A Chat With Sue Landay, President, Trainer’s Warehouse
© Profile of Success, Catalog Success magazine, February 2006
Catalog Success: When was the catalog established?
Sue Landay: The business was started in 1993 and our first catalog was in 1994. It was a two-color catalog.
CS: Where are your headquarters?
SL: Natick, Mass. About 20 miles west of Boston.
CS: What is your primary merchandise?
SL: We have unusual tools and toys for classroom teachers and trainers. For example, beyond what you might expect such as easels and markers, we have reusable name cards. We have signs for the classroom, such as “Cell Phones Irritate Learning,” and other funny, off-the-wall signs. We have Dilbert mints, welcome kits, music to set the tone for fun and learning. It’s a fun product line — an unusual product line to add fun to the classroom.
CS: What’s the annual circulation of the catalog?
SL: In 2006, it will be about 2.5 million.
CS: What are your primary customer demographics?
SL: Most of our market is within the U.S., although we do have some international. Most of our customers are either corporate trainers or they teach in schools. They’re all classroom presenters in some form. Although some of our products, we’ve found, are applicable in different industries. It’s quickly growing and expanding from that initial niche.
CS: What are your main sales channels?
SL: We primarily prospect and send out to our customers using catalogs. We don’t have a store front. We do take orders via phone, fax and Web.
CS: Your dad started the company, right?
SL: My dad started the company about 13 years ago. The company originally was called Office Images. The original concept was to sell products that would make people’s office feel more interesting and personalized. One of the first products he developed was a Velcro-backed plastic frame. And he found after trying to sell these products through company stores and direct-to-business channels that there was a different audience. In the same day he got two orders for something like 500 of these frames. They were his biggest orders ever up to that point. He told each of the individuals placing the orders that he’d fill the orders if they would tell him what they were going to do with the frames. And it turned out that both of these corporate customers were going to use the frames for their training departments to hand out course completion certificates. After the great day he had, he thought that he would look into more products that corporate trainers might need. So the company evolved to selling frames, plus other products, to corporate trainers. And then I came along and started changing the name on him. Actually I had him do that even before I joined the business.
CS: When did the name change take place?
SL: I would guess three years after the first catalog went out, so around 1996 or 1997. The first catalogs were sent in the Office Images name.
CS: So the whole business started with that one product?
SL: It started with that one product, the frames. The first catalog in ‘94, it was 12 pages. My father looked around the market to find other products to mail to corporate trainers.
CS: How did you get involved in the business?
SL: I had been working as a consultant at a company that taught negotiation skills to corporate customers. I had a marketing background. I had been to Kellogg business school. And I was in a job as a trainer teaching negotiation skills. The company for which I worked was in the process of splintering into a few separate offshoot companies. At the same time I was pretty sick of travel and wanted to stabilize my life a little bit. And at the same time, Trainer’s Warehouse was starting to grow to the point where my dad couldn’t do it all by himself. So the decision for me to join the company was for both of us. He needed help and for me it was the perfect mix between training and marketing. So while I have two sisters, neither of them had the interest nor the background to make it work for them. But it seemed to make sense for both of us for me to give it a go.
CS: What year was that?
SL: That was 1997.
CS: Did you become president that year?
SL: No, I sort of broke things up a bit. I was in charge of marketing; he was in charge of product development. And the receivables and payables, we had little breakdowns for all of those things. It’s evolved over the years as we’ve needed to oversee certain tasks instead of doing them ourselves.
CS: So your father is still involved in the business?
SL: Yes, very much so.
CS: When did you take over as president?
SL: That was 2002.
CS: What was your biggest challenge when you first came on board?
SL: There were a couple of challenges. We were doing duplicate entry for orders and names in our database. One of the challenges was trying to select a software program that would eliminate that duplicate entry process and enable us to collect data about customer purchasing habits. We had been using an accounting software that basically was just for accounting, but we had used it for order-taking. And there was a Q&A software that really was just for a names database. That was the first real challenge when I came in. We fairly quickly made that change, probably in 1998 or so. We moved to Mail Order Manager software, and it’s been something that allowed us to grow.
