expert conversational tone as the catalog copy.

No. 3: PyramidCollection.com
I’d better start this analysis with assurances that I’m not a prospect for the feminine styles romanticized here as “Myth, Magick, Fantasy & Romance.” I am an admirer of the catalog’s word choices, however, and that applies to the printed version too.

There are a plethora of items on the homepage, including a string of five dresses waiting for a click. The names given to these dresses, priced from $59.95 to $89.95: “Smoke and Ivory Dress,” “Sherbet Punch Dress,” L’Amour-de-Paris Dress,” “Sea Spirit Dress” and “Crochet Lace Dress.”

The rationale behind the Sherbet Punch Dress:

Sweet Treat. Refreshing as sherbet! This warm-weather maxi keeps you cool and comfortable with its jersey-knit top and crinkly, light cotton skirt—tie-dyed in all the colors of the soda shoppe (even a little caramel!). Lined. 100% cotton. Hand washable.

Then we have “Online Exclusives—Don’t miss this special selection of items not featured in our mailorder catalog.” (“Mailorder” as one word is theirs, not mine.) A click brings up a bunch of non-fashion items ranging from boldly unique to bizarrely puzzling, crystal balls to books of incantations and spells. The whole effect is both offbeat and charming. These days, we seldom see far-out imagination such as this.

No. 4: Territory Ahead
Checking samples of copy isn’t easy here, because as I write this I’m looking at two solidly different printed catalogs, each dated with the same month. Also, matching descriptions in territoryahead.com are slightly different, just enough to tell a visitor he or she is online and not at the mailbox.

Whichever version you inspect, you’ll find example after example of bright copy that sells aggressively without being overtly aggressive. That’s professionalism in copywriting.

An example, for a product not normally expected to reflect such finesse, is a carryall bag called the Hemingway Duffle. Here are the first few lines of a description that engagingly proposes superiority:

A worthy bag to carry such a heavy name, the adventure-ready Hemingway Duffle is handcrafted of 18 oz. washed canvas and vegetable-tanned bridle leather. While lesser bags go 50-75 steps on the factory line, this one takes an average of 139 steps – for additional rivets, reinforced corners, and meticulous stitchwork. It’ll outlast your next car …

No. 5: FootSmart and footsmart.com
I had at first planned to list this catalog in the “These came close” category. Then I realized that just about every heading in this dense, 92-page catalog (with multiple items on each page) states a benefit unique to the individual shoe. Body copy follows through with brightness and clarity. That’s polished, professional copywriting.

The online catalog is as easy to navigate as any I’ve seen lately, and it includes easy blowups for closer inspections and enough specifics to satisfy even the fussiest prospects.

An example of headings from just one page of the printed catalog:

Flattering flats with a little give and a lot of “ahh”
Hush Puppies comfort lets you slip in and out with ease
Cradle your feet in s-t-r-e-t-c-h from Arcopédico of Portugal
NEW! A gentle fit & revolutionary stretch

(We’ll forgive the ampersand in that last one, probably chosen to assure copy fitting on a single line.)

7 that came close

Allergy Buyers Club is a catalog I normally wouldn’t even know exists. From its title you can sense the specialized nature of its content. What you can’t sense without flipping through the pages is the conversational tone and the emphasis on benefits rather than the products bestowing those benefits. And the benefits are almost always skewed toward allergy sufferers.

4imprint.com is a catalog of custom-imprinted business gifts and novelties. The printed version is rather more sprightly than we’d expect from a catalog that necessarily depends on quick skimming. But the online version is even more of a grabber, with products organized for easy choices and concise selling copy that never goes over the top.

The Great Courses raises a question: Who’d believe that a catalog of college course lectures on audiotapes could be so motivational that the descriptions alone would generate a sale? I’m guessing you would. Words aren’t cheap in this catalog. Some descriptions run for two full pages of eight-point type. But the difference between what might appear in a typical college-issued catalog and this one aimed at the “pop” market is a rare combination of clarity and useful information.

Time for Me is a catalog that reinforces my belief in serendipity—finding what you aren’t looking for. Only by accident was I exposed to it, because it’s aimed solidly at the other gender. This catalog will never win an art director’s award, but for a combination of authenticity and clarity, it’s tops. What grabs me is the wording of product headings: They simplify and sell, and that’s hypercompetitive in today’s marketplace. Can anyone question headings such as …

See the return of tighter skin
Slimming T-shirt hides your trouble spots
Lift your derriere and tone your thighs without exercise!

If some headings hadn’t lapsed into clichés or used loser words such as “available,” this catalog might have made it to the top five. Maybe next year?

The Company Store and thecompanystore.com is one I’m including even though the cover of the print catalog and the home page of the online catalog were considerably less than stimulating. Once beyond those obstacles, copy is solidly superior.

How would you have described in a small space a pedestrian item such as a shag rug? This catalog calls it “Chunky Loop Rug” and combines quick benefit and uniqueness. The complete description in the printed version:

Decadence returns afoot with our lush, plush rug, an updated take on the iconic style shag. Pure wool is looped for extraordinary depth and softness. Latex-cotton backing. Rug grip recommended, see page 78. Spot clean. Imported.

