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Catalog Industry Is Not Replacing Its Leaders

The post below comes from our good friend Bill Lapierre and discusses the “Brain Drain” gradually happening in the Catalog industry.

Today’s posting is a personal note of gratitude and reminiscing, but it is also a commentary on what is happening to our industry.
This coming Saturday, June 6 is not only the anniversary of the D-Day landings, but it also marks the end of one of my good friend’s catalog career. Frank Oliver, Senior Product Developer at Gardener’s Supply is retiring after a 21 year stay. Many of you will recall that Frank spoke at the past two spring NEMOA conferences, as well as spoke for me at Datamann’s seminar for the VT/NH Marketing Group three years ago.
This “event” is not just about one guy’s retirement. First, this is nothing new, as every generation of catalogers has faced an earlier generation retiring. But now there is a problem as the catalog industry loses its current top leadership – for there are fewer and fewer truly talented catalog marketers and merchants coming along to replace them.
For me, I started to notice the trend a few years ago when Peter Rice, founder of Plow & Hearth retired. Then it was Bob Allen at Vermont Country Store, and Ellen Brothers at American Girl. Then last fall, Russ Gaitskill at Garnet Hill retired. In 2016, Chris McCormack will retire as CEO of L.L. Bean. All of these leaders, as well as many others I have not mentioned, all went out on their own terms and at the top of their game.
Yes, the above mentioned CEOs have – for the most part – been replaced by talented managers. But what about the catalog merchants, marketers, and catalog designers that have left or are leaving the industry? Who is going to take their place that share the same passion for our industry that they possess?
I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic here, because I see the catalog industry at a huge crossroads with regards to “talent”. Look back 100 years to 1915 and think about the young people starting out on their careers that asked themselves “do I want to train to be a blacksmith and learn to shoe horses, or do I want to learn how to fix Model Ts?” That is the same situation today when younger people are looking at career options, and weigh a career in “catalogs” vs. a career developing businesses for the web. My 15 year old son, who has grown up in what can best be described as the most “catalog oriented” home in New England, won’t even look at a catalog today – he is totally comfortable ordering everything online.
But let’s be honest. Maybe it is not a problem at all. Just as it became inevitable that the village blacksmith could not compete with the local car mechanic, we should not be too concerned that catalog talent is leaving the industry for the online world. It is inevitable. Money and talent goes where the opportunities exist. We need to learn to adapt.
That said, we still need to be successfully mailing catalogs for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the online world can benefit from a transfer of knowledge from successful catalogers, especially in the area of merchandise development, and merchandise measurement. Online companies have a passion for developing cool new marketing concepts and apps, but they generally haven’t a clue – or the passion – for knowing how to develop products that sell.
But don’t kid yourself. The brain drain from the catalog industry will have as great an impact on the future response curve of catalog sales as the impact from Amazon, the decline of the Postal Service and changing consumer behavior. And that drain is going to accelerate as people of my generation feel the pull of the benefits of retirement. (Note to the folks at Datamann and my clients: Our 15 year old son has at least 7 more years of school, so I’m not going anywhere soon).
Now, for a few comments on Frank, who I first met 26 years ago when he was the head merchant for the Brookstone Tool catalog, and I was the marketing and circulation guy. He is truly one of the most passionate merchants I have met. He loves to talk (and talk and talk) about the little nuances of every product he finds or develops, that make the product so special. To Frank, it was not just a job – finding new products was his life. As Frank wrote to me last week “I’ve spent much of my children’s life being a part-time participant, while devoting a full time working focus to growing Gardeners Supply. Gardener’s has also been a family to me and I have enjoyed making a few meaningful contributions over the years. Now, I believe I need a change.” I’m sure every merchant or buyer that has headed to the airport for yet another three week trip to China has felt the same way. It is a something to which marketers who only have to deal with the hardship of yet another 3-day Internet Retailer or NEMOA conference cannot relate.
I am sure that Frank is not going to be fully retiring. Part of the reason he is handing in his employee badge at Gardener’s is that his son is moving back to Vermont (where Gardener’s Supply is located) with the hopes of starting a business with Frank’s help. Frank has told me that his son is passionate about wanting to be an entrepreneur, and I am certain they will be successful.
Frank and I weathered many storms together at Brookstone, just as I’m sure all of you have endured at your own companies, both past and present. Some storms we controlled, most we didn’t. Frank was a great ally during the storms we did not control. Frank has been a loyal friend to my wife and me for the past quarter century – we wish he and his wife Donna well.

by Bill LaPierre
VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics
Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235
blapierre@datamann.com

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