Those pesky product problems

This month’s question

What is the biggest merchandising challenge you’ve faced?

Trouble securing inventory tops the list of small catalogers’ myriad merchandising problems. It seems that product vendors, used to dealing with larger companies, are often reluctant to sell smaller quantities of goods. And when small mailers do find vendors willing to work with them, some say they often become frustrated by the lack of communication on the vendors’ part.

Carla Turner is the product manager for Vineyard Music, an Anaheim, CA-based catalog that sells Christian music and videos for children and adults. Annual sales, less than $10 million; annual circulation, 45,000.

Our biggest challenge is simply keeping product in stock. We’ve been selling product faster than we anticipated. In the past, we would initially order a large quantity of merchandise from vendors, and order a minimal amount of product thereafter. But we have since had to change this procedure because we were constantly running out of goods due to high customer demand.

To resolve this problem, we’ve incorporated a new procedure. We increase the amount of product we initially order from vendors (this is especially crucial for new releases) and order double the amount of product we used to on our second request to our vendors. Then on our third and subsequent product requests, we decrease the amount of product that we order from the vendors. We have also incorporated a system to monitor the average number of items sold daily to keep track of exactly what and how much we need to order.

Ken Parr is the cofounder of Trousseaus and Treasures, a Sandy, UT-based catalog that sells heirloom gifts and linens. Annual sales, less than $1 million; annual circulation, 50,000.

Our biggest merchandising challenge is simply getting our products developed in the first place. The inspiration for our catalog came from my wife’s idea to rekindle the concept of a girl’s trousseau, so we sell all the things that would go in one: silver frames and hairbrushes, lace pillows, christening gowns, quilts, and other heirloom-type products. Being a small start-up – we launched just this year – we don’t have to build a huge inventory to meet the demand of our customers. But since we’re new, it’s been hard to find vendors willing to supply the product to us.

Many vendors wouldn’t deal with us because we’re too small. They told us to come back when we are bigger and will order larger quantities of product. And offshore manufacturers weren’t interested in working with us either. They were reluctant to give us any information and usually gave us the same reason – that we’re too small – as other vendors.

We’ve also experienced problems with vendors that I think have little to do with our size. We’ve been to trade shows, found product we like, contacted the vendor to place the order, and then been told that the merchandise has been discontinued. Or we finished a photo shoot and then found out that the vendor was discontinuing some of the products we just shot. It’s very frustrating.

Amy Hicks is vice president/ director of catalog operations for the Virginia Co., a Warrenton, VA-based cataloger/retailer of jewelry, food, and home accessories. Annual sales, less than $10 million; annual circulation, more than 500,000.

Our biggest merchandising challenge is getting enough product. We sell mostly products made in Virginia, and locating Virginia-based vendors takes a lot of work. And because our product is Virginia-specific, we have a tighter base of merchandise to choose from, so we have little use for some of the bigger gift shows. Instead, we go to the smaller shows in-state. This works out well because we meet smaller companies that are willing to create an exclusive product for our business.

About 10%-15% of the products we sell are produced out of state but are Virginia-themed. For example, we’ll sell products that bear our state flower or are Civil War-oriented. But we prefer to sell products that are made by local vendors, which is a challenge as we continue to grow. Our fall/holiday catalog features more than 60% new products, about 95% of which are made in-state.

But even though it is sometimes a struggle for us to find local vendors, we’re constantly meeting new people from Virginia to work with. The local gift shows aren’t redundant – about every two years, entirely new vendors are there exhibiting their products. Many of the vendors do only certain shows each year, so we’re not likely to run into the same people and product over and over.

Greg Taylor is president of Liberty Orchards, a Cashmere, WA-based cataloger that sells fruit confections. Annual sales, $7 million; annual circulation, 5 million.

Merchandising isn’t something we spend too much time on, because we sell an exclusive food product that we manufacture. Our biggest merchandising challenge comes during the holiday season, when we try to make some of our products look more seasonal. We use a lot of the same stock baskets and tins that many other food gifts catalogers use. So we contract an artist to create a proprietary seasonal theme for some of the packaging during the holidays, which helps our product stand out from the crowd.

Lette Birn is the president of Form & Function, a Santa Fe, NM-based cataloger/retailer of Southwestern-style lighting. Annual sales, $400,000; annual circulation, approximately 15,000.

One season, we sold lamps that were made from willow tree branches. The lamps were green when we photographed them for the catalog. But over time, the color of the lamps changed, first to a yellow tone, and then finally to a muted brown. It was natural for the willow wood to change in color this way, but we were not aware that it would. We sent out letters to all of the customers who had purchased the lamps, explaining what had happened and offering refunds or exchanges. But we didn’t get one return or exchange. People were interested to know why it happened, but fortunately, they were all happy with the brown color. That situation could have been a lot worse.