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Wearables Business

Supplier catalogs: the PPD’s best friend

Supplier catalogs: the PPD’s best friend

Kim Mitchell

A successful catalog is a mixture of science, research, art, design, utility — and fairy dust.

This is the deal: Your desk is so deeply buried beneath paper that you’re living in fear that the next person through the door will be the fire marshal. Your client is on the phone, anxious, exhausted and impatiently waiting for an answer. You morosely stare at the morass that is your office, and resignation nibbles at your soul. Then, something catches your eye. It’s a lifeline. It’s a blessing.

It’s your supplier’s catalog.

Trust us when we say that suppliers know how important catalogs are. They spend months taking input from their clients — that’s you — in an effort to develop user-friendly catalogs. They pay top dollar for creative design experts and photographers. They know their brands, and the exact image they want to convey.

At the same time, they struggle to make each year’s catalog fresh, fashion-forward and exciting. They are determined to design a catalog capable of showcasing the plentitude of their wares, yet one that is compact and easily referenced. They learn from their mistakes and successes, as well as those of their competitors.

In the end, a successful catalog is composed through a mixture of science and research, art and design, utility — and fairy dust. And suppliers want it to be a promotional product distributor’s best friend 12 months of the year.

“I like to see our catalog used as a year-round resource,” says Christopher Levesque, vice president of marketing for New York-based Anvil Knitwear. “I want it viewed as a complete package of product, whether the focus is women’s or men’s wear, whether a bag or T-shirt. It’s a resource. And I want my book to support the wholesaler, and our entire wholesaler base.”

At the end of the year, Levesque says, a good catalog should be as dog-eared and “worn out as a favorite pair of shoes.”

“As a supplier we’re dedicated to the PPD,” says Roger Carroll, vice president of marketing for Grandview, Mo.-based King Louie International, Inc. “As far as we’re concerned, our catalog is our salesman when our salesman can’t be there.”

Standing out

But with so many catalogs available, how can suppliers ensure that their catalog is the one that stands out?

“It’s not a simple answer, but to a large degree it’s the cover and the quality of the paper,” says Brian Jewell, whose Kansas-city based Creative Design Agency specializes in helping suppliers create successful catalogs. “You need to tell your customer what you are about before they even open the catalog. If the cover doesn’t excite people, it doesn’t matter if you’re giving things away for free. No one will look at it.”

Doree Holmberg of Minneapolis-based PremiumWear agrees, and she ought to know. Her company distributes a whopping seven catalogs, including the company’s lines Munsingwear, Page & Tuttle, California Outerwear and Burk’s Bay.

“The cover needs to be eye-catching and the paper substantial,” she says. “The colors need to be right, and we think it pays to do fashion photography on location, rather than a studio.”

Still, differentiating one’s catalog from those offered by competing suppliers is a challenge, says King Louie’s Carroll.

“I try to differentiate our catalog from the competition by taking up one of the trends you see in corporate identity apparel,” he notes. “We do a lot of location shooting — like this year in Beaver Creek and last year in San Diego — and we think it pays off. A lot of corporate wearables catalogs are filled with pedestrian studio shots. We stay away from that.”

What’s more, King Louie makes hay with the fact that a significant portion of its product is made by U.S. labor unions. “That’s important to a lot of people,” Carroll adds. “With the advent of NAFTA, most manufacturing of apparel comes from offshore and there it isn’t easy to find domestic manufacturers. We make use of the union label.”

Clearly, there’s a lot of influence from retail catalogs. But melding the concept of corporate apparel with high-flying fashion isn’t easy.

“At Creative Design we started out because we felt the catalog industry needed to be more aware of what style was,” says Brian Jewell. “Some do it very well, some don’t do it very well. Some want to do it well, but they don’t because they don’t know how to do it. They see it in mainstream retail but they don’t know how to translate it to the promotional industry. The answer is that it needs to be a marriage of excitement and sizzle and showing the product so that the end-user can understand it.”

More of everything in 2001

Okay. So what can PPDs expect from the new batch of 2001 catalogs? More of everything in terms of product, especially when it comes to performance garments and accessories such as bags. Women’s lines continue to expand and flourish.

“Our 2001 catalog is a larger, perfect bound catalog that combines all three of our programs — Ash City, II Migliore and North End — into one,” says Sheila Jardine, Ash City’s merchandiser. Because Scarborough, Ontario-based Ash City wanted each collection to be distinctive and separate within the catalog, Jardine says “each collection is clearly defined with an introductory two-page spread representative of the distinctive look for each collection.”

At Seattle-based SanMar, two catalogs are offered each year. “We have some customers that prefer a smaller catalog focusing on high-end corporate apparel. A lot of our customers use both books, says Linda Goldman, SanMar’s marketing manager for print media.

At SanMar the philosophy is to organize by category, and not manufacturer, she adds. “We’ve increased our pages slightly for this year’ she says. “Each year we’ve added new product in every basic line.”

At Anvil, one catalog features all three of the company’s main brands, Anvil, Cotton Deluxe and Cotton Deluxe Casuals; a fourth line, Towels Plus, has its own catalog.

