Catalog Production: Sorting Out a Complex Process
Catalog design and production today are faster than ever, but the process still can be daunting. The steps outlined here begin with branding considerations and end with catalog printing. Some firms add interim proofing steps that may or may not improve the catalog, but certainly do add to the expense.
For that reason, consider these to be the optimum number of steps needed to efficiently organize the production process to create a catalog on time and on budget. (In addition to the 17 outlined below, you’ll find 10 more key steps online, if you follow the story to the Web at end of this article.)
A good brand gives a cataloger a competitive edge. And to succeed, every company needs a competitive edge, every employee needs to know what the brand is and stands for, and every customer needs to believe it’s meaningful. The entire creative process — look, tone, feel — flows from this definition.
1. Know your unique selling proposition, the part of the brand strategy that distinguishes you from the competition — be it lowest price, best quality, largest selection, unique or hard-to-find merchandise, killer service, etc. This often is expressed as a corporate tagline.
When your brand strategy is clear to all employees, your merchandise selection, catalog and Web site will reflect it and communicate your strength to customers. On the other hand, if you can’t differentiate yourself from the competition, your chances of success are greatly diminished.
2. Pay attention to the look of your catalog. It should reflect your branding, all the way from the tone of voice used in your copy to the paper and the product density per page, to the style of photography and the fonts you employ.
Upscale merchandise, for example, requires an open, elegant look, and often demands more copy, while inexpensive or sale merchandise often can be displayed in a more dense format with emphasis on price instead of on long, descriptive copy.
The pre-plan phase is where marketing, merchandising and creative come together to strategize and conceptualize the catalog. Your teams analyze prior sales for each product and complete preliminary product decisions. Your merchandise department transfers specific product information (especially product benefits) to the design team and copywriter. Although it does take precious time to complete the pre-plan phase, the time spent will facilitate the production phase and result in a catalog that appeals to your customer and sells efficiently.
3. Use square inch analysis (squinch), an analytical tool that measures customer demand and profitability for each product in the catalog compared to its cost. Your merchants can gain insight through a careful analysis of individual product, page and category totals to bring items to market. This creates the analytical foundation for the pagination and space allocation decisions in your next catalog.
4. Have merchants conduct a review — using squinch as a guide — of all products in the current catalog to determine which ones to drop from the next catalog. Typically this process results in a list of definite continuations, a handful of “maybes” and, on average, 33 percent drops. While we all love winners, the drops (or rather the replacements and additions) are what keep the book fresh.
5. Meanwhile, all possible new products should be vetted and the survivors selected for inclusion in the catalog. Each new product consideration should be evaluated for its consistency with the brand strategy.
At the end of this process, there may well be a few products that satisfy the strategy requirements. But, for one reason or another, they land on the bubble and will be included only if room can be found on an appropriate page.
The actual planning meeting constitutes the beginning of the formal catalog production cycle; it’s where the catalog blueprint is developed. This meeting should include management, merchandising, design, copy and traffic personnel.
Each product is assigned to a particular page. An approximation of the space it’ll occupy will be determined. The design team will use this blueprint to execute the detailed page layouts.
6. Pay attention to pagination and space allocation. They’re critical not only for the look of the book, but also for the sales potential. Always paginate with your customer in mind. How does she shop and what type of page and category organization will make sense to her? In other words, the flow of the product presentation should be reasoned and sensible to your customers.
Typically, the more space allocated to a product, the greater the sales it’ll produce. The trick is to ensure that the extra space generates enough additional sales to pay for the additional cost of the added space. Best sellers get more space and marginal ones get less. New products should be prominent, but they shouldn’t necessarily occupy the largest amount of space or the hot locations.
The pagination process will result in all products allocated to specific pages and an approximate amount of space allocated to each item.
7. Finalize merchandise decisions during the pagination process. Those on the bubble are either assigned space or held for future catalogs. It’s critical that there be a cut-off date — namely, at the time of this meeting — when no further products can be considered for the catalog.
Although this is the heart of the creative process, don’t skip or cut short any of the previous steps. That’ll jeopardize the selling power of your catalog.
8. The design team needs to develop the first draft of detailed page layouts using the pagination and space allocation blueprint, and the approved concepts developed during the planning meeting. This will show you the alloted space for each product will be used. Space for image, copy, illustrations, etc., will be designated in the initial layouts.
9. Incorporate management and merchandise feedback for the second draft of layouts. They should be close to the final look. These pages are sent to copy and photography. All departments involved in the review process should take the early rounds seriously. One set of comments should be compiled and returned to the design team prior to the preparation of subsequent drafts. Production time and costs will escalate if key personnel withhold comments until later in the process.
10. Write manuscript copy to fit the layouts. Any issues where particularly long copy, sidebars, etc., are needed should be discussed at the planning meeting and built into the initial layouts.
11. Plan well for the photography shoot. If each shot has been carefully planned for merchandise, props, models, etc., prior to the shoot date, only minor problems are likely to occur on the set. But if you try to wing the shoot, the final results will be far less than desirable.
12. Base manuscript copy revisions on feedback from the first draft. This is the final revision before the copy is placed on the catalog page. Be sure to have it completely proofread because changes in composed pages cost time and money. Finalize pricing, sizing, item numbers, etc., at this same time.
13. The production team will compose pages for the first draft once all the pieces have been assembled and proofed. These pages should closely resemble the final layout draft so there are few, if any, surprises.
14. Incorporate any last minute changes to page design and edits from the initial page proofs with a second draft of composed pages.
15. Prepare final composed pages for output to the printer or pre-press house.
16. Look at color proofs. Color proofing, first of loose images, followed by the composed match proof, provides the last opportunity to catch any final color or type issues before the pages are printed. Changes to loose proofs are relatively inexpensive, but changes to composed proofs are costly and should be avoided if at all possible.
17. Finally, a representative should be on press to compare the printed sheet to the match proof. There’s always some judgment involved, since the printing process can’t match every page exactly. But some correction is possible on press.
Bill Licata is president of LCH Direct Inc., a direct marketing agency specializing in catalogs and e-commerce. You can reach him at (505) 989-9451 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
*** For 10 additional key steps in the production process, click on “10 More Key Production Steps” under Related Content. ***