There were other innumerable challenges along the way. I was thinking about the change in my title, too, and what that meant. We’re not that big on titles here. When I became president, my dad became chairman of the board. While our roles did continue to evolve and to grow, but the way those roles grew was related to what other employees came on board and how we could use them. Early in the company’s history I might have been doing everything, such as square inch reports, writing copy, overseeing design, list rental, overseeing customer service staff and HR, financial analysis, the whole thing. But as I became president, I said that since we have more people here, I can start delegating these things. But the first question that came to mind after that was if I delegate everything, which probably is what I should do, then what do I do? That was an early challenge in taking over the helm. I quickly found that in delegating those responsibilities, I was able to take on an oversight and leadership role and make sure that things were moving forward. I was able to do more because I wasn’t bogged down by the day-to-day tasks. I didn’t have to do it myself anymore. I was able to guide growth and all of the activity.
CS: Did you have trouble with that delegation since you were used to doing things by yourself?
SL: That’s always a hard thing. Sometimes it could be faster or easier to do it yourself. But the growth of the company necessitates letting other people in and making that happen. So I think I continue to oversee a lot and continue to act as a sounding board. And when people are out, because we are a small company, I continue to step in. We actually had a period a few years ago where we had a lot of people on maternity leave. Not all at the same time, but it was my turn, then Sarah’s turn, then my turn again, then another one. I think we’re through with that now and back to full power, but when different people leave, we continue to cover those absences as a group.
CS: In the initial contact I received from Heather at Abacus, she talked about some changes you made to the book after joining up. Could you speak to what changes you made and why you decided to make them?
SL: Specific to the mailing strategy? I would say it was probably in the late ‘90s or so. The way we had been doing things previously, we were able to double our mailings and double our sales. That worked very nicely at the beginning, but at a certain point you begin to see diminishing returns. And we were beginning to saturate the lists of corporate trainers we had available to us. So the challenge was where to find more customers, and more customers who were going to have the higher response rates that we needed because we couldn’t just keep mailing more.
So the first thing I did was suggest a couple of different types of trainers or presenters. We could then think about the types of products they buy and use and a way we could reach them. Some of the niches we thought about selling to were sales presenters, corporate consultants, educators and HR. Sales and size of niche we began to look at, as well as ease of targeting those people. On a number of different levels we began to look at what would make sense. Sales presenters were a huge market, but we came to the conclusion they weren’t purchasing products for a large classroom presentation, but rather much smaller groups. These people travel in their cars more and present to a small number of people. So as we pushed our thinking in that way, we said that’s going to be a different set of products and a different catalog of products, because the nature of that kind of presentation is so different. We looked at school teachers as a different kind of presenter who use classrooms. And we thought that was pretty similar to what we have. Actually, we thought there might be a subset of products that they might prefer in lieu of our whole catalog. We did a small educator’s edition of the catalog, went to a trade show and presented them with both versions. They really preferred the complete line instead of the smaller, abbreviated educator’s edition. That was a learning moment for us. The other niche, corporate consultants, was a bit difficult to get a list on, and HR as it turned out, was a little off topic. So we really realized we needed to focus on educators.
