A Chat With April’s Profile, Tim Burns, brand manager of Edmund Scientific
Catalog Success: Where’s the company headquartered?
Tim Burns: Tonawanda, New York.
CS: What’s the catalog’s demographic?
TB: We’re about two-thirds male, 35 to 55 [years of age] and they’re typically a professional. So a teacher, engineer, lawyer, doctor. We index really high in terms of those professions. So that’s pretty much what it looks like.
CS: What year was the first Edmund Scientific catalog published?
TB: The company was founded in 1942 and the first catalog was mailed in 1948.
CS: What’s the primary merchandise offered in the catalog?
TB: Science-related products, gifts and toys. So innovative, educational and science-themed.
CS: On average, how many SKUs are offered in the catalog?
TB: We have about 2,000 SKUs, 1,500 of which are in the catalog. [All of the products are offered on the company’s Web site.]
CS: How many catalog mailings per year? How many the company had in ’07 and what’s projected for this year?
TB: We do eight a year; and that’ll be the plan again this year.
CS: What’s the catalog’s circulation?
TB: About three million catalogs a year.
CS: What’s the number of employees at Edmund Scientific?
TB: That’s a tough one for me to answer. There’s a lot of shared resources and everything in the building [at VWR, the parent company of Edmund Scientific]. If I had to guess, and if we stood out on our own, which we don’t, it would be about 30 people.
CS: Can you cover your personal background. How long have you been at Edmund Scientific? How did you get your start in the catalog business?
TB: I’ve been with VWR the past 10 years. And I started with Science Kit, which is actually the parent company of Edmund Scientific. Science Kit is really everything a science teacher uses in the classroom — from chemicals to frogs to microscopes. I started with them 10 years ago in their bid sales group and then left for a brief period of time to do the dot-com thing, and then came back in 2004 to manage the Edmund Scientific business. I’ve been doing that for the last four years.
CS: What sort of challenges did you have to deal with when starting in the catalog business? And when you returned in 2004?
TB: Well, the brand was actually stagnating. Science Kit purchased it [Edmund Scientific in 2001] with the intention to grow it and hadn’t really gotten the type of growth out of it that they expected. So I came in to ramp up growth and really had to re-examine the merchandise position and the circulation plan. The plan was to shift it from a catalog business supported by a Web site, to a Web-based business that was driven by the catalog.
CS: What specific tactics were used to stimulate growth at Edmund Scientific?
TB: Let’s talk about the merchandise first. What I did is I went back to the basics. The really fun thing about Edmund is if you look at catalogs from say the 1950s, which I have, I have catalogs from all the decades that I go back and look at, is really the categories haven’t changed all that much. The products in those categories have made advances, the technology has changed, but we still sell telescopes and optics and microscopes and science toys.
It’s really very, very much the same. Gadgets and gizmos and all kinds of components and hobbyist type things. It’s very similar to the catalogs from 50 years ago. So I went back and I looked at those and looked at what we had and really just tried to get back to what the brand always had been and find new things that would support that.
CS: How was circulation affected by this decision?
TB: What we had been trying to do was to get more growth out of the spring, and it wasn’t really working. There’s a lot of money to be made in the gift business at holiday time. So I really tried to leverage that and increased our circulation, especially in the later drops. In 2005 we ramped it [circulation] up about 30 percent.
CS: How did the company locate the prospects to mail to with this increase in circulation? How do you find prospects today?
TB: Over the last four years we’ve shifted a lot of business away from outside lists over to the co-op databases. I’d say we were 50/50 four years ago, and we’re probably more like 90/10 right now.
CS: What factors have attributed to Edmund Scientific’s success? What will these factors be in the future?
TB: I go back to staying true to the brand. We can’t get too far outside our niche. Edmund Scientific always has been a niche business. I like to think of it as the place that science nerds went for their stuff before the Internet came along. If you were into science, if you loved astronomy, if you were the kind of person that took things apart and put them back together or built your own gadget to solve a problem around your house, you probably knew who Edmund Scientific was because it had the kind of stuff that fed that need. You could get stuff for your hobby from Edmund Scientific that you couldn’t find anywhere else. Now with the Internet you can Google pretty much everything. There’s more competition out there, but the brand is still very, very strong in that niche of people like I just described. It’s about staying true to that and not getting too far outside.
I’ll say that one of the interesting challenges in the last couple of years is a lot of the merchandise for those type of people — the really good new stuff — has been more slanted towards the technology geek than just the science geek. More of a slant towards computer science than the straight natural sciences. So you see a lot of USB gadgets and things that attach to your computer. Or binary — people that think binary like computer programmers. That’s been one of the shifts that we’ve been successful with.
