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Catalogs, Things of Beauty or Things of Shame

May 20, 2010

While we retailers are dealing with the middle and end of our 2010 season, manufacturers are gearing up for the 2011 season. New product designs are being put to bed and now it’s time to work on new catalogs, price lists, and swatch books. Sometimes, I think vendors don’t understand how retailers and consumers use these items. They are sales aids, and as such, I think they should be as easy and intuitive to use as possible. Why then are so many so badly thought out? Please, please, please, before you make one more decision about a catalog layout, a swatch book design, or print a price list, read what I have to say.


Catalog design and layout:


A few days ago, I was watching a consumer go through a manufacturer’s catalog. They had already found a design they liked and needed to see what pieces were available in that design. This was one of those catalogs that had beauty shots in the front but the product shots were in the back. As an experienced retailer, I knew how to use the catalog; but, as I watched my clients fumble through the catalog, I realized how counterintuitive the catalog design was.


The front of the catalog showed the beauty shots in no particular order. At least, if there was an order, it was not apparent to me. The tiny product shots way in the back of the catalog were grouped together by design. The designs were arranged in alphabetical order. Because these vital sales tools were not with the beauty shots, they were hard to find. Not only that, the customer couldn’t compare the small product shots to the overall beauty shots without flipping back and forth. Nothing should complicate the sales process, and this did.


Speaking how designs are arranged in a catalog, I can’t for the life of me understand why a catalog can’t show designs in alphabetical order or at least in order by price point.  The worst arrangement I have every seen is where designs are assigned to artificial categories such as resort, cottage, transitional, etc. Now, how in the world am I supposed to know what category a design falls into when the design category has such a nondescriptive name as “cottage?” At a minimum, retailers can be counted on to know a design’s name. When I am searching a catalog, I am looking for that name. So, regardless of how designs are arranged in a catalog, there should be an easy to find table of contents arranged alphabetically by design name directing me to the correct page in a catalog.


I arrange my catalogs on a standard bookshelf where the spacing between shelves is just enough to store a three ring binder holding an 8.5” x 11” catalog upright. Larger binders, and oddly shaped catalogs are don’t fit on these shelves. Instead, we have to lay them on the bottom shelf where other catalogs might be put on top of it. These become hard to find and "hard to find" makes it hard to bring a sale to its completition. That is not to say that beautifully designed oversized catalogs don’t have a place. It’s just if the catalog isn’t hugely oversized, then don’t make it just an inch or two taller to make it stand out from the rest.


Price List design and layout:


THIS IS IMPORTANT. READ IT CAREFULLY! A price list should be arranged alphabetically by design name. Prices of individual items in that design should be arranged alphanumerically by stock number. The item description should appear right next to a stock number in easy to read letters. Finally, it is much easier to read a price list that has prices for different fabric grades displayed in columns rather than rows.


If you insist on having tables, tabletops, and table bases in a separate part of the price list, put them all together. Don’t have a section for cocktail tables, another for dining tables, and another for bar tables. Arrange the tables, tops, and bases by stock number. No matter how tables are arranged, the catalog should have a picture of all of the tabletops and bases you offer with their stock numbers prominently displayed. Anything less than this makes finding table prices hard to find. I’ll say it again, "hard to find" makes it hard to bring a sale to completion!


We retailers are getting older by the minute. Our eyesight is going along with everything else. With this in mind, please print your price lists in black and white. I remember one year a price list where the printing was done in a lovely shade of light blue. Delightful as a design, impossible to read!


Swatch books.


Thanks a lot, but I don’t need you to arrange your swatches by color story.  When a customer wants to see what fabrics we have on furniture in our warehouses, we go to our computerized inventory records which describes the fabric by stock number. The fastest way to find that in a swatch book is if the book is in order by stock number. If you can’t do that, you HAVE to have two indexes, one by stock number, and the other by name. Both should point us to the page the fabric is on. Oh, and by the way, it is too much to ask for sling fabrics to be separated from cushion fabrics?


If your swatch book has a handle, please make it strong enough that it won’t break in the middle of the year when we go to hang it on a hook. There is one manufacturer in particular whose swatch book isn’t that heavy; but, every year, the handle, which is a cord, comes out of one side of the spine. There is no way to fix the darn thing which means we can’t hang the book on the manufacturer’s podium. Instead, we have to lay it on the floor. Let’s just say, it’s not very professional looking.


Look, I know these may seem like nits to many manufacturers; but, if they mean enough to me that I took time to blog about them, I think attention should be paid.


Yours in confused retailing, Bruce