ETN: A Catalogue of Considerations

This month, I’ve chosen to dedicate a thousand words to the wisdom of catalogue publishing versus some of the more obvious alternatives. This is a tough assignment for me. I could easily write ten thousand words on the subject, maybe even enough to leave this issue of your trusty ETN looking like a… well, you do the punchline.

Of course, the reason I’ve only got a thousand words is the same reason you should avoid catalogues: cost. Printing catalogues can be eye-wateringly expensive but if you think that’s pricey, try posting them as well. Oh, and any mistakes in production can’t be corrected, leading to costly proofing processes, significant potential for missed opportunities and little alternative but to withdraw products from sale if they’re mistakenly priced too low. Catalogues also act as a Sword of Damocles over your stockholding – if you run out of anything, customers will not take kindly to your printed promise that you have it. Basically, they’re an argument with your suppliers waiting to happen.

While none of this is new, the financial risk these days is thrown into even sharper relief by the fact that in theory at least, the digital alternative is free. Email and Social are so much more immediate and far less costly. Any page on your site can be edited every day if need be and if products do sell out, you may miss sales but you have the choice to limit the damage by suppressing any troublesome items in the meantime. Finally, a website can carry your entire range but a catalogue reduces its ROI severely when it includes much beyond your winners. All of that being the case, why on earth would anyone pay for a physical compendium?

There are some reasons. A tangible presence, ideally, with some heft to it is a good way to symbolise your credibility: “Look, we can afford to send you this charming selection of products lovingly represented on glossy 50gsm paper” you can almost hear it say. They also convey an indication of the extent of your range that any homepage will invariably struggle to match: “never mind the production quality, feel the width”.

Catalogues also invite customers to indulge in the rather old-fashioned pursuit of browsing – not just searching for the specific thing they’ve recently decided they want but actually spending time considering owning every item their eyes dance over in a more relaxed, day-dreamy state of mind. If search-based web shopping is akin to hunting for today’s meal, catalogue browsing is more like foraging for a whole winter foodstore.

Unfortunately, the binary nature of this comparison is rather ruined by the fact that these days, almost all your catalogue recipients will, having chosen the items (on paper) that they wish to order, then go online to place it, thus messing up all your nice, neat reporting structures (more about that in next month’s issue) so this is not a by-extension suggestion that paper catalogues mean you can eschew the website. The best way to think about it is this: in the days before the web, a catalogue usually represented an entire conversation with a customer; today, it’s really only there as an ice-breaker – if you go beyond the small talk, the conversation will inevitably continue online.

A catalogue therefore performs a much more specific role than it used to, which is why you’re far less likely to see your doormats groaning under the combined weight of quite so many ‘big book’ versions. To prove the rule, there are still some exceptions – Next and Argos being the most obvious examples in the ‘normal’ world.

These leviathans of a bygone age may seem a comforting reminder of constancy in an uncertain world but bear this in mind: Next have flirted with charging for their directory and are also very sophisticated at deciding which customers should (and shouldn’t) deserve to be on their ‘VIP’ list to whom free directories are sent. If you happen to find your coffee table supporting the Next directory, their hard-bound Summer Fashions volume and the extensive Next Furniture opus as well, clearly, someone in your household is spending a fortune with them.

argos-new-catalogue
Last of its kind: The day the Argos catalogue is retired is the day ‘big book’ catalogues can safely be consigned to history

Argos have made overtures about ditching their familiar brick of paper, reduced its format and pagination but even with the simplicity and impressiveness of their app, they still haven’t yet dared to shake their money-maker out of their marketing budget.

In our own little part of the ecosystem, a similar story can be told – with the added twist that there seem to be a number of what we used to call ‘trade catalogues’ somehow finding their way into consumer magazines. It’ll also be interesting to see how successfully my old friends at Krämer will utilise their legendary katalog as a means to entice British consumers to send their orders to Hockenheim.

