How To Break Into The Lucrative World Of Catalog Sales

“The secret of success — if there is one — is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and to consider things from his or her point of view as well as your own.” – Henry Ford

Whether you sell old books, cigar lighters, clothes, or furniture, a catalog can transform your business. On the modest side, it can create excellent back-end revenues from your existing clientele. On the dreamy side, it can put you into a whole new business of international mail order that could dwarf what you are doing right now.

I know a guy who sold his vitamin company for $400 million and retired to Florida. Before he developed a catalog, he told me, his business was grossing a couple of million dollars a year and giving him a six-figure income. Nice enough to get by on, but worlds away from where he ended up.

Catalogs are alluring sales vehicles, because they are relatively inexpensive (on a per-item basis), are generally well received by prospects, are helpful in clarifying your unique selling proposition (USP), and are capable of giving you much greater brand recognition. And, as I suggested above, they are usually very effective at boosting back-end sales to your customer base.

But catalogs are not for everyone. If you don’t have a customer base of at least several thousand people, you won’t be able to make it pay as a back-end. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a catalog work, but it does raise the ante — probably too high for most businesspeople.

My advice: If you can create, produce, and mail a catalog to your customer base for a dollar a name or less, your chances of succeeding are good to great. If you mail your catalog to your client base and make good money on it, you can then “roll it out” to prospective buyers. So long as you are funding the prospect mailings with back-end profits, your risk is limited and your potential is good.

To mail your catalog to outside prospects, you’ve got to figure on spending at least a hundred grand. You can spend half that much if your market is well-defined and you have a good sense of your products (which ones are selling well, for example). But it’s nearly impossible to spend less, because there are a lot of set-up costs (design, photography, copywriting, etc.).

That’s expensive. And that’s why you want to pretest the idea, and hopefully generate some funding dollars, by mailing a relatively small (eight- to 48-page) mini-catalog to your clients first.

This won’t tell you for sure whether the prospect catalog will work — but if it doesn’t work, your prospect piece probably won’t either.

And if it works, as I said, you might make enough money from it to fund a real catalog test.

To get started, there are four things you have to consider:

1. What you’re selling. Catalogs are generally best for selling (1) products rather than services and (2) commodity-type items (toys, books, clothing, jewelry, furniture, etc.) rather than “perceived-value” products (newsletters, legal or health advice, etc.).

2. Your marketing strategy. Will you do better by coming into the market as a price discounter (always my first choice, if you can afford it) or by positioning yourself at the top of the market?

If your business is upscale, yet you want a big share of the market, consider creating two product lines: a discount line that allows you to pull in a large number of names and a more expensive line that more accurately represents your current business. Make sure the discount line isn’t priced too far below your core business line, or you won’t get your customers to jump up.

3. Your image. Every catalog must convey a strong, clearly comprehensible identity. Quick and Dirty. Elegant and Expensive. Homespun and Honest. Slick and Technical.

Make sure both your image and your price range are apparent to your prospect. If you are a bargain-basement business, don’t let your catalog designer dress you up in a tuxedo. And if you are competing with Tiffany, don’t be cheap with the paper stock.

Decide whether you are fish or fowl. If you are a fish, be sure you have fins and scales. If you are a fowl, wear feathers.

A catalog, like all direct mail, is scanned by your prospect for about three seconds. If it sends the wrong message or a confusing one, there is a high probability it will be trashed. So spend a lot of time making sure you have exactly the look that appeals to your market. And be sure every page of your catalog reflects that same impression.

4. The items you select to feature and how you present them. This is an art and science unto itself. In the catalog industry, there are people who specialize in this task – and make good money doing so. For example, the item you picture on the front page can make or break the entire catalog.

If you want your catalog to be a success, accept the fact that you’re not going to be able to design it by yourself. You’re going to have to hire someone who has a lot of experience.

That being said, you should use the knowledge you have of your market and your product to influence the design. If you sell fishing supplies and your prospects are good old country boys, make sure your designer creates a visual effect that will appeal to a good old country boy. If you are selling Caribbean knickknacks, make sure your catalog is filled with bright, vibrant colors. If you are selling art to rich people, your designer should have selected a dignified typeface and forgone the 64-point headlines. Keep in mind that your catalog is selling much more than merchandise. It is selling benefits, promises, and a lifestyle.

You also need to make sure your catalog is easy to read. This rule applies to the descriptive copy as well as the ordering information. You can’t overdo this. Remember that even smart, sophisticated shoppers have limited time. If they have to spend an extra minute figuring out how to order, what the price is, etc., they may just throw your catalog away.

Before you sit down with your designer, spend some time looking at the catalogs of your competitors. Discover their secrets. What is it they all do the same way? How are they different? What images do they project? What are the main promises they make? To be a successful catalog promoter, you need to know not only your own products and your target market, you have to know your competition too.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]