Catalog vs. Solo Package
Should you try both formats?
In the annals of great direct marketing companies, fortunes have been made selling with both catalogs and solo packages. Both formats have their place in direct marketing and each serves a specific purpose.
Unfortunately, many companies (especially startups) misunderstand the criteria for these formats and make critical strategic mistakes when using them. Likewise, seasoned direct marketers may forget the benefits of one or the other format, ignoring potential profits. Let’s explore both formats and why each of them should be considered in your marketing programs.
What Makes a Catalog?
A common mistake among start-ups is the belief that the company has what it takes to build a profitable catalog program. At its core, a successful catalog is a collective merchandise concept, not a single-focus, single-category product line. A catalog is a store, offering a variety of products under a single concept.
For example: A shoe store has a single-category product line, right? Yes, but a successful shoe catalog will not carry just dress shoes. It will add casual shoes, athletic shoes, socks and other footwear accessories to the merchandise mix. The reason: While customers may only need to purchase dress shoes once a year, they might buy other “types” of footwear all year long. This allows for repeat business.
Another common mistake direct marketers make is thinking a small collection of products will make a successful catalog program. Not so, especially when you are in prospecting mode. Catalogers must give prospects a wide variety of products and price points within a category. Never dabble in a category. As a rule, it’s difficult to make anything less than a 36-page catalog work while in growth mode
When Would a Cataloger Use a Solo Package?
A solo package is a format that comes in many shapes and sizes. Basically, it’s one or more marketing pieces—and can include a full catalog—placed in an envelope and mailed. Unlike a catalog, the marketing or product focus of a solo mailing should be much more homogeneous; by nature, it’s a simplified offering. In fact, a successful solo package works hard to simplify the offer (whether it’s selling a product, service, generating leads, etc.) and will repeat the message frequently throughout all of the components in the envelope.
There are many successful examples of catalogers creating solo packages to augment their existing campaigns. Here are several examples to consider:
• Create a “relationship” package. Food or gift catalogers often use this popular format. A relationship package includes a catalog mailed in an envelope, a gift list and sometimes a relevant letter. The gift list is populated with a preprinted (usually ink-jetted) list of recipients to whom customers have previously shipped gifts. This allows customers to easily purchase and ship more gifts because it also includes address information.
This format can be quite successful for your better customer segments. If your catalog is not gift oriented, it might be relevant for you to send your customers a list of past purchases. This technique may also work well for a consumable product line or for products sold by B-to-B catalogers (anything that needs to be reordered).
• Create a prospect mailing around a best seller. This technique works well if you have a product that is exclusive, unique and also a best seller. One skin-care cataloger learned the value of this format when testing a solo package with one of its best sellers; the single-focused mailer worked better than the catalog when prospecting!
• Announce a new, exclusive product offering. If you have a new product to introduce in a successful category, a solo package could be the perfect way to introduce it to your better customers—especially if the price point and margin will generate a profitable campaign.
• Offer a seasonal item to your customers. A perfect example of this usage is Cushman Fruit Co. It has seasonal fruits that are offered during non-peak catalog months. Another example of this might be special holiday offers for dates such as Valentine’s Day or Father’s Day.
• Don’t mail alone. Sometimes a catalog is too small to mail on its own. There are a couple of examples where this is applicable:
1. Your product offering is limited, or homogenous, and it needs more attention than perhaps an eight-page or 12-page catalog might provide. Placing it in an envelope with a letter or offer certificate might be a way to get more attention.
2. You have a successful category that customers always respond to, but it’s not quite ready for a spin-off catalog. Create a small catalog and mail it in a solo package!
• Add on. Other items might go along with your catalog. For example, it might be affordable and profitable to send “support” pieces when selling to your better customers. Consider: Does it make sense to send a letter, a sample or a thank-you gift? The item(s) you include should be relevant to customers and, more importantly, tested.
When Can a Solo Package Become a Catalog?
Yes, there is a time when a company that traditionally sells via direct mail packages should create a catalog program. Mostly, it’s when your product line fulfills the definition of what makes a catalog (as described above). More importantly, though, it’s when customers tell you or give you “permission.” Whether it’s through research or customer service activities, if customers are asking for more products or for new category extensions, a catalog program should be tested. And yet another opportunity can be seen if you’re successfully selling several product lines via solo packages and you are able to sell them under one brand concept.
Both formats are successful in direct marketing, and both should be considered—even if you are a “purist” in one format or the other. Consider successful direct marketing companies such as The Sharper Image or Omaha Steaks. These companies have profitably used both formats for specific occasions. All it takes is an appropriate offer (or offering) tested to the right audience.
Lois Boyle is president of J. Schmid & Associates, a catalog consulting company based in Shawnee Mission, Kan. You can reach her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.