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I Hate Your Catalog. I’ve Always Hated Your Catalog.

Here’s the latest blog posting from our good friend, Bill LaPierre. There are some good lessons in here for all of us!

There are things that once said, we wish we could take back, but of course, never can. There are things we say that often dramatically change everything.
(Because this is a holiday week, I’m going to tell you a quick story about something that happened last week, involving something I said years ago, which had a huge impact on one company).
Last week, I attended the Vermont/New Hampshire Marketing Group’s annual conference. I’ve been attending this conference since 1990. There were awesome sessions, and a couple that were just truly great. But it was a dinner conversation that I want to share with you.
I was sitting with Bill and Peggy Heyman, owners of Supreme Audio, a B2B “catalog” company in NH that sells professional audio equipment. I use the term catalog company loosely to describe their business, because they have not printed a new catalog since 2009, yet sales have never been better.
Bill just turned 75 (though he has the energy of a 35 year old). He was reminiscing to several other attendees at our table about how he and Peggy were running their catalog from their home in New Jersey in the early 1990s, and would drive the four hours up and four hours back to attend the VT/NH Marketing Group meetings (we used to meet monthly). They did this because there were no organizations in the NY/NJ area that were geared to small catalog mailers like them. And they liked our group so much, and liked coming to VT and NH so much, they eventually sold their home in NJ and moved to New Hampshire.
In 1995, Bill and I hosted an all-day catalog critique seminar for the VT/NH Marketing Group, where we critiqued about a dozen catalogs for an audience of 150+ attendees. Bill shared with the audience how he designed his catalog, did all the photography himself, wrote all the copy, and was really responsible for getting the whole thing created, and in the mail.
Fast forward to the 2003. Bill Heyman had hit a wall with his Supreme Audio catalog. He had designed it as far as he could take it. He needed advice on how to tweak what he had, to make it better. At the Annual Conference of the Group that year, I was the keynote speaker for the first night’s dinner (and I will never agree to be a dinner speaker again, it is so easy to lose the audience). At about 10 PM, Bill cornered me and asked me to critique his catalog. He’d been pestering me for several years to do so but I had told him I just couldn’t – mainly because he was a good friend, and I would find it hard to be critical of something which I knew was a labor of love for him.
I finally relented, and told him that I could do it in two weeks when things slowed down a bit for me. “Oh no Bill, you don’t understand. I need to send the book to the printer in 4 days. I need you to critique it while we are here at the conference.” Ok, I said, 8 AM tomorrow morning.
Now fast forward to last week’s dinner. Bill was recounting this story – with just a few embellishments the way only Bill can add to a story. He said that he remembered exactly what my opening comment was. He said I looked at the book, thumbed through a few pages, look at the cover again, paused and said “I hate your catalog. I’ve always hated your catalog”. The fact that his wife Peggy joined him in unison in saying those words really struck me.
Bill kept going with his recollections of the rest of what I said that morning, regaling the other guests at our table with how those opening comments were the nicest thing I had to say, and it was downhill from there. Meanwhile, although I didn’t remember having said those two opening sentences, (and I have no doubt that I did, as it is the kind of thing I would say), I was shocked that my comments had apparently been “seared” into Bill and Peggy’s collective memory.
But here is why I bring all this up. Bill said the reason he had kept after me to critique his catalog – which was in essence his business, his raison d’etre – was because he knew I would be honest, and moreover, he knew I’d be brutally honest. To quote Bill – “I didn’t want to ask someone who would look at the book and say ‘Oh Mr. Heyman, this is great, you don’t need to change a thing’. I wanted you to tell me what was wrong so I could make it better”.
After he had licked his wounds following my one-hour critique, Bill made a significant decision. He was not going to go to press in four days. Instead, he redesigned his entire book, incorporating almost all (we did not see eye to eye on everything) of the changes I recommended.
When I first met Bill and Peggy, in the early 1990s, their catalog was over 100 pages. With prompting from people like me and Amy Africa, Bill had been cutting pages and making the book more efficient along the way. With the 2003 redesign, he got the page count down to below 40 – while not giving up any significant sales. He went from having 6 products on the cover, along with about 1,000 words of copy, to a single product and minimal copy. All basic stuff. But painful changes to make when you think you had designed a great book to begin with, and the catalog is the representation to the world of your business.
Bill was grateful for my having clobbered him over the head to get him to make the changes necessary to his book. At the same time, he made significant changes to his website, making it “better” than his catalog. In 2009, he reached the point where he no longer printed his catalog. It is available on the website as a PDF, and gets printed off the site thousands of times annually – but not at his expense. Moreover, he constantly makes product and pricing updates to the online version of the catalog – so it is continuously updated, instead of being updated only once a year, as is the case with many B2B catalogs. His is a story of business survival, though not necessarily catalog survival.
And yes, Bill and Peggy and my wife and I have remained friends (which is good because we live in adjoining towns).
Here is the moral of the story for me. My opening comments that day back in 2003 got Bill’s attention. It may have been seared into his consciousness. He might have thought I was a jerk (maybe momentarily). But it got him to see the handwriting on the wall, inspired him to make significant changes, and is all the better for it from a profit perspective, today. That’s the most important thing.
So often when I critique a catalog, I’m hit with a litany of excuses as to why they can’t make those changes. That was not the case with Bill and Peggy. They swallowed hard, put their pride aside and got out the scalpel – and are in a better place today as a result.
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I want to say a word about the VT/NH Marketing Group. For 25+ years, this organization has a great resource for the small catalog and online companies that dot the Northern New England landscape. It has never abandoned that base membership. It is an open and sharing group of professionals. It does not require senseless, arbitrary actions like submitting three references, or being “voted in” to join. It has also never discriminated against vendors and suppliers, by either limiting their participation or charging them more than “mailers”. As I sat through several sessions last week, I was thinking of applications of what was being presented for my clients, but also for Datamann. The Group has always understood that we are all marketers, and we are all equal.
The Group has a very diverse Board of Directors, all of who are actively engaged in the organization and in Board activities. And yes, I’ve very proud to be a past President of the Group, but I’m truly delighted to be married to the current President. You go Shari – let’s make the 2015 Conference even bigger and better.

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

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