A Tale of Two Clients

A tale of two catalogs—Advice for online merchants getting into catalogs.

Last year we worked with two pure play e-commerce companies who have turned to cataloging as a prospecting tool. Both rely heavily on vendor art, and both struggle to get vendor supplied sample merchandise on time.  One company waited until the last minute to turnover product to us. The other got everything they could to us as quickly as possible and then filled in the holes. Both catalogs took about the same amount of time to produce, but the time spent on creative was very different for each. We scrambled to catchup with the last minute company, and so creative time was lost. The company that got us most of the product information, and then filled in the blanks later, got more creative time because we started with what we had and then dialed it in as we went. 

One of the tenants of cataloging is that the press date never moves. Never. You can beg for a day but, at peak, you can’t just push things back a week. If you miss your file to printer date, you will miss your in-home date and your co-mail pool. Because e-commerce companies don’t have a press date, late is based on different factors, changes can be made after a product goes live, and great ideas can be executed on the fly. In cataloging, late means failure and significant lost revenue. There is no “But…” there is no plan B.

No matter what your process looks like, being organized, creating good team communications, and front loading as much as possible is the way to go. On some level we all know this. I think where most of us fall down is committing to a plan or schedule. Fear of committing is often the fear we will lose something valuable if we don’t have flexibility. If you’re a buttoned down, super organized person, you’re probably already smiling. If you’re not, Here are some thoughts on making the process easier.

Late product/late changes:

Being the only catalog that has the new hot item is a huge advantage. It’s worth extra effort to get the best and most current products in the catalog and in front of the customer. When I was at L.L. Bean, merchandising and creative determined how many late changes the merchants were allowed. There were pages that changed right up to the last, last, possible second. Bean understood that late changes can improve selection, balance inventory and create a newness that customers respond to. Bean also understood that that flexibility comes at a cost. The question is: what are late changes worth? Put a real number on it, give it a value. For Bean that number is huge because they send out millions of catalogs and a change can have tremendous impact. By making late changes part of the plan, the merchants get the flexibility they need to change product and the creative teams can schedule in time to get them done. But even with that kind of upside, changes have limits. Only a small number of pages can be changed and the changes are vetted to make sure they were going to be worth the effort and risk. And there is risk—bad things can happen when you make late changes.

So how do you assign a value to late changes? They affect both sales and inventory and may impact marketing as well. The chance of error increases as time decreases, so that should also be part of the equation too.

Another thing to consider is, any products which didn’t make the catalog can still be available online. So are lost sales really lost? Are inventory disasters really unfixable? Could late changes be part of an email campaign? Could you put them on the home page and or give them prominence some other way? Resist the urge to give that last minute flexibility more importance than it deserves. I have never seen a last minute change save a company. (If you have, I’d love to hear the story!)

Late changes put tremendous pressure on creative teams and budgets. Photography, copy, design and proofing all take time. It’s cheaper to shoot everything all at once. Starting and stopping can really run up a bill if you are using outside creative and it can burn out an in-house creative team. Herky jerky rarely produces the best results. Sending product information in many pieces, rather than in one complete turnover, also increases the likely hood of mistakes and reduces creativity. Creativity isn’t a pill you can take. It’s hard to be creative. Part of the creative process is making connections and that doesn’t happen without complete product information. That said, it’s better to know something than nothing. If partial information is all you can provide, just do it. Once you’re late, own it. It doesn’t help anyone to pretend that it isn’t happening. Get what you have to the creative team and provide the date when complete information will be available. This gives the creative team the ability to plan instead of react.

At one of the the NEMOA conferences the catalog manager from Wayfair recounted what she learned, when she did their first catalog. She was shocked that they had to plan every last detail, like circulation and drop dates so far in advance, and that most things couldn’t be changed later without huge cost, if they could be changed at all. If you’re an online company, thinking about adding a catalog to your marketing mix, you will need to reorient your risk/reward framework: The web rewards flexibility, catalogs reward planning.

Cataloging is hard and expensive. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it is not forgiving. It is however, very lucrative if you do it right. You can get a catalog in-home for under $1.25 and expect a 2% return. That’s probably better math than your google ad spend.

All the best,

Sarah Fletcher

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