Proof of the power of versioning: When Sara Lee Direct wanted to increase orders from the segment of its house file that had bought plus-size apparel from its One Hanes Place catalog, it mailed those customers its Just My Size catalog, which sells plus-size apparel exclusively. But response rates from those One Hanes Place buyers were 17% below those of a typical Just My Size mailing. “Clearly, the women purchasing larger sizes from One Hanes Place did not think of themselves as plus-size,” says Shari Altman, Sara Lee Direct’s director of marketing.

So Sara Lee decided to version its One Hanes Place catalog to this subset of its house file by inserting merchandise from Just My Size within an edition of One Hanes Place. When those same customers received the reversioned One Hanes Place catalog, response soared 21% and the average order size grew 1%, Altman says.

The One Hanes Place with the emphasis on plus-size apparel is just one of the dozens of versions that the cataloger produces every three months. But while Sara Lee Direct, the direct marketing arm of consumer products manufacturer/marketer Sara Lee Corp., has boosted response and average order size by creating myriad catalog versions, the benefits do cost the company time and money.

Sara Lee breaks up its production schedule into four print cycles every three months; each cycle produces two large, two medium, and two small print runs. A large print run for both Sara Lee titles typically produces a total of 20 million catalogs and includes 62 versions of the cover; 12 versions of a 64-page book; two versions of a 48-page book; two versions with a 20-page insert; one version with an eight-page insert; 21 bind-in order forms; four versions of a standard bind-in reply card; and an outerwrap. Most of the catalog bodies are printed on a rotogravure press, while the covers and other inserts are printed on web offset.

The challenge of so many versions, says Mark Wilmot, Sara Lee’s director of marketing services, is that the bindery lines are limited to 30 pockets, “and we use all of them.” (Page signatures are loaded into the pockets – where signatures are held before being collated – on a bindery line. As the pieces move down the line, the bindery computer tells the appropriate pockets to “fire,” based on mailing list codes.)

To further complicate matters, a cycle may include five mailings, with four drops using 30 pockets, and one using 28 pockets. A typical 30-pocket mailing uses 11 of the pockets for covers, eight for different inside page signatures, seven for bind-in order forms, three for bind-in cards, and one for outerwraps. “We pull these in different ways to create different catalogs,” Wilmot says.

The multitude of versions requires Sara Lee to stagger the production of the pages for the various books. For instance, the cataloger creates its covers weeks before the rest of the pages. “We have to make sure that some, if not all, of the cover versions are at the lettershop before they can go to the stitcher,” Wilmot says. “A mailing with only two or three versions of the same catalog can start addressing and stitching around the same time as the rest of the book is produced.”

Proof is in the numbers

The additional printing plates and cylinders for the numerous pages add to the production cost per book (though Sara Lee declines to give specifics). To save on overall printing and paper costs, Sara Lee and its printer, Quad/Graphics, try to “gang-run” versions on the printing press. The catalog bodies, which typically contain the same pages, are printed simultaneously; covers, inserts, and extra pages are printed separately. “If you take two versions of the catalog with a similar print-run quantity, you can put the versions on the same press, or `gang’ them together, to save on plates and cylinders,” Wilmot says.

All in all, “the lift in response and sales is more than sufficient to pay for the additional production costs of a separate version,” Altman says. “Besides, you can’t make the same offer repeatedly and expect to retain customers’ interest.”

Among Sara Lee Direct’s various versions are editions of Just My Size and One Hanes Place that promote lingerie and apparel up front, as opposed to those that sell the hosiery in the opening pages. In a test, recipients of the catalogs that led off with lingerie and clothing showed a 15% rise in response compared to recipients of the other catalogs, with the average order sizes of lingerie up 5%. “By moving the intimate apparel to the front of the book, we were able to get them to buy more than just hosiery,” Altman says.

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