Catalog Copy: Does Your Guarantee Actually Guarantee? And Should It?

I’m indebted to Kristin Anderson of Magellan’s for this month’s subject. • Too often, catalogers take either a Pollyanna point of view or a sour one toward their post-sale obligation or nonobligation to customers. • “The customer is always right.” Oh? Is that so? Catalogs have suffered mightily from blind adherence to this benevolence.

Still, traditionally and currently, catalogs seem to hew considerably closer to this golden slogan than do their retail counterparts.

The L.L. Bean tradition

Almost from the beginning of time, the bellwether of catalog guarantees has been that of L.L. Bean:

Our products are guaranteed to give 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise. We will replace it, refund your purchase price or credit your credit card. We do not want you to have anything from L.L. Bean that is not completely satisfactory.

L.L. himself printed on a circular (dated 1916 and still visible on the company’s Website): “I do not consider a sale complete until goods are worn out and the customer still satisfied.” In today’s “me, myself, I” consumer ambience, that can be asking for trouble. But it certainly enhances the image of catalogs per se.

Travel products cataloger Magellan’s guarantee is worded in the Bean tradition:

Our promise of 100% satisfaction has not changed since we began Magellan’s in 1989. If for any reason, at any time, you are not completely happy with any purchase, let us know. We’ll make it right or cheerfully refund the full purchase price of the product.

Men’s gifts catalog Sporty’s Preferred Living has a guarantee that closely parallels that of Magellan’s, headed “Sporty’s One-Year Guarantee”

Our one-year guarantee has not changed since we introduced our first product in 1962. If for any reason you are not 100% satisfied with your purchase, let us know — we will make it right. If you would like a refund or exchange, please return the product on a timely basis in the same condition in which it was received.

Nice copy: “we will make it right.” (One reason I love Sporty’s is they never are chintzy. They include batteries with any product that requires them.)

Gifts and gadgets mailer Lifestyle Fascination has a four-point guarantee the company says is “Absolutely the STRONGEST guarantee of any catalog today!” It’s a four-point catchall:

  1. Guarantee of satisfaction: If for any reason you aren’t happy with your purchase, send it back for a 100% refund.

  2. Guarantee of quality: If you think an item isn’t exactly as described, send it back for a 100% refund.

  3. Guarantee for one month: At any time within one full month, if you decide not to keep something you bought from us, send it back for a 100% refund.

  4. Guarantee of lowest price: If within one month you find the identical item advertised at a lower price in another catalog, just send us a copy of that ad, and we’ll refund the difference.”

Powerful! And note the key words of the first guarantee, paralleling those of the Magellan’s and Sporty’s guarantees: “If for any reason.” This wording sets a torrid pace for competitors to match, because it’s an absolute. The company specifically disallows itself any escape based on a hidden technicality. It’s that clarity, that totality that gives credibility to a catalog’s guarantee.

The nasty phrase: ‘You must’

I was one of the judges for the European Catalogue and Mail Order Days awards last year. One noticeable difference I encountered in U.K. catalogs (catalogues) is a “You must” admonition. Typical wording: “Payment must be made, and cleared, prior to dispatch.” Okay, could you have written that same message without the irritation?

Sure! You’d have written, “We’ll ship immediately, as soon as credit card charges have cleared.” Same information, less irritation.

Another technique common in the U.K. and uncommon in the U.S. is the asterisked exception. A major business catalog of 500-plus pages has this, on the inside back cover:

Our Promise…

If you are not 100% satisfied with a product you have purchased from [Name of company], we will replace it or give you your money back*

Well, that wording seems straightforward enough, if somewhat terse. But, uh, what about that accursed asterisk? At the bottom of the page we see, in “mice type”

*Terms and conditions apply.

Terms and conditions? What terms? What conditions? A U.S. catalog couldn’t hit and run that way. Different marketplaces obviously accept far different degrees of disclaiming.

The partial guarantee

A “double” guarantee appears in cooking knives catalog Professional Cutlery Direct (PCD). The first guarantee is headed “Manufacturers’ Warranties”

Our manufacturers stand behind their products. Most of the items we sell come with unconditional lifetime guarantees against defects in materials and workmanship from their manufacturers. Guarantees do not apply to normal wear and tear or damage from use other than the intended purpose of the item. Defective items will be repaired or replaced at the discretion of the manufacturer.

That last sentence doesn’t help much, does it? And we’d have softened the “Guarantees do not apply…” sentence with a prefatory “Of course,” changing “do not apply” to “cannot apply.”

The second guarantee is headed, “Need to return an item?”

If you receive an item from PCD and find it is not the right tool for you, please return it within 30 days. If you return an item unused, we will refund your money or issue a store credit, your choice. If you return an item used, we will issue a store credit only. Shipping charges cannot be reimbursed. Kindly call us for a Return Authorization (RA) number. If possible, include original invoice with your return package.

Neiman Marcus, totally customer responsive in its retail stores, is a bit less compassionate in its catalog:

To return or exchange merchandise, please enclose your packing slip (noting on the front side the reason for return and the action you wish taken) and ship prepaid and insured to:…

Understand, please: This isn’t an attack. Many, many catalogs won’t pay the cost of returns. But adding the word “insured” will strike many as a way of hampering returns. Well, they did say, “please.”

Should we criticize catalogs that hedge their guarantees, that straightforwardly tell the customer “returns are on you,” that don’t make a “forever” promise? Heck, no. We aren’t living in a kind and gentle society. But even during these brutal times, catalog customers have to respond with confidence to those companies that still stand proudly behind those golden four words: “If for any reason.”

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 24 books, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.