CS: What role does the Internet play at Edmund Scientific?
TB: It’s key; it’s the primary order channel. We’ve always been ahead of the curve in terms of our customers using the Web as their order channel. Like everybody else, we’ve seen a huge shift in the last five years from the way people order: Via phone or through the mail to using the Web site as the order channel. But having said that, it obviously is really, really important. And we do very well with CPC [cost per click] and search engine marketing and affiliate marketing, but our mail order business has stayed pretty current. Our customers to some degree are still very old school. They like to get that catalog in the mail and fill out their order form and put a stamp on it and send it in. We still get a few thousand orders every year through the mail.
CS: What’s the percentage breakdown of sales by channel?
TB: We’re about 70 percent Web, 25 percent phone and 5 percent mail.
CS: What challenges do you foresee for Edmund Scientific, and the catalog industry as a whole, this year and future years?
TB: I think you have to maintain your niche. So as I said before, we’re still very much a niche business. And it’s science-themed, science-related, innovative, interesting products. We can’t get too far outside of that. There are opportunities to become more of a gadget catalog, there are opportunities to become more focused on things that relate to computer science and the natural sciences, and I try really hard not to get too far away from our brand proposition … which isn’t all that different than it was 50 years ago. It’s about helping people connect science with the world around. Giving them things that make it fun and interesting and allow them to show science isn’t just something they like, but it’s also their hobby.
CS: What has Edmund Scientific done to combat the rising costs (postage, paper, printing) of running a catalog business today? For example, cut circulation or made changes to the catalog’s trim size?
TB: We do all that stuff. One of the things we have working for us is we’re part of a very large catalog company. VWR and its science education division are always in the top 10 of the Catalog 100. So we try to leverage all of those titles when we’re buying paper and we’re negotiating print contracts. And then we’re also looking at co-mailing opportunities. But the thing about Edmund is it’s a small, consumer catalog within a corporate B-to-B culture. So everybody understands cataloging, but we’re not a small, privately owned company. There are budgets that you have to adhere to. So when catalog costs go up like that, I really have to scramble to achieve my growth targets while maintaining the bottom line.
CS: What about the catalog industry appeals most to you?
TB: When I was a kid I used to love mail ordering. I’d collect Bazooka Joe comics and try to get the kazoo or the whistle that you got if you sent in a buck and 100 Bazooka Joe’s. So just the whole idea of mail order was always appealing to me.
And then on the merchandise side, I’m more of a gadget guy than I am a science guy, so I get my kicks on the merchandise side because I love gadgets and a lot of what Edmund Scientific sells falls into that category.
CS: Looking back over your career, what would be the biggest mistake you made? How did you recover from that mistake?
TB: This is interesting. People ask me that question and this is generally what I say: When I first came in, one of the things that made me nuts is that the copy always included dimensions — sizes: length, width, height, diameter,weight. One of the challenges I had was the density of the catalog. Edmund Scientific has typically always been a very dense catalog. So one of the things I did to make it more appealing, in the copy anyways, was to cut out all those dimensions so I could add more headline copy so the product pages sold a little bit harder.
I found out quickly that that was a mistake. Because our customers, that’s how they think. That’s one of the first things they want to know when they’re looking at something — how big it is. They think dimensionally. While I didn’t find that information particularly interesting or helpful, our customers considered it key. So I had to go back and fix all those products where I pulled the dimensions out of the copy.
CS: Where do you think your career would’ve headed if you hadn’t gotten involved in the catalog/multichannel business?
TB: I think I’d probably be an Internet guy, somewhere.
CS: What’s done to keep a fun and light environment at Edmund Scientific?
TB: We do regular product trainings. So the customer service and the warehouse staff can actually get their hands on the stuff that they’re entering orders for or shipping out. Our stuff is generally fun and interesting, and it really helps when they take these things out and put the batteries in and play with them and see how they work. There really good days for them. And it obviously helps them when they’re talking to customers about the products.
CS: Have you had any mentors in the catalog/multichannel business?
TB: I can’t say he’s a mentor, because I don’t know him personally. But Robert Edmund is somewhat of a legend in the direct marketing industry. Again, I don’t know Robert. I’ve only talked to him on the phone maybe a few times and via e-mail a few other times, but I feel like he’s watching what I do. And I feel indebted to run Edmund Scientific in a way that he would find appropriate. So I really do look at the old catalogs and listen to what lifelong customers say and what industry veterans tell me at conferences, and try to stay true to the brand he created.
CS: What interests do you have outside of work?
TB: I’m a voracious Buffalo Sabres hockey fan.
Joe Keenan is the executive editor of Total Retail. Joe has more than 10 years experience covering the retail industry, and enjoys profiling innovative companies and people in the space.