One of the most-asked questions I get is, “What product density is right for my catalog?”
There are two main drivers to finding your appropriate product density (or the average number of products per page): your brand and your square inch sales report.
Brand. In general — but not in every case — the more upscale the brand, the lower the product density; the more downscale the brand, the higher the product density. So if you’re starting a new catalog and have no idea what density to use, look at competitive catalogs (or noncompetitors who sell to your audience), and take your cue from them.
Square inch report. Once started, focus on what your square inch report tells you. It’s your key to increasing and decreasing the space allocated for each product. This report should tell you what your sales per square inch of catalog space are for each product, how individual products’ square inch sales compare to the book’s average, how much above or below breakeven, and other factors. Track trends over time, too, as you’ll be able to tell if you’re over-enlarging or over-shrinking space for particular products.
More Pages or Higher Density?
Problem: “We want to add 10 percent more products, but our density’s already set. Should we just add 10 percent more pages?”
Doctor’s Remedy: This gift cataloger wanted to add more products to lift sales, and first planned to add more pages to do it. But a second look made it decide to redesign instead, adding one more product per two-page spread. And with the money it saved on paper, prepress and postage, it instead invested in mailing more catalogs. Result: a healthy sales increase, plus higher sales per catalog.
Are Upscale and Increased Density Compatible?
Problem: “My square inch report tells me to increase density a lot. Won’t that downscale my high-end brand, hurting sales?”
Doctor’s Remedy: It doesn’t have to. This high-end cataloger had some products that earned huge space and many others that earned tiny space. The company achieved this by incorporating huge images, a typical upscale design trick, to keep its catalog’s high-end look. A hallmark of many high-end books, larger images can balance well with smaller images on facing pages.
To maintain upscale appeal when you need to increase density, this solution works much better than resizing the products to similar size. For this cataloger, the changes fit the pagination strategy well, products got the space they earned, profitability substantially increased, and the new book looked every bit as high end as ever.
Tricks for Adding High-end Density
Problem: “My brand is very upscale, but I can’t be profitable with only five to seven products per spread. Are there other ways to have a high-end look?”
Doctor’s Remedy: Yes. One way is to show several products in a single image. This works particularly great for fashion catalogs and home décor catalogs. In fashion, a model who gets a whole page to herself looks like low product density right? Look again. It’s not unusual to find one model selling a jacket, a blouse, pants, a belt and a scarf. So what looked like low density actually is middle density, cleverly disguised. Linens can work the same way with one
big bed image selling a duvet cover, bed skirt, three kinds of pillows and a bed runner all in one shot. But don’t combine just any products into a single photo. If the products don’t naturally work together, you could end up with a chaotic photo, which will reduce sales.
Problem: “I need to increase our upscale catalog’s product density even more. Any other tricks for maintaining a high-end look?”
Doctor’s Remedy: Use different densities on different pages. Start with low density in the first few pages (top sellers that deserve really big space). Later in the book, group small-space products so pages get progressively denser. Then, to keep the inner pages of the book from looking overly dense, when you come to a new product category, begin that category with a low density “breaker” spread that highlights low density best sellers in that category. Then move back into high density for the rest of that category.
High Density Plus Low Prices Works
Problem: “Our catalog doesn’t have to look high-end — we sell functional products at great values. How dense can I go to get the most bang for my buck?”
Doctor’s Remedy: High density is almost a must for catalogs of low-priced products. But if you’re selling to a relatively broad audience, where you face a lot of competition, you’ll need to design your catalog in ways that prevent quickly scanning readers from having their eyes glaze over.
Otherwise, it’s best you go for high density. Miles Kimball, a low-priced gadget/gift cataloger, does this well, fitting an average of 19 products onto each spread of its narrow trim size (7.25 inches by 10.5 inches) catalog.
Try these tricks to make highly dense spreads easy to view for your readers:
1. Have a prominent, relevant headline to catch attention.
2. Visually simplify a crowded spread by arranging products into groupings.
3. Try to have a “hero” product on most spreads to help grab and anchor the reader’s eye.
When Maximum Density Works
Problem: “I want to go for the maximum possible density. When can I get away with breaking the design rules and cramming in every product possible?”
Doctor’s Remedy: Are you selling to enthusiasts? Enthusiast catalogs often aren’t up against a lot of competitors with deep pockets and fancy marketing techniques. In fact, they may be the only source for sought-after products, so audiences often will pore over every page. Such audiences don’t need eye flow aids to help lift flagging attention, so catalog design rules can be broken. Historic Rail is a great example of an enthusiast’s catalog with maximum density. This catalog has 14 to 18 products on most pages: That’s 28 to 36 or more per spread, yet with plenty of selling copy and photos.
High Density Can Look Good
Problem: “I want the sales per square inch that high density delivers. Does that means our catalog has to look like ‘cheap junk’?”
Doctor’s Remedy: High density and high quality can go together, but it’s challenging. You need a skilled designer and visually appealing products. Victorian Trading Co. does a great job of cramming in tons of products (seven to 10 items per page). Its design succeeds by using lots of creative image overlap and very short copy to give the cataloger the high image-to-copy ratio typical of upscale catalogs. Yet with amazing density, the products still come across as high quality. Plus, the catalog is enchanting to page through, like discovering a charming antique shop crowded with shelf after shelf of wonders.
Have you studied your competition, studied your square inch reports, but you’re still unsure of what your catalog’s product density should be? Then, follow these two rules of thumb:
2. When in doubt, increase product density.
Susan J. McIntyre is president of McIntyre Direct, a catalog marketing agency and consulting firm based in Portland, Ore. Contact: (503) 286-1400 or email@example.com.