Smart copy can prevent returns

The “What if…” factor can be a barrier to an order. But it has a secondary cutting edge: It can be the cause of returned merchandise.

That double edge cuts deeply when a catalog customer’s lack of satisfaction stems from a description that doesn’t describe enough.

One reason I admire copy in the Orvis catalog is inclusion of mini-detail that heads off potential problems. An example, for men’s loafers:

“This shoe runs small; best worn with thin socks, or order up ½ size.”

Simple? Yes. Prevents a recipient from getting a shoe that doesn’t quite fit and is plopped back into the box and returned? Yes.

For a “Boot polish tin compass,” a line of copy heads off buyer’s remorse: “Compass is fully functional, but not calibrated for field use.”

Description of a briefcase adds this extra clarification: “Holds laptops up to 15½“ wide.” Bits such as these generate confidence that spreads like a happy contagion as a prospective customer rifles through the entire catalog.

Answer unasked questions

Those ancient times in which a printed catalog was a stand-alone have given way to a multiplicity of sources: Our best buyers are our most selective buyers, and they use our glittering offer as a touchstone for comparisons.

So any reassurance lifts our offer to a plateau others may not reach. Say an advertiser promotes an item called the Posture Pump, and copy is limited to “Stretch your back and relieve stiffness and pain.” That’s a loose promise, and the headline in the catalog. But the description partially validates the claim:

“If you’re suffering from lower back pain, your spine may have lost its normal shape. When the spine loses its natural curved shape, the discs are compressed and rich lubricating fluid may be unable to penetrate. This may cause premature aging in the form of stiff dry joints. The Posture Pump®Elliptical Back Rockerhas a unique dual inflation mechanism that gradually lifts, stretches and separates the joints. This action realigns the spine, promotes joint lubrication and decompresses vertebrae to help relieve spinal pain and reduce chronic low back pain…”

Why did I say this description partially validates the claim? Because the headline says “…relieve stiffness and pain” and the body copy hedges with “…to help relieve spinal pain”; because the word “may” appears in each of the first three sentences; and because “reduce chronic lower back pain” isn’t parallel to “relieve.”

Why buy that?

Raw description is obsolete. Repeat: Raw description is obsolete. Competitive catalog copy caters to the prospective customer, not to the manufacturer, and that’s the classic difference this column has hammered for years: The seller’s concern: what it is. The sellee’s concern: what it will do for me.

Every automobile has mirrors. Why should anyone buy a mini-mirror to attach to an existing outside mirror? The heading of a copy-block is crucial. This one, in Smart Miracles, supplies a reason to find out: “Your car mirrors can lie — and that can hurt you!”

In the same title, a heading tries too hard and becomes abstruse: “Discover the lost Asian energy secret that delivers bursts of natural power!” Huh?

Using headings as a product announcement and using the first sentence of text to proclaim benefit is a mixed bag. It prevents an overlong heading, but also may prevent readership. A question whose answer shouldn’t be an automatic “Yes”: Is a long heading undesirable?

I’ve often lauded Chef’s Catalog for its superior copy. Consider this description. The heading: “Breville® Electric Wok.” As a stand-alone, those three words are a “So what.” Now add the first sentence of text:

“The first and only electric wok with the performance of an iron wok on a gas flame, thanks to the revolutionary 1,500-watt butterfly heating element in the built-in base.”

What if the heading had been “At last — an electric work that performs like an iron gas wok”? Even if the heading had run two lines, it would have invited a potentially interested reader into the text.

We’re salespeople, not clerks

A clerk can describe an item. That capability is small when compared against a salesperson, who sells the item. Even in good times, the best-dressed clerk can’t match a salesperson, even a casually dressed one, in effectiveness or income.

Expand that notion to a corporate level and you certainly will share the view that catalog copy that sells has a stronger impact on the bottom line than even the most colorful descriptive copy. l

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises ( in Pompano Beach, FL, and the author of 31 books.

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