The great catalogers, like baseball players, are playing the averages. And great baseball players hit less than .400. In addition, 20% of the merchandise often accounts for over 80% of the business.
So what the wise merchandiser wants to do is beat the averages.
To look at some ways to beat these averages, let us divide this subject into two areas: (1) why some lines of merchandise do better (that is, whole catalog concepts), and (2) why certain products within a catalog do better.
These thoughts will be based upon analysis of both catalog merchandise and previously tested direct marketing offers. Some of what can be learned from premiums can be used to select catalog merchandise.
Why Some Catalogs or Lines of Merchandise Do Better
We are not talking about the variation within one line of merchandise, between its books (catalogs) mailed throughout the year. We are talking about why some companies or lines do better.
1. Match lists to merchandise. The ideal situation is to find a large group of lists of people who have the mail order characteristic (that is, buy by mail) and who have a specialized interest. Examples would include magazine subscribers to specific types of apparel and certain hobbies. It could be argued that you should first select your easily identifiable market and then sell them what they need.
Examples of concepts that might fail would be products for left handed people or desserts by mail. These are good ideas, but few lists exist in these areas.
2. Offer a broad selection not available at retail. My favorite example is bird cages. There is a catalog containing over 100 bird cages. At retail, pet stores may have only 10 or 20. If you go to different pet stores, you get a lot of duplication, so you could never see 100 different cages. Here is a case where you can’t beat shopping at home from a catalog with a larger selection.
Another example is the brass furniture hardware offered by mail. No hardware store could afford to inventory all of these rarely used items. With one central inventory and a list of customers who are interested in these items, you can be successful.
There are book catalogs with thousands of titles.
3. Odd sizes. This represents big business for many successful catalogs. Retail outlets can’t afford to keep large inventories of merchandise where there is not much demand. Clothes for the too tall, too short, and too fat are popular categories. I suppose there is no such thing as being too thin!
This odd size concept holds true for shoes too. There are over a hundred sizes of shoes. When you add color and style, the combinations are almost endless. The one central inventory of mail order can handle these, especially when they target to these extreme audiences. They don’t have to carry the large middle group that you can easily find in any retail shoe store.
4. Your line must be easy to explain. If you are introducing new concepts, mail order may not be the way to go. In addition to offering selection, you have the additional burden of explaining what the concept is, proving they need the item, and proving it is affordable. You have the additional problem of being a pioneer. And you already know the saying: “You can always tell a pioneer by the arrows in their back.”
The above is not in conflict with a statement we have made elsewhere-that you use direct mail and mail order newspaper and magazine ads to communicate the complex stories that arc essential with some products and services.
These complex stories are usually explained in large size ads or in a solo mailing (that is, one product or service). We arc talking here about catalogs, where the prime feature is breadth of selection.
5. Your catalog items should be related. There are probably more failures due to efforts to sell new products in unrelated areas to present customers.
Because your customers like your Early American furniture does not mean they like your gourmet cooking products. Because you sell auto parts does not mean you can sell travel services. If you sell housewares, this does not mean you can sell cosmetics to the same market.
Why? The answer probably lies in the customer’s perception of you. They have confidence in what they are already buying from you. You have yet to prove yourself in other areas. You wouldn’t go to your family doctor with a toothache.
You can hedge your bets by gradually moving into these areas. Insert one or two products at a time. You’ll see how well you are accepted and you’ll start building up a group of satisfied customers in these new areas.