So, are catalogues really a relic of the past or an under-rated means to stake a claim to the future? With questions like this, there’s very rarely a simple answer beyond “it depends”. Catalogues are no longer the only way to carry out distance-selling but they are capable of out-performing all other techniques in certain circumstances. For that to happen, there are lots of variables to consider, not least number of pages and number of copies.

The ‘Holy Grail’ catalogues offer is a more compelling way to start a conversation with the right people on your list. I’d argue that if you don’t know who those people are yet, you probably shouldn’t be sinking too much money into catalogues until you do.

Why? ‘The 40/40/20 Rule’ is a principle established by marketing expert Ed Mayer in the 1960s which states that 40% of the success of a marketing campaign is based on reaching the right audience, 40% on the offer you make, with only the remaining 20% based on various other factors such as its presentation and format.

Without knowing precisely what to offer, and specifically to whom, you may be consigning yourself to an expensive mistake.

  • Look out for my next column, about the downsides of marketing your offer online, in the August issue of the ETN, out August 1st.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Archived: Not Just a Pretty Face

First published on 11th July 2011 on http://www.robinsons-uk.com

The Autumn/Winter 2011 Catalogue is just about to be printed and will be with you by the middle of August but as we’ve found recently, even without anyone seeing a single product, it’s already creating a following.

Over the 25 years that we’ve been publishing catalogues, we’ve always found the choice of the front cover to be quite tricky. Equestrianism is, as we all know, quite a broad church, with many riders seeing themselves as a devotee of their own particular discipline and many more equally proud not to be associated with any competitive activity. This peculiar stand-off has meant that we’ve always been very sensitive to the risks of giving the wrong message with our covers. Dressage, for example, is supposed to represent the ultimate in harmony between horse and rider but even the most stunning photography of a dressage pairing in mid-piaffe carries the risk of identifying Robinsons too closely with that particular discipline.

Of course, we have nothing against dressage riders (heaven forbid!) but neither have we anything against showjumpers, eventers, carriage drivers or those who prefer any other discipline and the last thing we’d want was for our catalogue to be dismissed by other riders (and bear in mind that we can’t be arrogant enough to presume every rider in the country knows who Robinsons are) as ‘for dressage riders’ or for any other specific group. I’ve blogged before about trying to identify the common themes that unite all riders and horse owners and concluded that there may be fewer than you’d think. The obvious one of course is the horse itself and it’s a fairly safe bet to assume that we’ll always have a horse present somewhere on our front cover… …probably. So the image has to appeal to everyone and offend no-one – if at all possible.

I’ve always felt that this is exactly the mission that the BBC face when they draw up the schedule for BBC1 on Christmas Day: upto 18 hours of films and programmes that everyone can watch without anything that anyone would consider to be inappropriate. That might sound simple but I’ve always suspected that it’s a much more difficult task than it looks. Of course a day full of Disney films either side of the Queen’s Christmas Message would meet that requirement but is there sufficient interest there to stop people turning over? Especially these days, with so many more channels… The consequence of attempting to steer clear of any sort of offence is usually to drive headlong straight into another pitfall – blandness.

Carrying on the Christmas telly analogy, that’s why we have the standing joke about Christmas always involving Morecambe & Wise and The Great Escape. There’s nothing wrong with either of these great stalwarts; they’re proven over many years to be very popular viewing. This popularity is also their weakness – we’ve all seen them before. They’re not particularly imaginative. They’re not exactly different, are they? I know that lots of people have had quite firm views over our cover images over the years and whether they’re complimentary or not, I’m always flattered that anyone feels strongly enough to tell us. It would be a far worse situation if we were to inspire nothing but apathy. Certainly, we’ve had plenty of internal discussions and debates over the image with which we’re happiest to associate our brand, twice a year. It’s sometimes an awkward process but always a necessary one which always seems to bubble along until the print deadline is too close for comfort.

