Friday, November 03, 2006

What Marketers Can Learn from Catalog Retailers

Now that all that's left of Halloween is smashed pumpkins and candy corn on sale, it's time to usher in the catalog season. As I was sorting through this day's stack of catalogs, it occurred to me that there's a lot that marketers - even those of us in the T2B (techie to business) world - can learn from the most effective catalog marketers.

  1. Make things easy for your customers. I haven't ordered anything from Harry & David in a couple of years, but as Christmas "nears", they always send a nice package telling me who I ordered gift baskets for in the past, and what I ordered. I can call Harry & David 24/7, or get on their web site, and I'm just a click away from ordering a couple of "Twelve Days of Christmas" treat baskets, knowing that I won't be repeating what I so lovingly sent a couple of years ago. don't need to key in much information: I can even keep the same gift message.

    No matter what your product or service, you need to make sure that you're customers can communicate with you in multiple modes (and on their time) - what if they want to order something at 3 a.m.? - and that their data is up to date and accurate.
  2. Reward your best customers. In the scramble for new customers, we're often ready to cut good deals that aren't available to our existing customers. Guess what? Existing customers don't like it if they get wind of it, so you'll have the worst of both worlds: new customers who may not be paying enough, and old, loyal customers who feel gouged. I order a lot from L.L.Bean, and I use their credit card. This gives me free shipping and monogramming, and lets me accrue bonus points. Free shipping is an unbelievably good benefit: if I spill iced coffee on my white t-shirt, I can order a $12 replacement without incurring $6.95 in shipping and handling. Bonus points are a real boon, too - when I'm shopping with my coupons in hand, I always end up buying more than I would have otherwise.
  3. Even if you're focused on a niche, you still need to grow your product and expand your market. When I get the Vermont Country Store catalog, I pore through it like Laura Ingalls Wilder going through the Sears Roebuck Wish Book in 1885. For those how aren't familiar with the Vt. Country Store, they sell all kinds of odd-ball, retro, fuddy-duddy merchandise. They used to have stuff my grandmother liked. (Odd-ball hairpins, "Chenille Bedspread with Fanciful Flowers and Ruffled Time [that Creates a Whimsical Air.") Then they had stuff my mother liked. ("Jaunty Wool Scarf Hat," "Luxurious Electric Blanket.") Then all of a sudden, they had stuff that I liked. Some of it is, no doubt, my moving inexorably toward fuddy-duddy-hood. I haven't gone over to the jaunty scarf hat yet, but I have bought things like a wooden clothes rack, nice wool kneesocks, and nail hardener.

    Faced with an aging audience for their products, what Vt. Country Store has really done to get the baby-boomers hooked is to start carrying all these nostalgic items from the 1950's and 1960's. Hey, I remember those wax choir boy and Santa candles that made Santa look like an albino. Glass Wax - hey, now I can stencil my windows. Ribbon candy. Nonpareils. Davey Crockett caps. Potholder looms. Spoolies. They even carry that ridiculous "electronic football game" that vibrated its little plastic players up and down the gridiron. My brothers had one. Maybe I should order it so we can play it on Xmas Eve.

    The point is that Vt. Country Store has expanded their catalog of practical, useful, and hard to find things to include all sorts of impractical, non-useful, hard to find things that hit the graying babyboomers where they live (which, as inevitably happens as people get older, is at least somewhat in the past). And they're even starting to carry items from the 1970's and beyond. I may not get all teary-eyed about Click-Clacks, but the kids who drove their parents nuts clacking them in the 1970's probably are.

    What Vermont Country Store is doing quite well is consistently expanding their product line both horizontally - more stuff for their existing base - and vertically - to drag in the "younger folks" who could care less about Shari Lewis' Lamb Chop or Zippy the Chimp, but who are already nostalgic for Kermit the Frog.

    A good lesson here for those of us with very focused, very niche markets. You need to keep improving and expanding what you offer your market, and also figure out how to find new, adjacent markets when you saturate your niche.

I must away, I have to go order a deck of "Authors" playing cards and some footsie-PJ's for my husband.

1 comment:

katrog said...

I got that catalog--had to hold down my on-line ordering hand ( a la Peter Sellers in Doctor Strangelove--hey-ho, fuddy dudders) so I wouldn't order pounds of ribbon candy, light up plastic santas, or retro Christmas ornaments. (And I haven't put up a Christmas tree for at least ten years.) They have so nailed their demographic, it's scary.