Another big thing we wrestled with early on was “Who are we?” Who is Trainers Warehouse? Early on we had a lot of products that were more like office fixtures. Should we go into training desks and projectors? Should we be the everything place? Should we be like Staples, for instance, which has everything for presentations? Should we carry overheads, all sorts of flip-chart paper, all kinds of markers? While we asked ourselves these questions, we realized we couldn’t compete with Staples, OfficeMax and those folks. And the people who seem to really like our products are the people in the classroom using tools for their presentations, not buying to install a whole classroom. So when we asked ourselves fixtures versus presentation stuff, we said presentation stuff. When we said everything for every trainer versus hard-to-find products, we realized we were the hard-to-find, creative, unusual products. We were really able to focus in on who we are and who we want to gear our products towards. I think I was instrumental in pushing those questions and saying, “It’s okay not to be all these other things.” Let’s just focus on what we are and what we’re about. The implication then is that when we sell a pack of markers, it’s not just a pack of eight that you can get at every office store, we started to sell markers in any color and any quantity. So if you’re a trainer, you’re going to want black, blue, dark green and purple. Dark heavy colors that can be seen from the back of the classroom. And you might want six of each of those. No yellows, no oranges, because you want these to be seen at the back of the classroom. Light blue? Nobody can see that. So we were able to tailor our offerings, knowing what we were to our customers.
CS: What do you think is your biggest career challenge with Trainers Warehouse?
SL: I would say that was one I identified earlier. It wasn’t working with my dad, that was the easy part. Figuring out how to expand our niche was one of the biggest. On top of identifying educators, [we have been] working with lots of different list brokers and using model lists, consolidated lists, cooperative lists. Those have continued to be challenges. The other challenge for our company, and I don’t know if this qualifies as a career challenge, but as a b-to-b company, getting keycodes continues to be one of the toughest things. When we get an order in from a school purchasing department or from a corporation with 18 different branches and they’re working off a requisition number from a purchase order, there’s no way we can track that back to a catalog mailing. So we’re going to be doing matchbacks — but that’s a current challenge.
CS: What are you planning in order to resolve the matchback problem?
SL: We’ve looked at doing it through a number of different companies. It looks like now we’re going to be using Creative Automation. We’re going to give them all of our data, soup-to-nuts. We’re giving them all of our response data and lists and just seeing what happens. The challenge in doing this in a business-to-business (b-to-b) sense, is finding out if there’s one service bureau that will be better than another because it can match different locations of a single company. I don’t know yet what those results will be, but I think we need to do it to see what we can and what we can’t get.
I think another challenge is because we’ve been down to partial staff in the past, due to maternity leaves and the like, and because we’ve been small, is that we’ve produced our catalog every seven to nine months. More than once a year, but not quite every six months. As we chart the results of each mail drop, because we mail monthly even though we don’t print that often, we do find that subsequent mailings don’t do as well as the earlier ones. So we’ve put to ourselves the challenge of committing to a six-month schedule, we want to produce a new catalog every six months. We want to change not just the cover but the inside front and back, and possibly do some other repagination. We’re realizing that has had an impact on sales and it’s a question of time and resources. Probably more our time than the expense. But in the end, you can only do what you can do. We have committed in 2006 to doing two catalogs. We’ll come out with one in January and one in July.
CS: What sets your company apart from others?
SL: I think it’s our spirit of fun and creativity. It permeates our catalog, our photography, our copy and our Web site. It impacts the way we interact with each other internally and the way we look for exclusives. We really put a premium on bringing fun and creativity into the classroom. It’s a lot of what we’re about at all levels. We really focus on customer service as well. We have a very liberal guarantee. If people aren’t happy with the products, we want to take it back. We really do mean that and stand by that. We want to treat our customers as we’d want to be treated if we were the customer. If something is falling short of your expectations, we don’t want you to have to live with it. That’s something we really try to live by.
CS: What do you think are some of your key points to success in cataloging?
SL: Can I give you a couple? I think one is listening. That’s really been critical. Part of that is listening to colleagues and employees within the company, whether that’s folks in our assembly department, shipping department, customer service. Their perspective, the challenges they have, and their worries about a product or procedure have allowed us to continually improve. We listen to our customers when they’re not happy with something and when they need something new; that’s allowed us to grow. We’ve had vendors tell us they’re not sure a certain product is going to work and we might need to do something differently. That’s been critical. Whether it’s been a product development issue, a list manager problem, a service bureau problem or whatever, I’ve really tried to listen to their expertise. We’ve been going to NEMOA shows. At each of those, if we can get one or two nuggets, and we get many more than that, we can find something to apply to our business. That’s been critical. Listening to my dad too.