I’ll admit that we’ve always tended to be a little conservative with our imagery and that in doing so, like the BBC at Christmas, we risk coming across as a little bland. In recent years, we’ve tried to mitigate the difficulties of choosing an appropriate cover by using silhouettes (a move which was inspired by looking at Next Directory covers at the time, I’m not ashamed to say). Instead of trying to take a ‘perfect photograph’ ourselves, they were easier images to come by and we had slightly more control over the composition of the picture this way. Crucially, from my point of view, it was also a unique style which I felt help to make us different (that word, again) from the other equestrian catalogues out there. Since then, we’ve opted to use the world of online stock photography – websites full of usually (but not always) impressive photographs of almost anything you can image.

In addition to our catalogue covers, the use of these images has helped us transform our instore experience. Once again though, things aren’t quite as straightforward as they seem. Being mostly American, any search for ‘horse’ on a stock photography website will inevitable return far more Western scenes than we’d ever use, virtually halving the number left for us to consider. Then there are a wide number of pictures of horses that are photographically impressive but that would immediately alienate you, the customer.

What do I mean by that? Well, images that carry with them a certain baggage that are easy to spot for you or me are, bless them, perfectly acceptable to many photographers, however good they are. As a consequence, pictures that include subjects like horses with their ears back, hatless riders or riderless horses alone in a field, wearing a bridle are all ruled out of the equation. This year, when we held our usual internal straw poll of the eight or so images to choose between, something happened that I can’t recall happening before: we had an almost unanimous verdict. What made it all the more remarkable was that the clear winner was the most radical, least bland choice available. It’s a black-and-white image and the last time we featured one of those on the front cover of anything, it was the early 1980’s and we couldn’t afford to print in colour.

So, in case you haven’t seen it yet, here it is in all its glory (see below). We’ve also posted it on our Facebook and Twitter pages and once again it was met with what can only be described as universal acclaim. Maybe we’ve been lucky this time but I’d like to think we proved that it is possible to appeal to the widest possible number of people without descending into blandness. Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter what I think. What you think is much more important!

Archived: Fancy an early night? ;-)

First published on 15th December 2008 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

If you’ve received your Sale Catalogue and you’ve found something you like, I invite you to go to bed early tonight, just like I’ll be doing. As you’ll no doubt already know, our Winter Sale starts online tomorrow morning at the less-than-Godly hour of 3am and we all need to be up and fresh in time for it. Why on earth do we put ourselves (and you) through this inconvenience?

The simple answer is that we’ve found over the years that it’s the safest – and fairest – time of day for us to start a sale. Here’s a little of what we’ve learned over the years: I’m afraid to say that starting an online Sale in working hours has proved to be a complete ‘no-no’. We tried it one Christmas Eve and it instantly killed all our systems. It meant that I had slightly depressed Christmas that year and I’m sure lots of customers were disappointed.

Unfortunately, the fact that it was so easy for everyone to access the Sale was precisely the reason it was so difficult for us to handle. We had to find a way of ‘frightening off’ some of the initial surge in demand. The obvious solution is, I’m afraid, unsociable hours – which is why we’ve started our Sales overnight for the last few years. In fact, midnight used to be our preferred time but even this could lead to problems. If the site still ran slowly over the first hour or so, customers who had planned to stay up until midnight to spend half an hour shopping online were still up at 2am and starting to complain that they hadn’t been to bed yet.

We felt that not only was 3am even more inconvenient (and therefore even safer), it also meant users are more likely to have had some sleep and therefore any delays (perish the thought) should be less troublesome – we hope… There’s also an inherent fairness in making things really awkward for everybody. It means that those who inconvenience themselves the most are most entitled to the deals which are least commonly available, so morally, it seems to work well. It’s the same ‘law of the jungle’ that governs other areas where demand hugely exceeds supply, like tickets for Cup Finals or Glastonbury.

It sounds like Customer Service heresy to say so, but it’s the simple fact that few retailers will admit – even though everybody knows it: If you want something enough, you’ll do what it takes to get it. There, I’ve said it. Please don’t think less of me. I’m just trying to be honest with you!

