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Pickett’s Charge and How I Became A Catalog Critic



This is another guest blog posting from our good friend, Bill LaPierre at Datamann, a full service list processor.  Please check out Bill’s blog by clicking here.

Next week is the 4th of July. It is also the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. I thought I’d jump on this theme early, and explain how I began to critique catalogs.


          For those of you that are a little rusty on your Civil War history, the Battle of Gettysburg was the largest battle ever fought in North America. On the July 3rd 1863, the third day of the battle, General Robert E. Lee decided to make one last desperate attempt to beat the Union forces. He ordered over 13,000 Confederate soldiers to march almost one mile across an open field, and charge heavily fortified Union troops. One of the field commanders was Major General George Pickett, and this became known as Pickett’s Charge.


Ranking between Lee and Pickett, was Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who had to give the order to Pickett to have his men make the charge. Longstreet predicted that this charge would be futile. It turned out to be a slaughter. The Confederate forces suffered almost 50% casualties, and this battle turned out to be the turning point of the war – the South never fully recovered from the defeat.


I’ve lived my entire life in the “North”, so have always felt that “my guys” were on the winning side, not only at Gettysburg, but in the war in general. Those of you that refer to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression” probably don’t share my sentiments.


So what does Pickett’s Charge have to do with catalog critiques, and how does the lesson of what happened on that battlefield that day have relevance to many catalogs today? I promise I will tie this all together….


In 1991, while working as the Catalog Marketing Manager at Brookstone, I faced the biggest challenge/defeat of my career. Creative and merchanside changes were made to the Brookstone Hard-To-Find Tool catalog that were a “sales slaughter”.  Here is what happened:


The previous Christmas season (1990), our newly hired CEO hired a new VP of Retail Marketing to revamp the creative look of the 100+ Brookstone stores for the holiday season. Prior to that, each store dragged out some pretty tired looking Christmas decorations each November, and set them about the store. This new VP, who admittedly was very talented, had all the old decorations destroyed, and replaced them with some extremely innovative (at least innovative for Brookstone at the time) new holiday-themed signage and decor. Every element had a central theme, and had a reason for being included. I’m not a retail guy, but the stores did look great – especially compared to what they had previously looked like.


Comp store sales went way up that season – but not just because of the creative changes. First, the stores had been doing poorly for several years – so the new CEO’s general attentiveness to the stores helped the most. Second, significant merchandise changes (more gift wrapped packages, better use of pick-me-up products near the POS) contributed as well. Third, the creative changes gave the store a more vibrant look – but did nothing to change the product mix or product density in the stores.


Once we got past the holidays, the new Marketing VP set his sights on the Tool catalog, which was – and had been for years – one of the most successful parts of the overall business. The catalog was not broken and did not need fixing. But, the new VP could not stand the utilitarian look of the Tool catalog (see photo below). He decided to completely revamp the look of the catalog, to suit his personal taste.


Now remember, this was a tool catalog, although it had gradually eased away from woodworking tools to useful gadgets and tools you needed for daily living. As such, the products had great benefit headlines, the photography focused on product benefits, and photos that showed the products in  real-life situations.


The new VP found several sympathetic allies in the Creative Department, and all new photography began. The product headlines were gone. Photos were all stylized silhouettes, shot in a studio against solid color backgrounds instead of in actual use. But the main thing that happened was that product density was cut by a third.


All these changes occurred despite my “concerns” and those of the  merchandise manager.  I say “concerns” because we were like the men of General Pickett’s brigade, lined up in the woods before the charge, muttering to ourselves that this did not seem like a good idea. We were too young in our careers to recognize that this was a disaster unfolding before us. We did not step forward and yell “Stop – you are going to kill sales if you do and here’s why,,,”


Just as the book mailed, the new Marketing VP left – he had stayed just six months. He had fixed the stores (for one season), and destroyed the catalog. Catalog sales fell 30%. The ensuing hunt for the guilty included the CEO telling me that I had mailed the wrong customers, that I should have found the customers on the file for whom this new look would have appealed.


Due to production schedules, it took us four months to get the Tool catalog back on track. As soon as we brought the product density back to normal levels, and the creative look back to its previous look, sales bounced right back. That’s when I learned to be a catalog critic.


I came to realize that 90% of major changes made in catalogs are usually personal preferences on the part of a merchant, creative director, or Catalog VP. These changes are rarely grounded in any sound sales principle – they are just what one person has a “gut” instinct for. Often times these changes / additions / deletions are absurd.


At the same time that the troubles were occurring with the Tool catalog, I began to feel more comfortable at public speaking. I was fortunate to discover that other catalogers loved to hear a speaker rip into someone else’s catalog, and point out all the errors and deficiencies. So, I started doing catalog critiques, pointing out things that just made no sense in various catalogs. After almost every speech, I had several people in the audience contact me to tell me I was spot on to the situation I had described in their catalog. Often I learned that a “new VP” had arrived, and who felt that he/she had a mandate to make changes, even if no changes were needed.      


          I also realized that creative changes – though very visible and easy to poke fun at – usually had little impact on the success of the catalog. But changes to merchandise, which were often too subtle to notice as a casual observer, had enormous impact on the performance of a catalog. That’s why I no longer just conduct creative evaluations for clients – I always couple it with a merchandise analysis.


Finally, I learned that most people are too afraid, too naïve or not experienced enough to speak up. Business is not warfare. But, we have all experienced similar futile new business efforts similar to Pickett’s Charge. The question is, what do we do about it? As Pickett’s men marched across the Gettysburg field 150 years ago, some of them must have felt that they were doing their duty. Conversely, some of them must have felt that not only was this not a good idea, it was just going to be a slaughter. But those men could not complain – they just had to keep marching. You don’t.  When you see something happening to your website of catalog that just seems like it will lead to disaster, you have to speak up and take action.


One last thought – I have been critiquing catalogs and websites for more than 20 years. In all the speeches I’ve given, and all the catalogs I’ve criticized, I have only received one nasty-gram after the fact – and that catalog went out of business a year later for the reason I cited in my critique.  I have always been fair and factual in my commentary, and never personal. But, I also don’t hold back. You should not either – when your job and your company’s sales are on the line, don’t beat around the bush.


by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 802-295-6600 x235

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