Cataloging is Rocket Science
PATIENT: "Doc, our staff and vendors who handle the cataloging side of our business seem to continually run into problems. Why is that? After all, cataloging isn't rocket science."
CATALOG DOCTOR: "I used to think you were right, but over the years, I've come to realize that in many ways cataloging is rocket science. Here are four reasons why …"
1. Many, many parts must all converge at a common end point. Envision a 56-page catalog with four front cover, four back cover and four 2/3 versions. That's 68 unique pages. Just one page is a complex project with many decision points and demands. The whole catalog is 68 times more demanding. For every one of those 68 pages, product selection, space allocation, creative concept, copy, photos, retouching, design, prices and SKU numbers have to be researched, created, proofed, revised, reproofed, approved, uploaded, rechecked, re-approved, plated and printed. And that's just the creative portion.
There's also the sales analysis, circulation plan, budget, print booking, scheduling, last date of change to order paper, mailing lists, data processing, file trafficking, address simulations, proofing, approvals, binding, addressing, trucking, mailing and, finally, in-home. That's all before the first order is placed, which spawns a cascade of more work. And we haven't even touched on inventory management.
2. All catalog tracks must hit a common deadline, together. That's especially hard if your catalog program isn't one that's in continual production, but rather is sporadic throughout the year. That's because when the catalog process starts, it's an interruption of and addition to everyone's "regular" work.
Something about cataloging — and its many projects-within-a-project — conflicts with the human tendency to put things off to the last minute. If just one person underestimates the time they need and ends up a day (or week) late, they can throw a monkey wrench into the entire project. If two or three people do that, you can miss your deadline, which misses your print date, which misses your in-home, which misses your sales.
Managing all these parts, keeping those parts on track, and making sudden changes of course when a part goes wrong is quite a juggling act. It requires being part manager, part whip-cracker and part emergency responder.
3. Cataloging requires elevated levels of design. A single two-page spread has many elements that need to come together to create an appealing whole that's also clear, guides the eye among all the products, keeps the look on-brand and "sells."
Even catalogs that are low density have more graphic elements than most ads or emails. Higher-density catalogs are even more challenging. If there are 18 products on a two-page spread, when you count the photos, copy, inset images, main spread headline, grouping headlines, and a testimonial or cross-sell, that two-page spread may have 45 different graphic elements to juggle before ending up with an eye-stopping spread that grabs interest and creates desire. On top of that, you can't set up a formal grid to plug-and-play. Every spread needs to be different to create the flow and pacing that keeps the catalog reader with the catalog, page after page.
4. Catalogers can't afford to have mistakes in their book. Once a catalog mails, it's gone; you can't pull it back and tweak it or fix last-minute errors. A website can be tweaked in near real time, but a catalog error is in front of customers and prospects for weeks or months, confusing or irritating them and causing ongoing problems for customer service. The only solution is no errors. That means diligent proofing of everything. Not just checking prices and weights and colors, but also proofing for ways readers might wrongly interpret copy, photos, deadlines or your guarantee. Hard, yes. But achievable.
Susan J. McIntyre is Founder and Chief Strategist of McIntyre Direct, a catalog agency and consultancy in Portland, Oregon offering complete creative, strategic, circulation and production services since 1991. Susan's broad experience with cataloging in multi-channel environments, plus her common-sense, bottom-line approach, have won clients from Vermont Country Store to Nautilus to C.C. Filson. A three-time ECHO award winner, McIntyre has addressed marketers in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, has written and been quoted in publications worldwide, and is a regular columnist for Retail Online Integration magazine and ACMA. She can be reached at 503-286-1400 or email@example.com.