All Sales are naturally very busy times and to an extent, we as customers do with in reason accept that fact – don’t forget, we’re all somebody’s customer, so I feel I can say that. When Next (for example) hold their retail Sales (ususally from 5am), there are almost always long queues at every store. The thing about Sales at retail is that it’s obvious to all how many people are there – because you can see them all. While each person has made the effort to travel there, I’m sure that if the event was ridiculously over-subscribed, the fact that such a crowd would be obvious to others often serves to make some of them think again and drive straight back home. Retail Sales are therefore self-limiting to some extent.

On the web, it’s not that straightforward – for anyone. We have a good idea of the number of people who visited the site on the first day of each of our previous sales, so it would be inaccurate to say we don’t know what to expect, but that doesn’t mean to say our estimates will be right this time. It’s also a lot easier to join in as a customer, because you don’t even need to leave your bed, so even our best estimates could be way out. Of course, this has a bearing on the amount we invest in our systems to accommodate this expected demand.

From the customer’s viewpoint the unpredictability will be even more frustrating. Over-subscribed websites work slower (or fall over completely) and items sell out sooner, all things likely to frustrate people and understandably so. At least the company holding the online Sale will know why things are slow – or worse – because they can see the visitor stats. The poor customer may appreciate it’s busy but they won’t know the just how many people are also online’, so there’s a chance they’ll get even more frustrated. Unlike with retail, this self-limiting factor just isn’t there. I should pause here to point out that I appear to be painting a very negative picture about the process. That’s because we try wherever possible to bear in mind a ‘busiest day imaginable’ scenario – so we can prepare to handle it. I refer you to my earlier blog about store openings The Perils of Success, in which a similar theme is explored: being too busy can be worse than not being busy enough.

Yes we’ve had our moments over the years where our online Sales have sailed close to the wind of disappointment in some quarters and I’m also sure it’s impossible to impress all of the people all of the time – although we’ll never stop trying to do that. Over the last two years, I feel we have got a lot closer to the kind of infrastructure that allows us to deal with such a vastly inflated demand.

This year, I believe we’ve been able to improve our capability even more, so I’m optimistic (make that cautiously optimistic) that this Sale will be our best ever – for all of us! In recent years, we’ve been let down firstly by hardware (the boxes of physical kit we have) and then by bandwidth (the ‘speed’ of our web connection). Consequently, it’s required us to add more web servers and a load balancer to ensure that more people can interact with the site at the same time. We’ve also freed up our systems by removing functions like ‘WebChat’ and ‘Others also bought’ for the busiest times.

The other big difference this year is that we’ve been able to increase our bandwidth by a factor of 12. Does this mean we can handle 12 times the demand? In theory, yes but in practice, we’ll have to wait and see… Eventually, if our IT team have done all they can do and we’re still busier than expected, we will at some point run out of things to sell. In effect, our stock levels will have become the ‘weak link’ in the system. We buy and make available ever more stock for our Winter Sale each year and we’ve done that again this year but obviously no seller expects to hold significantly more than they believe they can sell.

Again, to the frustrated customer, a problem here may look like we don’t know what we’re doing – but that’s because they can’t possibly know how many other people are online – or what they are buying. To give you an idea of our online Sale stock this year, it’s more than we currently have at our Ashton and Cannock stores combined. Will that be enough, just right or too much? My answer today, the day before the Sale is that I think it will be about right – although I’m sure that some of the lines will sell out very quickly. I will however know a lot more by this time tomorrow – if I’m still awake!!

If you’re planning to go online tomorrow at 3am, good luck and email me with your comments either way.

Paul.