A plus is the name given to each of four illustrated rug colors: Wild Dove, Cinnamon Stick, Insignia Blue and Pumice Stone.

Solutions and solutions.com really should be included in the Five Best, but I’m trapped in arithmetic. The product descriptions in both media are such “grabbers” that I can see at least a half dozen items I wouldn’t ever have thought of as “solutions” to problems I didn’t even know I had, prior to reading the descriptions here. Now I feel guilty, so to ease my guilt this marketer had better send me some freebies.

Bounty Hunter is a catalog of wines. If the wines represented all the great vineyards of the world, this catalog would be in anyone’s top five. Nope. They’re Napa Valley wines and, oenophile that I am, I’d never heard of most of them. Oddly, a segment covering hard liquor does include imports.

That doesn’t affect the quality of the witty and breezy copy. I invite the catalog to keep me on its list, because next year we may do this again.

The 5 worst

Enough happy talk. Let’s take a look at some catalogs that might have had more octane in their copy. Remember, however, the words that don’t apply: Abysmal. Unprofessional. Wrong. Schlocky. All five of these catalogs are professionally put together. They just aren’t (in my opinion) quite on the level of the winners.

No. 1: Smithandnoble.com
Is this a terrible online catalog? No.

Is this an easy-to-navigate online catalog? No.

Oh, sure, online versions of just about any catalog have a cross to bear: We can’t flip through the pages. That’s generic to the medium.

This one, though, throws up an immediate roadblock, forbidding us to move past the homepage by superimposing a big banner headed, “Free in-home design consulting” tied to “Enter your zip code below to check for free in-home design consulting services in your area.” That isn’t catalog-like and suggests only that somebody is going to show up at my front door to sell me who-knows-what.

This marketer’s printed catalog also offers in-home consulting, but the pitch is on the back cover, after we’ve had an opportunity to take a look at what we might want to discuss.

No. 2: Improvements
A strange catalog: Some of the copy is first-rate. But some, even on adjacent pages, barely qualifies as copy. The Spartan nature of almost non-descriptions may be the result of cramming multiple items onto a single page. After all, how much can a cataloger say about 16 disparate “outdoor dining” pieces on one page (page 15 in the catalog I skimmed)? But it’s a competitive world, and clerks can’t match up against salespeople. Even four to six words could unleash dormant motivators. An example:

Rectangular Table + 6 Stacking Arm Chairs (Save $80) $649.93 ($50)

I assume that last $50 is the shipping charge—just a guess. The catalog obviously is aimed at preconditioned disciples.

No. 3: Pottery Barn
I’m uneasy listing this well-known and highly reputable cataloger here. The company has a successful history spanning more than 60 years, and I’ve been a happy customer at its retail stores. Copy in the current catalog, though, is uninspired. Would this, the total description of a $1,999 sofa, stimulate you to head over to the web?

Visit potterybarn.com for details and over 75 fabrics and colors. Grade “C” Fabric (shown). Sofa 96 x 40 x 35 h.

No. 4: Sundancecatalog.com
I’m mounting a slow attack here, based on the difficulty a visitor has when trying to slosh through the online presentation. One problem I encountered was coming upon a different item or page or whatever, each time I reached for this catalog. As of this writing, my entry brought up the “Anika Lightweight Kantha Quilt,” selling for $245 to $295. The description:

Our hand-stitched quilt is overdyed in a rich, rosy hue shadowed by an ikat-inspired print reversing to a warm espresso brown accented by a running kantha stitch. Cotton. Imported. Queen, 96″L x 92″W; king, 96″L x 102″W.

The illustration looks like a towel hung on a bar. So altogether, I have to classify this online catalog as one aimed at disciples, excluding us worldly browsers.

No. 5: http://www.otctools.com/products/catalog
I admit, candidly and cheerfully, that including this catalog here may be unfair, because it’s a specialty catalog that may not need to subscribe to “readability” and “grabber” tenets. Well, maybe, but the first note under “download” is the need for Adobe Acrobat. Yes, most of us have that, but the wording of the warning is a turnoff.

Once you’re inside, after a hefty download, the first page is a photo of devices on a tabletop with this legend: Productivity Solutions … Forged from 100 years of Relentless Innovation.

Then, scroll down and down and down, and … .

Oh, well. Chalk up this opinion to the notion that a b-to-b catalog has to seize and shake from the first image.

Some parting words of wisdom

Want to be competitive in the Internet Era? Then don’t think in seller terms—what it is. Instead, think in sellee terms—what it will do for me. This is no time for a catalog copywriter to show off his or her huge vocabulary or personality. We either tell a reader or web visitor, “You should have this, and here’s why,” or we’re uncompetitive.

Yep. It’s as simple as that.

Herschell Gordon Lewis (herschellgordonlewis.com) is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, Pompano Beach, Florida, and author of 32 books.