March 2005 - Digging Up Profit in Catlog Sales

Catalog marketing can help extend the life of a DR product as well as add to a direct marketer’s blended marketing efforts.

By David Lustig

Let’s face it. Advertising your product is easy. Properly advertising it in the right venue can be something else entirely. That’s because you may be the king, or queen, of the hill when it comes to defining and understanding your product, but giving it the best public exposure is probably not your forte.

Let’s work under the theory that you’ve created something the world will come running to your door or mailbox for, and you want to get the word out to the widest audience imaginable. Maybe it’s a combination wallpaper hanger and bidet. Or perhaps it’s a grape stomping device to make wine, but instead of using a press, or your feet, it features the miracle of perpetual motion! Sure, these products may seem somewhat far-fetched but to the person who has created a product and wants to see it flourish, it is critically important to have the available advertising dollars get the best, and most appropriate, bang for the buck.

Products that have enjoyed a successful run on television can generate added revenue for marketers in catalogs such as Healthy Living.

That right marketing solution can include magazines, newspapers, radio and television ads, not to mention print media that include door-to-door flyers, inserts and advertising packages that come in the mail. Some, all or a specific combination may be the perfect solution. Then again, where do those people who produce mail-order catalogs get all those products? Some of the catalogs distributed by mail are high-quality publications produced with good quality paper, graphics and advertising copy that immediately grabs a consumer’s attention.

Many people contact the hundreds of catalog companies directly, eagerly sending query letters and sample products. While there is certainly nothing wrong with that approach, it begs the question: You may have been the right person to create your product, but are you the right person to market it? Maybe yes, but probably not. The answer is an intermediary company that knows catalog companies, deals with them on a regular basis, and can cut right to the chase with a sophisticated marketing strategy and snappy sample copy tailored to each of the catalog companies.

Where do direct marketers find such companies? Many times, they’ll come to you. They might come to the trade shows and conventions where you’re introducing your product to the rest of the world. Their representatives are sizing up your creations and pondering if the catalog producers they deal with have the right fit for your product.

There are a number of companies that specialize in matching products with mail order and online catalogs. One is Catalog Solutions, a 25-year-old commissioned sales rep agency headquartered in Westport, Conn., that has as its motto, “…to effectively place your products into the mail order catalogs online that have the best opportunity to sell your product.”

Fair enough. So to gain a clearer understanding of catalog marketing, Curtis Clarke, vice president of sales for Catalog Solutions, offers more insight. Working in harmony with his father, Jess, who started the business in 1980, and the company’s team of experts, Catalog Solutions now works closely with 300 to 400 different domestic and foreign mail order and online catalog companies.

“We handle products, gifts, gadgets and health-and-beauty products among others,” explains Clarke. “Every week, we get dozens of products sent to us from new inventors, vendors and entrepreneurs trying to see if we can help promote their product.”

Which, says Clarke, is a good way to start, suggesting that the best way to get the ball rolling is to send a sample of the product and any sales and marketing materials direct marketers may have. His staff will analyze it and make a recommendation whether they feel it has potential marketability. With that hurdle passed, the company will develop time-tested direct response ad copy, help determine price points, customize photography and prepare special product mailings. Those product mailings, which also include broadcast e-mails and faxes, go out to hundreds of catalog companies, such as Healthy Living, Starcrest, Modern Farm, Carol Wright Gifts, Fingerhut, Johnson Blair, Harriet Carter Gifts, Vermont Country Store, Beauty Boutique, Taylor Gifts, Sundown Vitamins, Miles Kimball, Sportsman’s Guide and Publisher’s Clearing House.

The mailings are then backed up by personal visits to each of the catalog companies and will also be shown at the various shows the company attends, including the Super Show (a fitness convention), the Housewares Show, Home Healthcare Show, Premium Show, the Hardware Show as well as ERA industry events.

Products that have appeared on home shopping can have added exposure even when they’re not on-air. Catalogs add another layer to multi-platform marketing.

So okay, now that you understand what a catalog rep agency generally does, what makes a good catalog product?

