This year’s best and worst

WELL, HERE WE GO AGAIN. Finding outstanding catalogs gets easier and easier, and finding less-than-effective catalogs gets more and more difficult. Even with all those “Let’s slap together a version of what we have online” catalogs popping up, plastering a “worst” sticker on any genuine catalog in today’s marketplace can represent a picky attitude rather than an unadulterated critique. That’s the curse of increasing copy quality. I have to choose from the bottom of the stack, just because they’re in the stack. So an obvious disclaimer: “Worst” is comparative, not absolute. If you’re on that list, don’t take the pipe…or take out a blunderbuss and aim it at my window. Be aware of two factors: Factor one — we’re discussing copy only. Some of my choices for excellence never would win an award for art direction. And some of the losers are pictorially resplendent, deficient only on a comparative basis for word use. Factor two — even the post office doesn’t see all the catalogs. I can comment only on those I see. Deep breath. Let’s look at some winners.

Best #1

Yes, it’s a Website. But it’s still the best.

How do you show more than 2,000 men’s casual shoes — and these are just a fraction of the styles shown and described — yet maintain both clarity and speed, two rarities online?

Zappos does this. The visitor has a choice of seeing a page of 12 shoes or a page of 99 shoes. A click quickly brings up a bigger picture, a description, and information about color and size. Okay? Click and you’re in an easy checkout.

In a milieu of confusion and slow checkouts, Zappos is a pleasant oasis, proof that the Web doesn’t have to be a maze.

Best #2

Hello Direct

The Hello Direct catalog has been a model for crisp, bright, clear copywriting for so many years it may qualify for a lifetime achievement award.

For the phone user who has difficulty keeping up with technology, Hello Direct is an easy textbook. Note this product heading:

Works wherever you do!: Seamlessly switch between your office phone & Bluetooth mobile phone.

Or this one, for a wireless sound station:

Conference ANYWHERE…up to 150 feet!

Economy of words, plus clarity, is an indicator of a superior business catalog. Hello Direct is a “no fear” catalog, avoiding technical jargon and relegating mechanical and electronic specifics to a position subordinate to benefits.

Best #3


Whoever writes copy for this literate catalog has mastered the art of combining painless transmission of information with quietly powerful salesmanship. For item after item, copy transforms reader apathy to “I want that.” Here’s a BiOrb Aquarium Kit. A what? The beginning text both disarms and explains:

Hassle-free for you, healthier for fish, the BiOrb has a unique filtration system that cleans the water so you don’t have to. The strong, safe acrylic globe gives fish about ten times more space than a traditional bowl.

Copy never lapses into a pedantic mode. Who would ever consider buying 170 CDs of Mozart? I would, after reading:

Imagine owning all of Mozart’s music (170 CDs) or all of J.S. Bach’s music (155 CDs) for less than a dollar per disc. Each of these collections is an international hit, for good reasons: the recordings (many performed on period instruments, in period style) are excellent, and the packaging is attractive and compact — the size of a shoebox….

One gets the feeling this writer actually looked at the product.

Best #4

The Territory Ahead

I had to include this catalog because in its pages I saw…a bright red union suit. I have no idea how many years it’s been since I saw a union suit anywhere, let alone a red one; I do have an idea that The Territory Ahead has some (I have no idea how many) of the brightest catalog writers I’ve read lately. Here’s the tongue-in-cheek description of the union suit:

First morning in the mountains and you’ve got the flapjacks on the griddle, the mud in the kettle, and the kids calling you “Pappy.” (So far she hasn’t responded to “Little Filly.”) Appears you’ve wasted no time in breaking out your Territory Union Suit, too. And why not? Is it ever too soon to be comfortable? Hell, no. Crafted of a slip-on-easy all-cotton jersey knit that guarantees warmth and promises silly and happy comfort from sunup to…

Nice copy. (No, don’t send me a sample.)

Best #5

Duluth Trading Co.

Here’s a catalog that not only has a sense of humor but uses that sense of humor to drive home potent sales points. Heads nod in agreement, and that’s a well-deserved tribute to rare talent. A product heading: “Endless building fun with Amaze-N-Marbles.” (I’d have preferred “Marble Maze,” but we aren’t discussing product names.) The description begins, irresistibly:

What, a toy that doesn’t plug into a computer or TV? Even more amazing, these vintage blocks and marbles will captivate kids every bit as much as the latest video game….

How would you have described the Oil Cloth Baseball Cap? Probably not as vibrantly, cheerfully, and skillfully as:

Think Alaskan bush pilot at the controls of a DeHavilland Beaver — he’ll take high-function over high-tech any day. 12-1/2 oz. cotton is rugged as all-get-out with an oil-based wax finish that’s highly water repellent and wind resistant. Scruffy good looks too.

Duluth Trading is rich with verbalisms such as “Yikes!” and “Never again!” and “Souped up.” Just one seminegative: First-person copy weaves back and forth from “we” to an unexplained “I.”

So much for the best ones.

NOW FOR THE TOUCHY PART…choosing five that don’t have the cachet, selling power, or inventiveness. I have to emphasize not only that I’m just one guy but also that for any catalog to survive more than one issue, it has to have a core of professionalism. Too, I like some of the copy in every one of these. Aw, enough disclaimers. Here we go.