Archive: New Catalogue, New Thinking

First published on 25th March 2008 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

One of the pitfalls of being involved in any sort of publishing is that you often forget what the time of year is. The relentless need for monthly magazines to produce next month’s issue (often with the following month shown on the cover) by the end of this month means that to writers and publishers, summer starts in March, Christmas occurs around early October and Easter can be as early as the New Year! When speaking to our friends at magazines like Your Horse, I often feel like I’m entering a strange world where the next six weeks have ceased to exist, kind of like amnesia but in the other direction. When you think about it, the same must be true of anyone working in the soaps. Every so often, you’ll see a giveaway, like evidence of snow in an episode aired in May – look out for that this year! One of the more interesting ‘work’ days out I am fortunate to have is to a venue which just happens to be an occasional location for Emmerdale. I’m told that the continuity people who are there during the shoots are permanently worried about making everything look like it’s a month and a half in the future. In the case of the humble catalogue production department, our timing can be even longer into the future. With Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter campaigns, the deadlines may be less frequent, but the thinking is even further ahead. With that in mind, I was almost going to tell you how we’re very happy with the way our Autumn/Winter ’08 catalogue is shaping up and then I remember that you’ll only recently have received our Spring/Summer catalogue. Do you see what I mean? Time and again, time plays this trick on me.

Maybe I can put it this way: I hope you like our new selection and indeed our new catalogue. We’re very proud of it and we hope it’ll be very popular, but I expect it to be the last of its kind, a throwback to a simpler age. In the evolution of mailorderus catalogi, we’re at the point in time where the species has to adapt to a changing environment. If we don’t develop the equivalent of warm blood or opposable thumbs, we risk becoming a dinosaur and nobody wants to look forward to being a rather famous skeleton.

So what are we going to do next time to make this new catalogue seem like a quaint, old-fashioned relic? Well, I’m sure you can agree that I can’t possibly discuss that here (yet), but I’m also sure you can probably guess the direction we’ll be heading. And here comes the other curse of the publisher: the fact that you hardly ever get the chance to be proud of the thing you worked so hard to create – because you already know that in the pipeline is something that promises to be much, much better. I can’t wait until we can share it with you…

Merry Christmas!

Paul.

Archive: The World of the Smaller Catalogues

First published on 7th February 2013 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

As HMV, Blockbusters, Jessops and many others have found recently, if something can be downloaded these days, there’s far less demand for the physical version of it. While we’ve certainly noticed that we don’t sell the same proportion of books and DVDs that we used to, thankfully, most of our range needs to be a physical item because riding and horse-owning are physical activities – although I’m sure that if anyone was able to perfect a way of downloading a way to a groomed horse or a mucked-out stable, they’d never have to worry about money again!

On the one hand, we’re thankful that we’re not in an industry that is so vulnerable to digital alternatives but on the other, it’s a mistake to think that we’re not in any way affected by the changes to the way that the public consumes information digitally. Take for instance the case of the humble catalogue. Like most companies that were working in ‘mail order’ before the World Wide Web was even a glint in Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, the catalogue still holds a special place in our hearts.

Catalogues gave us the opportunity to find new customers, to try new things – to become the business that we are today. We’re so proud of our roots and the progress we’ve made since then that any visitor to our admin offices today will find our staircase adorned by pictures of every main catalogue we’ve ever produced.

Catalogues on Stairway

On the other hand, catalogues are incredibly time-consuming to produce, eye-wateringly expensive to print and post, they’re always one mistaken detail or broken supplier promise away from making us look like liars or idiots for months on end – and many people would say they’re not particularly environmentally responsible.

As much as we’re proud of our catalogue heritage, only a misty-eyed nostalgic would claim that catalogues don’t have their difficulties. Certainly, there have been many times over the years when looming deadlines or unreliable technology have raised our stress levels and we’ve had to console ourselves with the thought that ‘if it was easy to do this, everyone would be doing it’.

In rather a sharp twist of irony, the arrival of the internet as a shopping medium has all but proved that old throwaway line. Distance selling online is now much easier (and cheaper) for small traders than paper and, guess what? these days, it often does seem like ‘everyone’ is now selling equestrian products online. The battleground for us to compete for your affections these days is, it seems, not in the letter-box any more but in the virtual world.