Which brings me to the second key point to our success. A collaborative approach. My dad in 1977 wrote a book called “Synergistic Management: Creating the Climate for Superior Performance.” The basis of that concept and the basis of synergy is establishing trust among employees. That’s critical to creating a synergistic environment. Once that trust is created, then creativity really can blossom. You can do a lot. I think that it’s an approach I probably internalized growing up, and it’s really critical to how we interact here. We communicate with each other about virtually everything. And we do have lots of conflict and we do challenge each other. Not in the spirit of criticism so much as really trying to challenge how we’re thinking so were can make the best decisions. Whether it’s a marketing plan, a financial plan or product development, our thought is that if we bring our minds together, and challenge each other, we’ll come up with a better solution. As good as the original idea might be, if I go to my father and discuss how we can improve it, it gets stronger. I think that’s key.
I would say the last one is being grounded in integrity. We never steal products from vendors, although we’ve had some stolen from us. As I mentioned, we have a very liberal guarantee. We really want to be fair. We’re not out to get anybody else. We really want to do the best that we can by working cooperatively with other people. And that permeates our approach.
CS: What about the catalog business appeals to you?
SL: I like that you’re able to get immediate feedback and response on something that you do. It’s very reactive. You get instant feedback. As opposed to my husband who’s a novelist who has to wait three years before he gets any feedback on something. I think the other thing that’s really gratifying about it for me is that I have both an analytical side and a creative side. On one hand, I love being able dive into the numbers for data analysis and planning. On the other hand, it’s a tremendous creative outlet. Whether it’s developing the product, doing some graphics for a product, coming up with new logos or new names for products, there’s a tremendous amount of creativity. It’s a really wonderful way for me to balance those two aspects of who I am.
CS: What’s your definition of success?
SL: I was thinking about this question in terms of my business life and my personal life. And they’re similar to each other, but different as well. I think that having a healthy and happy family are always at the top of the list, money and personal development aside. On the business side, there are two things. On one hand, making a positive impact is important to me. I feel like I’ve done that, in that we have customers who are happy, who are doing better in the classroom because of our products. I have employees who are happy because they’re in an environment they like, doing a job that they like and growing. And on a personal front, and in terms of my own success, being able to set projections and meet them provides a feeling of accomplishment. And seeing the business grow is nice. I don’t generally think of success in monetary terms, and yet when I look at the business and see the growth and the profitability, it’s something to be proud of. And my dad and I are still talking, so that’s pretty good, too!
CS: If a new cataloger asked you to name the keys to success in cataloging, what would you say?
SL: Take things step by step. Start small. Address the development of infrastructure and solutions to meet the needs you have at the time. For example, we introduced a T1 line when we needed it in order to process credit cards and download information from our Web site more efficiently. Prior to that, we’d been printing our packing slips one-by-one. That necessitated changing our system so we could print all of our picks and then pack them separately. Whatever it is, you don’t need to do it all at once. You need to identify what you need to get started. What’s going to help at the stage you’re in? You can’t move onto the next thing without knowing what the implications of the last decision are. Increase step-by-step, not all at once.
The second key is trying things out. In catalog terminology it’s testing, testing, testing, which I’ve heard said innumerable times. As I think about it for a small cataloger and what’s been important to us is that there were people who said you’ve got to have such and such sample size to be valid. You need 10,000 to be valid. Well when you’re that small, even doing 2,500 is going to tell you something. It may not be statistically valid, as I know statistics will tell you, but again, you need to try stuff out in ways that work for where you are in your growth.
Third, track results. That’s one of the beauties of the catalog business. You can see the impact of different efforts. Putting in the infrastructure to try and figuring out what’s working and what’s not. Even with the challenges of being a b-to-b business, it’s important. But you also have to be able to step back from those results and not get buried in the minutiae.