Catalog Copy: Waking Up to the New World of Catalogs

“Montgomery Ward? Who’s he?” That was a question asked at a catalog seminar a few months ago. The venerable icons of the past, such as Montgomery Ward, are forever green in geezers’ memories, but the next generation never will have seen a single page of the giant catalogs issued by Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Co., eagerly received by four generations of catalog shoppers.

Oh, go online and Google will glut you with more than 50,000 references to Aaron Montgomery Ward. But the all-seeing Google has a grasp on history denied to latter-day entrants of our world. Montgomery Ward has joined Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck in that Great President’s Letter in the Sky.

Everybody knows the story “Rip Van Winkle,” by the 19th-century novelist Washington Irving. Rip fell asleep for 20 years and woke up to find the world completely changed.

Ha! If old Rip had been a cataloger who fell asleep 20 years ago and woke up last night, he’d have thought he was on a different planet. Gone or wildly changed are many of the creative processes, psychological theorems, and editorial procedures we all took for granted in 1983.

Creative differentials

Lengthy copy blocks were a rarity 20 years ago. The Sharper Image and the departed DAK catalogs startled many competitors by devoting a full page and sometimes a two-page spread to a single item. The technique was and is spotty in results, but no doubt about it: Consumer copy in many catalogs is longer today than it was 20 years ago.

That ties nicely into the key evolutionary maxims the World Wide Web has superimposed not just on catalogs but on all of advertising and marketing. Effective trends for the 21st century, at least so far:

  1. increasing informality.
  2. increasingly emphatic persuasion.
  3. inclusion of validation.
  4. ease of implementation.

Each of these demands space. Recognition of these trends has resulted in a dichotomy among consumer catalogs. The topmost upscale and the super-economy catalogs bypass the trends for exactly opposite reasons: Upscale catalogs feel — often correctly — that informality, emphasis, and validation damage image with their best customers. Economy catalogs clasp informality to their bosoms but feel — often correctly — that emphasis and validation should be secondary to price.

I’ll have more to say about ease of implementation when pointing out the benefits and foibles of online catalogs. In general, though, the last holdouts against toll-free calls seem to have come into the fold. The problem isn’t that catalogers don’t offer toll-free phone orders; rather, it’s that too often the promise made isn’t a promise kept. Callers get “All of our operators are busy. Stay on the line and…” Click.

Add to that the reality of a huge percentage of the population not knowing that 888- , 877- , and 866-numbers actually are toll-free, and we realize: Maximizing the effectiveness of toll-free phone ordering still has a way to go.

The sword has two edges. Upsell is neither as automatic nor as easy on the Web as it is on the phone. Countering this is the lower cost of automated order entry, the uneven results of having live voices and the personalities behind them answering the phone, and business lost because of unavailable operators.

As for the other three elements, it’s neither strange nor surprising that business-to-business catalogs retain a dispassionate tone, adding only the third item, validation, as separate copy segments outside individual descriptions.

Rip Van Winkle might have claimed in 1983, “I know who my customers are.” But surely he would have been aghast at the notion of tailoring specific catalogs to specific demographic segments identified in his database. Today no one is surprised when a cataloger sends different catalogs to two next-door neighbors. No one is surprised when a business catalog says on its cover “You probably are almost out of the toner you bought from us in December.”

Database was a new word 20 years ago, although the concept long preceded not only Addressograph plates but also the hand-entered records of Montgomery Ward and Sears. CRM? That’s one we’re still wrestling with, because unrelenting technology seems to be two steps ahead of psychology.

Speaking of unrelenting technology…

Remember what computers could do in 1983? The IBM-XT was replaced by the AT, a marvel of technology with 5 MB of memory. That computer, as we all know too well, couldn’t load one-tenth of any contemporary word-processing program, let alone Adobe or MGI Photosuite. And the primitive Apple of 1983, side by side with the AT in a museum, would look at Quark and Photoshop and marvel…as would its operator. The flexibility and speed we take for granted were in embryo just 20 years ago, just as whatever we’re doing now will be considered primitive in 2023.

By far the most stupendous change during the past 20 years has occurred during the past eight years. Even as recently as 1995, the World Wide Web was considered a novelty by many.

A gigantic evolution is the use of printed catalogs to drive customers to the Web. This has become especially true — and, often, especially welcome — for business catalogs. Why business catalogs? Reports indicate that returns are considerably reduced when an order is entered online. This may be because the possibility of erroneous SKUs or product numbers is reduced…or it may be because the purchaser feels more in control and is, consequently, less likely to be displeased with whatever he/she has bought.

E-mail and the Web have, between them, wrought an attitudinal change that affects catalog copy, sometimes dramatically. Two effects of the rise of e-mail and the Web are profound: First, the Web is price-driven. As I (and others) have pointed out, a dedicated upscale catalog can and should not only bypass that factor but, to maintain image, ridicule it.

Second, e-mail and the Web have reduced attention spans to those of a gnat. That, in turn, has two marketing-savvy effects: 1) The home page has to be a hot grabber; 2) e-mail promising a “deal” should click directly to that deal, bypassing corporate chest thumping and philosophies. Catalogs that use e-mail as teasers, leading to the entire lineup, have wondered why the ratio of clicks to orders is so out of whack. They needn’t wonder: It’s generic to Web psychology. Remember that fourth trend — ease of implementation?

Speaking of Web psychology…

I, for one, am not unhappy that the entire catalog universe seems to have speeded up. The Web has forced sluggish marketers to add octane to their copy. For the first time, we’re seeing comparative copy as a staple in catalogs that until a couple of years ago would have regarded the notion of getting out there and slugging as vulgar. On a moderately sad note, the quite natural reverse side of this evolution is the gradual deemphasis of lyrical copy in favor of benefit copy.

Those of us who love our adjectives and poetic descriptions may have to adapt or resign our descriptions to a secondary position; but those of us who revel in the roiling seas of catalog competition are looking forward to the ripening battle for consumer and business dollars, euros, and pounds.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Fort Lauderdale, FL-based Lewis Enterprises.

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