Salesmanship triumphs

Looking over some of this year’s winners of the Multichannel Merchant Awards, I was seeking a common denominator.

My conclusion is on the loose-fitting side, but checking print catalog after print catalog and Web catalog after Web catalog, it seems to hold together. What the winners seem to have in common, whether in medium, in product, or in targeted-recipients: salesmanship.

How does this differ from previous years? Well, that’s an unanswerable question because the panel of judges, and the attitudinal approach of individual judges, can, obviously differ from year to year.

But what I see is what you probably saw, both as a catalog reader and as catalog competitor: Cleverness has to be tied to dynamic merchandising. And this, in turn, means that knowledge of product is just half the game. The other half is knowledge of why somebody may not only want to acquire that product, but will have his or her desire generated by its presentation in the catalog.

(Disclaimer: This column discusses only copy. The original judging process evaluates the total presentation — copy, illustration, and overall appeal.)

Let’s look at copy in some of this year’s Gold and Silver winners.

(Print) Gold: Food/Gifts, Sales over $20 million

Cover copy on the “First Harvest 2009” catalog is no-nonsense, no-artifice, no-forced-excitement. Total cover copy, excepting only a pedestrian explanation of fruit shown on the cover: FREE — Standard Delivery — Two ways to save! See card & details on page 2

For me, the ampersand in any selling copy is a turnoff. But it’s not a reason to disqualify a catalog. So we’ll turn to page 2, where a highly personalized and conversational “President’s letter” is at once both inviting and sincere. The heading:

This year, you’ll find even sweeter savings on the world’s juiciest citrus gifts.

The letter itself begins:

I promise. Boy, have we been busy with our red pens … lowering prices across the board. You see, we want to keep the joy of giving the very best citrus gifts within your budget. After all, the Holidays are no time to compromise on quality for family and friends … right? Of course right!

HoneyBells, the company’s signature product, get the star treatment. The heading, “Hurry, they’re only here for a limited time,” is reinforced by a subhead, “HoneyBells are available once — and only once — for four short weeks in January.” Body copy, written first-person, begins:

You’ve got to reserve your gift now so they can be hand-picked and shipped in January. That’s why they’re called the World’s Only Limited Edition Fruit®.

When HoneyBell gifts start arriving, I receive all sorts of fun-filled photos of wonderful folks who share my love for HoneyBells. And I get poems and stories, songs and sonnets.

Does credibility suffer here? Will the typical catalog recipient believe that someone sending or getting a gift of oranges would compose a sonnet to the vendor? C’mon.

That, though, isn’t the point. Copy in the entire catalog flows with enthusiasm — mildly over the top, but never shrill.

(Print) Gold: Food/Gifts, Sales under $20 million

Even at first glance, this declares itself as a specialty catalog. The cover has a composite word, “WildPureDelicious,” under which is “Delivered to your door.” No specifics yet. Inside the cover is a picture of the founder, accompanied by a strangely romantic haiku:

Swim through iced waters
My net will be your blanket
You will be my life

The intended explanation of the haiku, in mice-type: “Original Haiku for Vital Choice by valued customer Pamela Edwards.” A “President’s letter” on that page is a classic example of unaffected conversational earnestness.

Product descriptions begin on page 3, and they maintain an easy, smooth and understandable pace. An example is a page on which a description of the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids substantiates product. This is one of two, under a main heading “Delicious albacore & cod” (there’s that deadly ampersand again), “Albacore Tuna Medallions / 6 oz package”:

Our sashimi-grade tuna is troll-caught and quick-frozen at sea. It’s the purest available, a rich source of omega-3s, firm and flavorful. Each 6 oz. package typically contains two to four ¾“ thick skinless, boneless medallions. Sustainably harvested, dolphin-safe.

As a consumer untrained in exotic consumables, I can only guess what “sashimi-grade” means. Doesn’t it suggest raw, not cooked?

And there’s the word “available,” which should be exiled from any cataloger’s keyboard. But the catalog is handsomely produced, and that’s a heavy factor.

(Web) Gold: Computer and High-Tech Equipment and Software

I’m looking at the home page of somewhat after the time of the original judging, but I’ll assume a Gold winner isn’t making radical changes.

Altogether, this winner yells, “Big bargains!” and does it well. The main heading is “Sale — Up to 92% off MSRP,” with heavy type treatment for “DEALS FOR THE ROAD.”

And what are Deals for the Road? That wording gives pause to outlanders and high enthusiasm to inlanders, who aren’t disappointed by wording on the jump-page:

Whether your gigs take you to summer festivals or the local watering hole, we’ve got the gear you need at prices that’ll leave you some money for gas. Guitars, basses, acoustic and electronic drums, keyboards, mics, tuners, guitar amps, bass amps, PA systems, stands, cases, straps, strings, and picks: you’ll find them all here at some of the year’s LOWEST prices. Be sure to also check out all our Price Cuts, Rebates, Factory Restocks, Free Gifts with purchase, Clearance, and Used Gear for even more savings.

Easy to navigate (a happy circumstance unrelated to copy), this Web catalog keeps the promise made on its home page (a happy circumstance directly related to copy).

(Print) Silver: Business Specialty Products

What’s on the cover? A shoe, with the legend, “the original slip-resistant shoe.” As a validator, in smaller type: “25 years and still gripping.”

The cover shoe, obviously a work-shoe expected and accepted as such by the company’s name, is featured on page 9, with “new,” a curious adjective after the “25 years and still gripping” line, which we reinterpret to be a corporate reference. The shoe is named “Evolution”; the subhead under that title: “Serious comfort and safety in an innovative, shock-absorbing design.” Okay, let’s see how body copy amplifies that claim:

Attack those double shifts with our exclusive air piston heel support system that’s designed to absorb up to 70% of impact energy with every step. Genuine leather uppers with a padded collar and removable cushioned insoles. This sporty style has patent leather details and unparalleled slip-resistant outsoles.

I guess we have to agree, at least in part. Absorbing up to 70% of impact is a major benefit for a work shoe. But patent leather details? Does that mean we can wear it to the Policeman’s Ball as well as the factory? A mini-explanation might help here — or maybe not, if the typical buyer knows something we outsiders don’t.

And that’s enough for this year. I’ve dissected only a handful of winners, but I’m at the word limit for this column. Unless you have a cache of the winners, you’ll either take my word that benefit now trumps clinical description — or you won’t.

Maybe, though, you’ll have second thoughts before using the ampersand and the word “available.” I’ll gladly settle for that.

And with that imperative in mind, consider entering a catalog or Website in this year’s competition. You might not just get a handsome plaque — you might also be lucky or unlucky enough to justify comments in this column.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Pompano Beach, FL.

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