Clarke cites a number of things, including uniqueness-something novel in the marketplace. The more limited the distribution through retail merchandising, the greater the appeal to the catalog merchandiser.

“You can’t compare retail to catalogs,” explains Clarke. “If people can go to Wal-Mart or Kmart to buy the product, there is no benefit of having it in a catalog.”

Then there is compatibility. Clarke says catalogers select new products, which conform to their customers’ particular interests, needs and overall demographics. Availability is another key factor. The product must be available in inventory so purchase orders can be filled promptly. With the typical catalog product buyer ordering two to three items at once, a cataloger must know that you can deliver decent-sized orders quickly. Otherwise, they have to fill a partial order and absorb mail costs twice-something they are never happy about doing.

Finally, there is pricing. Clarke says catalogers work on a different profit margin than retailers. Is it worth what some might see as more hassle? Well, it can add to new market penetration, more exposure and new opportunities, which usually means additional revenue.

“I ran across them in an industry magazine,” says Alan Mittelman, president of Eagle Eyes Sunglasses of Calabasas, Calif. “At that time, we had some very good representation in the catalog business with Lenny Weber, an independent contractor, who we still use frequently today; however, we were looking for greater depth of penetration and felt adding Catalog Solutions was the right way to go.

“In the catalog business, we found that it is definitely a relationship-driven business,” Mittleman continues, “and although there is nothing that prevents us from contacting the catalogs directly, we feel they are literally pummeled with hundreds of new products every month. To get their attention, someone must represent the products directly. That is where Catalog Solutions comes in for us. Commissions are a cost to be dealt with. They are well worth the opportunities that they have availed to us through our representatives.”

Clarke agrees that the catalog producers are literally inundated with products sent directly to them by their inventors or creators. Some that have greeted him via unsolicited mail delivery include an over the door ironing board, strange personal hygiene products, tapes promoting better sex and a flashing bracelet that lights up when your cell phone rings.

“We were at a show about six months ago when Curtis found us and introduced himself,” explains Jerry Barentsen, catalog and sales manager for Wing Enterprises of Springvale, Utah, manufacturer of the Little Giant Ladder. “We’re very big into infomercials,” he continues. “Curtis explained how he deals every day with catalogs and the Internet and knew the people in the business. I decided to try him out.” Currently, catalogs are a small but growing part of Wing’s business.

Wing Enterprises, manufacturer of the Little Giant Ladder, has added catalog advertising to its direct response marketing mix.

But while Clarke and his company go out and solicit business as well as looking at items that come in over the transom, they don’t want to open a package with a new idea or product and no information. Rather, they expect you to meet them halfway, and provide a checklist for the catalog newbie to work from on the Internet.

First, the sample has to be complete, non-returnable and if necessary, include a complete set of instructions. Then, the prospective client has to fill out an information sheet. Photos and artwork would be appreciated, such as a product shot and another photo of the product being used.

But wait, as they say in the advertising business, there’s more. There must be a copy of your liability insurance, any data sheets and additional information such as local newspaper write-ups, if possible.

If Catalog Solutions gives thumbs up to a new product or idea, the deal gets even sweeter. Like many other commissioned sales rep agencies, the company is no-risk, with payment to them contingent on the amount of sales generated from their mail order and online catalog trade. By the way, the company’s continually updated list of catalogs is more than 3,200 and Clarke says he is proud of the fact they have excellent working relationships with more than 450 of the more well-known mail and online catalogers.

“You can never tell what is going to show up on my desk,” says Curtis. “One day it’s a music video, the next day it’s a diet product, or something to give your muscles better tone. There’s always something out there new to market.”

There is, however, that one caveat or fly in the ointment that makes nothing foolproof. And that is that you, as the inventor, creator, thinker, idea person, have to do your own homework to determine if trying to get into catalogs is a right way to get additional marketing penetration. If it is the right thing to do, and you can get your product into catalogs, right behind receiving invoices for your product, nothing is going to make you happier than to get a catalog in the mail and see your product in it.

David Lustig is a contributing writer to Electronic Retailer magazine. We would appreciate your feedback. To send comments or questions, point your browser to


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