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“We Hardly Knew You”- A Cautionary Tale.


We think you’ll enjoy this posting from our friend, Bill LaPierre, whose contact info is below.

I have a box of catalogs under my desk, and two more boxes in the loft of my garage, labeled “Catalogs No Longer Mailing”.  The historian in me led me to start collecting these books years ago. Even as I sit and look at them today, I can only vaguely recall some of them, and most I don’t recall at all, even though they were all addressed to me.

There are few that do stand out, mainly because they were started by people locally in here in New England, and I had a chance to talk with them. Most of those owners had “no clue” what they were doing; they simply wanted to be able to say they were catalogers”. They certainly knew nothing about catalog survival or catalog growth strategies.



I bring this topic up because these old catalogs are a physical reminder of a failed experiment on some entrepreneur’s part. These catalogs came into our homes, and as consumers, we were aware of them – though probably not to the degree the company had hoped or planned. We “catalog professionals” could examine and critique them. Most important, they went on our collective radar screen.

It’s much harder to do today, because the “new catalog launch” market dried up years ago, as everything shifted online.  And as we all know, there are literally millions of online websites of companies selling everything under the sun. When they “die” or cease operation, they just disappear into the ether of the internet. We don’t have the physical reminders of their existence. So, new entrepreneurs coming along keep making the same mistakes.

I was sent a link last week from Datamann’s resident Texan, about a website in Nashville called Made South. It is a “membership” website to which you have to be “invited” to join. (Evidently, their membership screening is not too exclusive, as I requested an invitation, and was sent one immediately. So if a Yankee like me can get on the list, the rest of you should have no trouble either).

But here’s what is unique/different about Made South. If you “join” their program, every three months you’ll be sent a gift box of “stuff” made in one of the southern US states. But you don’t know what it’s going to be. Plus, this surprise box of southern comforts is $47 a pop, or $188 a year. Moreover, the website gives scant details about how the products are selected, whether you can custom tailor your “surprise” products to meet your tastes/needs (you can’t). It doesn’t even give you a hint of the types of rural crafts people in the south from whom they’ll be selecting products.  Boy, you’d have to really like Richard Petty and Boss Hogg to sign up for this with so few facts – this is a real leap of faith.

Ok, I get that they are trying something new. But, just like all those defunct catalogs sitting in my garage that ignored good catalog practices, these guys are violating every rule of internet shopping.  They make it hard to sign up, impossible to learn anything about what you get, and take NO advantage of using links to sites of southern culture and southern crafts to drive further awareness. There is however, the requisite photo of the owner’s family, and a story about how they came up with the idea for this. All cute stuff, but no one cares.

What is important for this site to succeed is merchandise, and they are doing nothing to build the “product romance” part of their business. You can’t rely on a leap of faith to get customers to buy your product – you’ve got to constantly be selling.

About 20 years ago, I was contacted by a family that wanted to start a catalog of products from Vermont. The father even told me about the dream he had which provided the inspiration to launch the business, and which he repeated in his President’s Letter on page 2 of the one book they mailed. I gave them a list of all the reasons why their business was going to fail, and why they should follow my grandfather’s advice on how to double your money “take your money out of your wallet, fold it over, and put back in your wallet”. Instead, they spent a considerable amount of the family’s savings on this boondoggle, which failed.

The web only makes that process so much easier to do. It lowers the cost of entry of being a “merchant” as it eliminates the expense of a catalog that faced so many entrepreneurs in the past. You can get on the web with relative ease, because at least one of your brothers-in-law is a web designer. And hey, if you’re selling on the web, that alone is reason to expect to be a success, right?

Some of you will succeed. Some of you will desire to ignore the advice of consultants who are trying to help you, and suffer the consequences.  But that is the history of retailing.

Note: I don’t usually give creative tips, but here’s one: If you are still including a “President Letter” in your catalog, you should know there are only two people that read it – the copy writer that wrote it, and the President’s mother. And even she just skims it now.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235

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