Words from the cozy cadre


As the printed word continues to succumb to the e-word, old-school fans of the paper-and-ink world (remember that?) are wondering if they’ll be able to tally any survivors at all. I was wondering about this tally myself. Well, I sure picked the right season to mull it over, since Santa Claus gave me the answer.

And the answer is: catalogs.

My mail box if full of them, especially during the holiday, oops, I mean the “shopping,” season.

As I watch the demise of print, I’ve begun to regard catalogs like a biologist regards a surviving species among the bones of the extinct. I can’t scientifically prove any cause-and-effect, but I can note some of the survivors’ characteristics and draw some conclusions.

Before taking a look at their plumage, though, I’ll note that their evolution has run for a long time. The Sears catalog, long a mainstay of life in the U.S., hit the scene in 1888, first as a specialty catalog (watches) but soon as a general catalog offering household items and, in fact, entire houses.

The sun set on the general catalog in 1993, though Sears still sends specialty catalogs (e.g. for tools).

Although I was aware of the Sears catalog when I was a kid, I don’t think we often, if ever, ordered from it. What turned my friends and family into catalog shoppers were clothing outfits such as L.L. Bean and Lands’ End.

A few decades ago, these were a natural fit with toll-free numbers. You’d call the number, and, using the catalog for reference, place your order. It was easy. You could also fill out an order form and mail it in, but I don’t recall ever doing that myself. These days, as great as the Web is, it has not entirely replaced these methods of catalog shopping.

And, just to connect some dots, I’ll note that Sears bought Lands’ End in 2002, but, last I heard in early 2014, Sears was cutting it loose again. I never understood that marriage to begin with, but retailing seems to operate on its own psychedelic logic.

But now we get to the part that really interests me about catalogs: the writing. A good catalog is a compelling piece of communications. Some of the best-written material I see is catalog copy. I think this is why the top print catalogs still enjoy such popularity, and such devotion, even in today’s electronic times.

If you put focused, warm and well-written copy on a written page, you’re going to get readers. Yes, even if you’re trying to sell them something.

One of the famous names in that school of thought was David Ogilvy, who lived from 1911 to 1999, and who is often called the father of modern advertising.

Here’s a quote attributed to Ogilvy, and I like it because is shows how he favored the practical over the pedantic:

“I don’t know the rules of grammar. …If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.”

To which I say, yep, darned straight.

Here’s another compelling aspect of catalogs: themes. I mean stuff like holidays, summertime, and so on. This doesn’t make a catalog a narrative, but it can sure set the scene and provide a texture and characters. The characters are, of course, the models; they’re sometimes posing solo, sometimes as happy couples, sometimes as smiling families.

So, this time of year, when you thumb through the catalog pages, you’ll see the woodsy guy or gal in the rustic cabin, the energetic kids frolicking in the snow, and the entire family snug and cozy near the living room fireplace.

Heck, if I could step inside a catalog and live there, I would. But in the meantime, I’ll content myself with the Ultra-Thick Yarn-Dyed Egyptian-Grown Hand-Picked Combed-Flannel Button-Down Long-Sleeved Shirt. So I’ll just put it on the credit card, and, presto, I’ve earned admission to the living room’s cozy cadre.

I don’t know anything about photography, graphics, or layout, but it must be quite the science for catalogs. The good ones make it look easy. The mediocre ones, by contrast, sure demonstrate the hazards of the craft.

It’s easy to dismiss communications as a mere footnote to business, but in the industries I’ve been involved with I’ve often seen superior products fail because of inferior marketing and communications. Even really smart people can be totally tone-deaf to this stuff.

I always favor buying stuff locally when possible, but even merchants who depend on local, face-to-face sales can mine catalogs for some nuggets of good communications techniques. After all, if you want to survive, study the survivors. The lessons are free, even if the Combed-Flannel shirts aren’t.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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