How to Devise a Merchandise Concept
The most successful catalog merchants have learned to focus their merchandise concept and offerings.
Even a general merchandise cataloger that sells products in several major categories learns there must be a focus to what it sells (e.g., value, credit, lifestyle).
Consumers have a “mental filing cabinet” in which they store retail and catalog brand names. They organize the information by subject (e.g., type of product, type of store), not by company name. So customers must be able to put a label on your catalog to know where to “file” it. If they can’t determine that, or if they don’t have affinity with it, they may forget it.
But if they can file your catalog easily in their minds, they’ll be able to retrieve it just as easily. So when, for example, a friend says to them, “I’m looking for a new rug for my living room,” the consumer can say, “Have you looked at Pottery Barn or Home Decorator’s Collection? They both have a wonderful selection of area rugs.”
Focus, Focus, Focus
What’s a focused merchandise concept, and how do you devise one? First, develop a tag line that’s concise. An effective tag line conveys at a glance what kinds of products prospects can expect to find in your catalog or what kind of experience they can expect to have.
Tag lines such as “expect the unexpected” or “making life more convenient” are too broad for someone who’s going to spend only a few seconds deciding whether to keep or discard your catalog. But tag lines such as “the nation’s leading discount healthcare catalog,” “inspired design for the home” or “office supplies fast and cheap” give a clear sense of what’s inside, and help provide a label for the “mental hanging file.”
Build Your Merchandise Concept
Once the tag line is established, build your merchandise concept under the umbrella of the overall catalog concept. The merchandise concept should be easily described in a few statements and reflect how you’ll deliver the catalog concept and brand elements to the customer.
In most cases, the merchandise concept statement won’t be seen by customers. But, they’ll see the embodiment of the statement in the products you offer and the creative presentation of those items. The following is a fictional version of a merchandise concept statement for a lifestyle home furnishings cataloger:
To delight customers with home furnishings and decorating ideas that have a strong international design flair and enable customers to create an urban chic look that melds with other, more traditional furnishings and accents they may already own. To appeal mainly to 30- to 50-year-old women in upper-middle to lower-upper-income ranges, but still deliver value in each and every product with a level of quality that will surpass their expectations at that price.
During my years in the catalog industry, I’ve met several merchants who didn’t clearly focus their catalog concept. In those cases, the catalog simply became a collection of stuff. And with no clear focus for that stuff—no thread holding the products together—it became hard to present a cohesive story to customers. This hurt the catalogers’ ability to get repeat purchases from customers. It also hurt their prospecting efforts. I’m sure many customers finished perusing their catalogs (or perhaps they didn’t even get that far) and said: “What was that? I can’t figure out what they stand for.”
After you’ve developed your merchandise concept, ensure that your merchants continue to embrace it and can discern what items are right for your book. For example, keep the merchandise statement in front of the buyers—post it in the sample room, in a frame hung on the walls of their offices, or print it on a card they can carry in their planners. The more you focus on the statement, the more focus you’ll see in your product offering.
Test the Fringes, Too
Having said all of that, it’s also important to allow your merchants to test the fringes of your concept, to find new ways to interpret the concept while maintaining the integrity of the overall catalog strategy. This will allow continued growth.
Set a percentage of product (about 80 percent) that firmly meets the merchandise concept, while allowing the remaining small percentage to push the envelope a bit. Also, be sure someone in your company is accountable for maintaining the focus and ensuring that each marketing effort delivers the concept to the customer through the products (normally it’s the head merchant).
To build a customer base of repeat buyers and quickly appeal to prospects, your catalog must stand for something. It needs a reason to be. Without a clearly articulated reason, your catalog will have a tough time resonating with enough customers to create a critical mass of shoppers. It’s never too late to develop a merchandise concept statement that reflects your positioning in the marketplace.
Phil Minix is the managing director of catalogs for Reiman Publications. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.