Pulp Fiction

For catalogers, paper selection is a delicate balancing act. You must constantly weigh your creative aspirations against cost concerns.

During the past year, the economic recession has led a number of catalogers to settle for lesser papers than they might have in the past. “There is a trend toward downgrading paper grades and basis weights,” says Bob Forsberg, director of marketing of catalogs for Boston-based Sappi Fine Papers North America. In fact, he believes that even more catalogers would be downgrading if not for the depressed paper market and resulting low paper prices, which have helped balance rising production and postal costs.

That means, according to Ed Weinstein, vice president of catalog and publication sales for Newark, NJ-based paper merchant Central Lewmar, that once the paper market rebounds and prices begin to rise, even more catalogers will likely sacrifice quality for savings.

How low can you go?

Office supplies mailer Quill Corp. tested in April a 30-lb. supercalendered-A (SC-A) against the 33-lb. SC-A paper it had been using for its semiannual core catalog. The Lincolnshire, IL-based cataloger had been using a 33-lb. weight for more than 10 years, recalls print production manager Vern Bush.

“At first we were reluctant to switch, since the catalog has a six-month shelf life, but the 30-lb. met our standards,” Bush says. “Plus mills seem to be making better calendared sheets, so you can afford to lighten up the basis weight a bit.” Bush also suggests that the continual postal hikes may be prompting the mills to produce more lightweight papers such as #5s and SC-A and SC-B.

Schaumburg, IL-based Reliable Corp., another office supplies mailer, has been gradually lowering the basis weights on all its catalogs during the past five years. “Right now we are as low as we want to go without compromising opacity,” says catalog production manager Darlene Sobers.

Reliable Corp. uses a 32-lb. SC-A+ for its annual catalog, 32-lb. SC-A or #5 for its quarterly edition, and 28-lb. to 33-lb. SC-B for the smaller catalogs that it mails every six to eight weeks. The company looks at the shelf life of a book closely when deciding what paper to select for each catalog, Sobers says.

Business catalogers producing annual books that are meant to be saved for 12 months need to use a fairly sturdy paper. But overall, b-to-b mailers have more flexibility than their consumer counterparts when it comes to paper quality, says Mary Ann Kleinfelter, president of Marketing Solutions Today, a Milford, NH-based consultancy specializing in b-to-b catalogs. “If you are selling need-based consumables, such as copy paper, pretty paper won’t increase response.”

In fact, Kleinfelter says studies show that business customers often think that higher-quality paper means higher product prices. “B-to-b customers don’t want to feel that they are shouldering the cost of fancy paper,” she says.

Among consumer catalogers, however, lower-quality paper can translate to lower response. A change in basis weight from, say, a 50-lb. to 45-lb. sheet isn’t likely to hurt response, says Lois Boyle, president/chief creative officer of Shawnee Mission, KS-based catalog agency J. Schmid & Associates. But when you reduce weight and paper grade simultaneously while also cutting back on trim sizes or page counts, you could be slashing the perceived value of your product offering — to the point that your lost sales outweigh your paper and postage savings.

In fact, Boyle says that smaller catalogs often need heavier paper. “If your book has fewer than 48 pages or is a digest size and you use paper that is less than 60-lb., you run the risk of falling victim to the ‘droop factor,’” she says. Balance a catalog on your hand; if it droops over on each side, you have a skimpy-looking book that is more likely to get lost in the mail — or chucked in the trash.

In part to avoid the droop factor, King Arthur Flour’s art director, Janet Matz, prints the body of the company’s Baker’s Catalogue on 40-lb. #4 sheet. The Norwich, VT-based manufacturer/marketer of cooking products also uses a 50-lb. eight-page outside wrap.

Matz has tested a #5 groundwood with an A/B split of both her house file and a prospect file and found that the #4 freesheet paid for itself in terms of response and brand identity. “Our average buyers have a high discretionary income, so perceived quality is important,” says Matz. She also found that the groundwood was somewhat grayer than the freesheet, which gave a slightly greenish tint to some of the photos of breads. “We like the warmer whites of the freesheet,” she says. Plus, “the inks work better on freesheet as opposed to groundwood.”

Paper before price

For certain, catalogers of high-ticket apparel and jewelry have to be careful when downgrading paper. Ditto food mailers, says Tony Cox, whose Richardson, TX-based consultancy, Catalog Solutions, specializes in working with food catalogers. Such mailers, he says, “need a nice bright sheet, preferably a #3, possibly a #4, but never a #5.”

Cox had a client, St. Johnsbury, VT-based Maple Grove Farms, that used to print on a 50-lb. #5. Two years ago, Maple Grove Farms tested a 60-lb. #4 when a spot paper buy yielded the same price for both grades. The A/B split test of the house file factored in the true market cost of the #4 — and still found a lift in profitability from that paper. “The upgrade gave us a whiter, cleaner look and enhanced the appeal of the products,” says Maple Grove’s catalog manager Marianne Jancaitis, “so we continue to use that paper grade.”

Moreover, Cox says, the average page count for mailers in the food niche is only 28.8. So going below a 60-lb. tends to make the catalogs look like newspaper fliers. And in the food industry, photography is typically expensive, what with extra costs for stylists and gruelingly long shoots, so catalogers should not compromise that with paper that can’t effectively reproduce the quality of the photos, he says.

