Borrowing from the masters

This month’s questions

Do you emulate any other catalogers or businesses? If so, whom, and why?

Maybe it’s just good old-fashioned American ingenuity at work: When we asked small catalogers whom they looked to for inspiration in shaping their catalogs, the resounding answer was “Me!” Still, after a little prodding most admitted to being somewhat influenced in at least one aspect of their business by another company. And these sources of inspiration were diverse, ranging from Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Computer Corp., to the companies that place ads in The New York Times Magazine.

Duane Abbajay co-owns Just for Redheads with his wife, Paula Pennypacker. The Sedona, AZ-based cataloger sells beauty, skincare, and suncare products for people with red hair. Annual circulation, 150,000; annual catalog sales, $1 million-$5 million.

No other company does exactly what we do, so we really don’t look to anyone. We do, however, try to emulate bits and pieces of other companies’ management styles.

We especially look to some of the computer and electronics companies for management inspiration. Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Computer – the largest direct manufacturer/marketer of personal computers – comes to mind in particular. We think very highly of the way Michael runs his business, and we think it’s most similar to ours in terms of product quality and customer service. Our company motto is “Customer first.” We try exceed the customer’s expectations in everything we do, because if we don’t, somebody else will.

Debbie Ducommun is the owner of Chico, CA-based The Rat-alog, a catalog of gifts for rat lovers, including stationery, jewelry, tote bags, and rat treats. Annual circulation, 4,000; annual catalog sales, $40,000.

I really don’t emulate anyone, although I did receive some inspiration from the House Mouse Designs catalog when I first started out. It’s a catalog of items for the home with mouse designs, and the woman who runs its sells drawings of little mice on stationery. I looked at her products and what she was charging for them when I was pricing my own notepaper.

Otherwise, I’ve pretty much gone my own way. I’m now known as the Rat Lady, and what began as a newsletter in 1992 is now a 26-page catalog.

Philip Cushway owns ArtRock, a rock-memorabilia catalog based in San Francisco. Annual circulation, 1 million; annual catalog sales, less than $10 million.

We’re not modeled after any company. I suppose if we emulated anything, it was the advertisements that run in The New York Times Magazine. I liked that those advertisements were very different from any other ads.

I had no background in direct mail or publishing before doing this catalog, so I started from square one. I had bought a church in Detroit to turn into a club and went looking for rock posters and other things for the walls. From there buying rock-n-roll memorabilia became a passion.

Abbot Friedland is the owner/founder of The Scholar’s Bookshelf, a multititle cataloger of literary, military, and sports books and videos based in Cranbury, NJ. Annual circulation, 3 million; annual catalog sales, $6 million.

I come from the book publishing world, so I’ve never really paid attention to consumer catalogs. I do what I think is right, which is how I’ve run the business since the start.

Many other catalogers give a lot of consideration to making their catalogs more attractive. They have to, because often they’re selling the same things as other catalog mailers. But we’re a niche market. What our customers like about our catalogs is our comprehensive list of books and that we’re not trying to sell them something they don’t need.

Jason Mischel owns Great Companions, a catalog of pet supplies based in Warren, MN. Annual circulation, 2 million; annual catalog sales, less than $5 million.

We have a consultant, Jim Coogan, who does work for five other catalogs. Through Jim we’ve been able to meet his other clients and exchange a number of ideas back and forth with some of them.

Of the five other clients, hardware cataloger Tool Crib of the North has had the biggest influence on us. For instance, after we studied Tool Crib’s warehouse design, we implemented a similar design for our business.

We’ve also learned a lot about marketing from the other catalogers, which include High Country gardens and Duluth Trading Co. Sharing ideas with other mailers really helps us – plus we get the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

Anne Marcus is president of AnneMail, a Hot Springs, AZ-based cataloger/retailer of specialty toys. Annual circulation, 20,000; annual catalog and Web sales, more than $500,000.

We have been influenced by a number of catalogs that we consider to be “wish books” – for instance, Chef’s Catalog, for cooking enthusiasts; Tiffany and Co., for jewelry lovers; the Neiman-Marcus Christmas Catalog; and Bass Pro Shop, for fishermen.

We consider ourselves a “wish book because we stock and present every item in both the Brio and Thomas the Tank Engine Wooden Railway toy lines. Doing so gives the young “engineers” who cherish our catalogs the same feeling as a cook who is thrilled with the prospect of choosing from every imaginable kitchen gadget.

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