How Much Should You Change?

Last year I had a client who was very put out with me because we didn’t change enough from the previous year. (Sales were up 17% so I knew we were on the right track.) This is one of those things that new catalogers seem to have a hard time with. I think it’s because they are paying such close attention to every detail (as they should) that they confuse relevant newness with all newness. I am not splitting hairs, this is a very important distinction.

What is relevant newness?

Relevant newness refers to new items or editorial that customers find relevant. I know, “Duh” right? But take a moment and consider how your customer sees your catalog. If you go into a store, and it looks exactly the same every time you visit, you will either love it because you know where everything is, or you’ll hate it because you’re bored. You really don’t want your grocery store to reinvent itself every time you walk it. (Where is the tuna this week?) But who doesn’t like an endcap sale or sample table, right? Whether or not your customers appreciate newness is a function of what experience they want to have with you. To use our grocery store analogy again, let’s look at Aldi versus Trader Joe’s. Both are up and comers in the grocery business, and they have utterly different strategies. Aldi rarely offers new products. They don’t even offer significant choice in any category. They make it easy to shop and they have enough selection that you can find what you need quickly and get out fast. Because they offer a reduced selection, they can also offer good prices. Newness is not that relevant to the Aldi customer. Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, does the opposite. They are constantly trying new things. There is a permanent tasting area in the stores and regulars know that there is always something new to try. Newness is very relevant to Trader Joe’s and to the Trader Joe’s customer.

Is newness relevant to your customer?

And this is where you need to find a balance. New is a function of both new merchandise and new design. If you are selling merchandise with discounts and closeouts, then you will probably already have a very high level of newness. That newness is created by the merchandise itself. If you are selling high fashion, newness is very relevant to your customer, and you will also need a very high level of newness. Again, that newness will happen naturally because of new merchandise, but keeping the design and copy voice fresh will need to be an ongoing effort. Design styles change and trending looks add excitement. If you’re selling auto parts—maybe not so much. The customer who is looking for a replacement carburetor for a ’57 Chevy is just excited that you have what he’s looking for. Though adding new products and having new and interesting editorial can create engagement and establish you as an expert. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and ask yourself if change is going to make the shopping experience better? And then take it further and ask how will it be better?

How do you determine how much new you need?

All companies need some new items and some new editorial to build meaningful customer engagement and create a repeatable shopping experience. Changing the whole catalog every time you mail isn’t necessary. Most of your customers aren’t paying enough attention to even notice when you do make changes. Older customers in particular don’t like when you change product images. If you are a heavy mailer, your customer may see your catalog 12 to 16 times a year. That means about once a month they get a catalog from you. If you are expecting a 2% return then I would guess that about 80% of them probably don’t even open it up. It doesn’t matter how new anything is, these customers won’t ever see it. Now if you consider that the customers who actually shop any of your catalogs are not always the same customers who opened the catalog the last time, you start to see why many catalogs don’t need to change all that much over time.

New is a magic word

I just wrote a whole lot about why newness may not be as important as some folks think. This doesn’t mean that you can keep mailing the same catalog over and over. That will guarantee that customers won’t even bother to open the catalog. Your customer is busy and not really paying attention and “NEW!” has real power. Of the five magic words, new is my favorite. It works, it always works and customers never get tired of it. Call out new, celebrate new on the cover, make new part of every catalog, but new design or copy is not as important as new merchandise.

New designs and copy for best sellers

And then there are the best sellers. Changing a best seller can help or hurt sales. Since helping a best seller will make more of an impact than helping other products, it is important to make sure your creative is really dialed in. That takes work and experimentation. Changing a best seller when it starts to flag also makes sense. But change for the sake of change is risky. I have a client who has had the same products for 142 years. Not a lot of change there, and the best seller has been the same for about 50 years. We change the photography every year. We pay very close attention to how customers respond to the new images and then we use what we’ve learned to make the next year even better. Sometimes a new image isn’t as good as the older image. But by making change part of the process every year, the catalog always looks new and fresh.

Best Customers like newness, prospects don’t need any

Best customers like you, so they’re paying attention. You need to keep them engaged and newness is a big part of that. Prospects on the other hand have never seen your wares, so everything about you is new. If you have a dedicated prospect catalog, rely on past performance and go with proven winning creative. Don’t talk about new items, don’t waste space or time on newness—focus on what makes the product great. It’s like a first date, don’t tell them you’re new and improved, tell them who you are and what makes you special.

All the best,

Sarah Fletcher
President/Creative Director Catalog Design Studios
Co-founder Catalog University

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