Worst #1

Wine Country Gift Baskets

Now, look: There’s nothing “wrong” as such with the copy in this catalog. If any description sat alone in a space ad, no one would sense anything awry. But packed into a catalog (I’m looking at the holiday edition), too many descriptions deliver the identical message.

For example, the description for a Season’s Greetings basket begins, “The perfect holiday gift for your business associates, friends and family.” A Festive Gourmet basket begins, “This holiday collection is the perfect way to send your best wishes.” The Ritz begins, “Perfect for sharing, this large metal basket is generously filled with some of the Wine Country’s finest food.” Lasting Impression begins, “A gift for business associates and special clients who appreciate the finer things in life.”

In defense of the sameness, let’s recognize the implicit difficulty of generating a “different” feel for similar items. But that’s what we’re supposed to do, isn’t it?

Worst #2

West Elm

Aside from being hard to read because so much type is either reversed over a light background or set in black over a dark background, the copy in this catalog seems to be a direct lift from a manufacturer’s cold-blooded product sheet. Example, the entire description of “lacquer nesting boxes” (headings all are lower case): “free shipping Sleek, stackable nesting storage — great for giving, even better for keeping. Not food safe. Red; also in green (page 5). Largest box is 5.75″ × 4.5″ × 4″h.” The description of “tribal entry table” begins: “A stylish silhouette for any environment. Sturdy wood construction, with open pedestal base. Assembly required.” Are “stylish” and “sturdy” in sync?

Worst #3

Gaiam Living

What bothers me about this catalog are word sequence and lapses into hackneyed descriptions. Here are Organic Cotton Stripe Percale Sheets, whose description begins, chimera-like: “Sleep with peace of mind on 205 thread count, 100% organic cotton percale that’s both beautiful and Earth-friendly.” The Cedar Storage Chest starts in superlow gear: “Inside or out, our Cedar Storage Chest is the perfect accent piece to complement any décor.” Yes, they use the proper spelling of “complement” and have the grave accent on décor. Does that justify cliché-thinking?

Worst #4

Clark’s Register

I see no problem with spartan descriptions, provided a dollop of sell is included. Copy here is so austere it transmits a “take it or leave it” impression. For example, the entire copy block for a $98 Copper Buckle Belt: “39mm, vintaged, brown, leather belt with English, hand-made, antique, copper buckle. Import. Sizes 32, 34, 36, 38, 40.” Plethora of commas aside, any description that raises more questions than it answers is a model of missed opportunities.

Worst #5

Lamps Plus

Some very acceptable copy here…and some questionable copy.

I’m bothered by some of the catalog’s unexplained endorsements. Lamps Plus immediately springs on us the Kathy Ireland Home Ramas De Luces Chandelier. We can assume actress/model Kathy Ireland has a home, and we aren’t about to argue about Ramas de Luces. I Wikipedia-ed her and found that she was a 1989 swimsuit model for Sports Illustrated and once had a line of clothing at Kmart. Nothing there about lamps. Nothing in the catalog to explain the Kathy Ireland designation, either.

That isn’t the issue. Hit-and-run is out of fashion in the year 2007, when we have Google and Yahoo! and Wikipedia. Even a single line at the top would justify, but the complete description of the chandelier is: “Grand romance in bronze-finished iron sparkling with crystal drops. Oak leaf scrolled arms support six ivory fabric shades. Takes six 60W bulbs (not included). 30″ w × 36-1/2″ h.” See what I mean? If the catalog had called the fixture the Grand Romance Chandelier, it wouldn’t have appeared in this column.

You may not agree with my conclusions. You may have other candidates, good and bad. Or you may resent outside criticism. That’s okay. I have said before and probably will say until they lower me in a box: As Chicago Cub fans continually chant, there’s always next year.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of consultancy Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

These came close…

Zingerman’s The catalog disarmingly describes itself on the cover as “Funky, fun, sometimes a little weird.” Right on! If the list of bests ran to six instead of five, Zingerman’s would zing in there. Copy is as arm-around-the-shoulder appealing as any you’ve read for years. The first sentence for “ann arbor cheese artisan’s box” (yes, I’m offering praise despite the artifice of lowercase headings, a technique I regard as pretentious): “Zingerman’s Creamery is working to slowly turn the American dairy industry back a hundred years.” A subhead, “how to handle a coffee snob,” precedes the heading “roastmaster’s roster gift box.” Body copy begins: “Difficult. That’s putting it politely. Coffee lovers, picky drinkers that they are, are notoriously demanding — especially if you’re trying to offer coffee as a gift…”

A J Prindle I have no familiarity with this automobile-accessories catalog and, in fact, generated a quick negative opinion when I was flipping through it and grimaced at a heading for a tire inflator, “…for all your inflation needs.” But then, dipping into the pages, I realized that maybe “for all your inflation needs” was an inflated aberration stemming from a bad-hair day. I came close to ordering a Coach Caddy based on the heading “Hang a jacket without obstructing your vision” and the first line of text: “Hate arriving for meetings looking like you slept in your clothes?”

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