In the 29 years we’ve been producing brochures and catalogues, we’ve seen the number of other companies doing the same thing go from two or three in the 80s to perhaps twenty or so ten years ago and back to two or three again today. It’s even conceivable that there will be no other equestrian-specific paper catalogue worthy of the name by this time next year. We won’t know until then but the fact that it’s even possible is astounding enough.

This puts us in a tricky position. We know that when we launch a catalogue, sales go up sharply. Would all of these sales still happen if we suddenly stopped putting ink on paper? We’d rather not find out if that’s the case by just trying it, in case it proves to be a big mistake. There’s also the question of catalogue size to consider. It’s great to be able to produce over 200 pages of products and, in doing so, show off the breadth of our product range simply by inviting customers to ‘feel the width’ (which is something that websites still struggle to convey). This is all well and good but at 200+ pages, many of them will contain the same popular-yet-unchanging products that we’ve printed ten or twenty times or more. Should we really worry that you might think that we don’t sell ‘old favourites’ in products like haynets or water buckets or grooming kits if we don’t keep showing you that we do?

Last October, I decided to put a question to the thousands of people who Like our Facebook Page. I created a poll called “What Form Should the Robinsons Spring 2013 Catalogue take?” and gave a choice of three answers:

  • ‘The Same as Usual: A4, about 150 pages, a full selection of Spring stuff’
  • ‘Just new stuff and good ideas – I expect you to still offer everything else’
  • ‘You know what? I don’t even need a catalogue these days. I’d still order!’

FB Poll Screenshot

At the time that I write this, it has elicited 72 responses:

  • 32 people (44%) chose answer ‘a’: keep the status quo.
  • 35 (49%) went for ‘b’: a version with fewer pages and a smaller range in print
  • Just 5 (7%) plumped for ‘c’: the paperless option – no catalogue at all.

While I’d like to thank those 72 people for their help, we have to be a little careful here – it’s not what a market researcher would call ‘scientific’ but it’s interesting, all the same. It proves nothing but it does lend support to the theory that we could significantly cut down on the amount of paper we produce without adversely affecting our ability to tell you what great products we can offer you.

We know what proportion of our orders are placed via our website but we have to be a little careful not to presume that all those orders were only brought about by the website, not the catalogue. In short, we don’t want to take for granted that you will order from us even if we don’t send you a catalogue. Why should you? It’s our job to entice you to order and if we don’t do that bit properly, why should we expect you to order at all? To inform our view, we’ve looked at what’s happening with paper in other industries and other markets.

Catalogue companies like Joe Brown’s and M&M Sports have dabbled in smaller, thinner catalogues. We may not know what those exercises have proved to them but the fact they’re even doing it indicates that they’re at the same crossroads that we are. Where the old-fashioned ‘big books’ still exist, they appear more likely to come with a price, albeit a nominal price and I even heard a rumour (and it’s only that so don’t quote me) that Argos may be getting away from 1,000+ pages, in favour of developing their very impressive smartphone app further. If that does happen, it’ll surely be another nail in the coffin of the old-style ‘doorstep’ catalogue. So, against all this background – and more besides, we’ve decided to keep in step with innovation and produce a smaller, slimmer Spring/Summer catalogue (see below).

It’s probably only a matter of time before we decide to do the same with its bigger sibling, the Autumn/Winter catalogue. Some may suggest that we’re even seeing the beginning of the end of paper catalogues as a means of customer communication. I’m not sure about that; there were many similar predictions about the impending demise of paper around the time of the ill-fated ‘dot-com boom’ nearly fifteen years ago. Just like the famous old Mark Twain quote, it turned out that rumours of the catalogue’s death were ‘greatly exaggerated’, the lesson being that just because someone has said that something is on the way out, it doesn’t mean that they’re right. It’s a good thing to remember but at the same time, let’s not forget that nothing lasts forever. Mark Twain did eventually die, so you could say that those ‘exaggerated’ rumours, although inaccurate at the time, would come true sooner or later…

SS12 OFC
Thanks for reading, as ever!

Paul