Sephora, a New York-based cataloger/retailer of high-end cosmetics, is so concerned with color accuracy and brand perception that it uses a 100-lb. #2, a thick, bright white sheet. Although price is always a factor, catalog marketing manager Chaffee Braithwaite says, “we feel that we need to invest in the highest quality level we can.”

Sephora has examined the possibility of going down to an 80-lb. #2 freesheet. Earlier this year it printed a sample copy of its spring edition on the stock and passed it around the office for review. The staff was evidently not impressed: “In the end,” Braithwaite says, “we were able to budget for the heavier sheet.”

Plus-size apparel marketer Making It Big also uses #2 paper, though it opts for a 60-lb.-stock. “We want our customers to perceive our catalog as having value,” says Cynthia Riggs, president of the Cotati, CA-based cataloger. The high-quality paper, she adds, conveys the durability and workmanship of clothing.

Even some catalogers selling lower-ticket items are avoiding downgrading. “Performance takes precedence,” says Mike Muoio, chairman/president/CEO of Oshkosh, WI-based gifts and home goods mailer Miles Kimball.

Miles Kimball uses a #5 across all of its titles, but it uses a 34-lb. for the namesake book and a 40-lb. for the Exposures catalog, which sells photo albums, frames, and related products to a somewhat more upscale audience. Muoio says that his competitors all seem to be downgrading to SC grades and basis weights as low as a 28-lb. But if he is to do any testing at all, he says, it will be on higher grades and weights.


Office supplies cataloger Reliable Corp. has been downgrading both the grade and the weight of the paper stock it uses for its books. If you’re thinking of switching paper as well, Reliable’s catalog production manager Darlene Sobers offers a few suggestions:

  • Start with a budget, and talk to your marketing department about the goal of the book. Is the book a complement to the retail arm of your business? Is it distributed by mail, via a sales force, or primarily in stores? You may need to go with a lower weight for your mailed catalogs to save postage.

  • Meet with your circulation department to see who the catalog is going to. Is it going mainly to prospects or to house file names who are already familiar to the brand? How many editions/drops are planned, and how will that influence the shelf life of your catalog? What are the statistics on the pass-around rate of your catalog?

  • Research what your competitors are using. Is the color quality and photo reproduction on your competitor’s book giving it a better lift? Or is a lower grade working for the competition — and saving it money? Look carefully at what others are using, but also at why they are using it.

  • Select a few grades and weights to test. Before you unroll the new paper to your entire circulation, perform some tests (A/B splits among both prospect lists and house file lists generally work well). Otherwise you could end up with a costly error that will not be offset by your savings in terms of paper and postage.


BASIS WEIGHT: the weight in pounds of 500 sheets of paper at the paper’s basic size

BRIGHTNESS: measurement of diffuse light reflection from a paper surface

CALENDERING: mechanical treatment of a coated sheet that imparts smoothness and gloss; passing a sheet of paper through a series of alternating steel and cotton rolls to smooth the surface and control bulk

COATED PAPER: paper composed of a base sheet covered on one or both sides with a finishing layer

FREESHEET (or SHEET): paper that contains no more than 10% mechanical wood pulp

GROUNDWOOD PAPER: paper that contains more than 10% mechanical pulp

OPACITY: the extent to which light transmission is obstructed

POST-CONSUMER WASTE: paper recovered after being used by a consumer

PULP: wet slurry of fibers and water that is the basic ingredient of paper

SUPERCALENDER: calender stack with alternate metal and resilient rolls; used to produce a smooth finish on paper

Source: Xpedx


You already know how critical the cover is to the success of a catalog. Even if you downgrade your catalog’s body stock, you can maintain or improve the perceived value of your catalog with a good cover, says Rick Fitzgerald, director of marketing services for New England Business Service (NEBS). Here, some things to consider when selecting cover paper:

  • Look not only at the grade, but also at the types of UV coatings used by different brands. A heavier coating will make the paper look and feel sturdier; it will also increase the weight.

  • Be aware of how your catalogs fare in the postal system. The U.S. Postal Service has new automated flats readers that may tear delicate cover stocks. Self covers are easy to print and create the illusion of cost savings, but the real expense is the condition of the books in the mailbox.

  • Splurging on the cover enhances the shelf life of a catalog. And if you are forced to downgrade the body stock, holding onto the cover stock can help make the shift less apparent.


Certainly, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of 2001 have led to cultural changes, among them the so-called nesting phenomenon. The aftermath of 9/11 also led more companies to switch to matte and recycled papers, contends Kim Hoffman, account manager for New Leaf Paper, a San Francisco-based recycled-paper merchant.

“Many catalogs are marketing natural, organic, and healing products, and the matte esthetic and recycled paper fit well with that marketing goal,” Hoffman says. And some marketers printing on recycled stock have upped the percentage of the paper’s post-consumer waste (PCW). Vancouver-based sports equipment cataloger Mountain Equipment Co-op switched from paper with 15% PCW to 30% PCW in 2001.

Experts advise catalogers using recycled stock to leverage their ecological choice by calling attention to it with some editorial. “Using recycled paper can provide a lift in response and pay its own way while saving the environment,” adds Hoffman.

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