“We organize by category and not by label,” says Levesque. “We feature more product than most of our mill competitors — about 85 products — and more product classes. We have niche products such as ladies’ styles and special color pallets. This year we added towels and now robes and sport bags.”

“We don’t have thousands of products,” says Pam Lutz, executive vice president of marketing for suppliers Jonathan Corey and Inner Harbor. “We (Jonathan Corey) offer 35 to 40 styles and we try to put one style on each page. This lets us play up every single style in its best possible manner. Our hope is that it is clean, colorful and functional enough where distributors will actually use our catalog in their presentations.”

“We’re showcasing our new products on one page in the front of the book, then they’re featured again throughout the sections” says King Louie’s Carroll. “This lets the customer see them several times and I believe repetition creates emphasis.”

User friendly

In addition to showcasing product, the catalogs need to be user friendly. No one wants to spend 20 minutes thumbing back and forth through a catalog in search of an elusive golf shirt. In addition to concise product groupings, catalogs increasingly are featuring colored-coded page folios to outline those groupings and easy-to-use style indexes which complement a table of contents.

“We put our table of contents in order by style number, rather than page number,” says Jonathan Corey’s Lutz. “If a customer is familiar with the style number, they can go down the line and easily reference it.”

Several catalogs use icons to help identify products. For example, King Louie uses icons to showcase union products, as well as core products that are reliably in stock. Ash City uses icons to alert catalog users to new styles, new colors and men’s and ladies’ crossover styles.

Catalogs are often customizable so that PPDs can place their own company name and logo on the cover. “We do a different cover for our dealers catalogs and will drop in the client’s logo for a low minimum,” says Ash City’s Jardine. “The price is very reasonable.”

Likewise, SanMar has a generic, customizable catalog cover and offers six different styles of covers to choose from. “We have to offer our customers a lot of options because they all have different businesses,” Goldman says. “One thing that our customers have said repeatedly is that their business is different from the guy down the block’s business, and the guy across the country’s business.”

Recognizing the diversity of PPDs is important, agrees Anvil’s Levesque.

“I think that any good marketing plan for a catalog has to recognize the diversity of your customer base. We mail out our catalog to 20,000 to 30,000 people in this industry and we don’t have a daily relationship with all of them. We try to determine who they are and what will pique their interest. This is our link to our customer.”

Kim Mitchell is a Denver-based journalist with a wealth of experience in business-related reporting.

Online catalogs yet another avenue for serving PPDs

In the promotional apparel industry, being in touch with a customer 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is made simpler thanks to the Internet. Suppliers are finding that their web sites offer yet another avenue for serving and reaching their customers.

PremiumWear’s marketing manager, Doree Holmberg, says the web is a great way to reach customers who need immediate attention. A common cry of desperation from customers is, “Help. I lost my catalog!” and the Internet is a quick and easy way to solve that problem, she says.

“We’ve been doing a web site for three years and we’re in the process of updating and revamping it, so images can be downloaded in high resolution,” Holmberg adds.

“People are very technologically savvy and increasingly they want to create their own sales flyers,” she says. “You can’t do without a web site. You have to keep up with the times.”

Meeting the diverse needs of PPDs is a key part of the Internet play, says Anvil’s vice president of marketing Christopher Levesque, who adds that Anvil has been “very, very happy” with its 3-year-old web site.

“You think about how many people there are who work so hard in this business,” he says. “They’re entrepreneurs working late hours and weekends and at 10 at night and that’s when they need to access you. And beyond the utility of it, there’s the business need to have a presence on the web.”

Launching and maintaining a web site isn’t easy. SanMar’s web site suffered technological woes that kept it offline for nearly a year.

“Right now it’s a catalog browsing site and soon it will be an ordering site,” says Linda Goldman, SanMar’s marketing manager for print media. SanMar does offer a generic catalog web site that customers can create a link to.

“We’re going into our fourth year with our web site and it has worked very well for us,” says Pam Lutz, executive vice president of marketing for Jonathan Corey. “I don’t think you can do without one.”

For Jonathan Corey, the web site is natural way to extend the company’s brands, but that doesn’t mean it can remain static.

“We use the same photography in our catalog and our web site, but we think its important to make minor changes to the web site to keep it exciting and new,” she says.

King Louie’s vice president of marketing, Roger Carroll says his company’s web site offers PPDs the opportunity to create their own sell sheets.

“We have a couple of pull-down menus that let customers choose an image, pull it Onto a blank palate and then type in their own header and footer copy. Then they can print it at their desktop or e-mail it to the end-user. It allows them a quick turnaround without incurring Federal Express charges or even having to wait 24 hours for delivery.”

Carroll says King Louie has discovered that while some of its customers show reluctance to place orders online, they are eager to use the Internet as a way to track orders. It also gets points with customers as a searchable catalog that allows them to find images and narrow down product choices.

So will paper catalogs eventually be outdated? Carroll thinks that with corporate stores the web has a distinct advantage. But, he notes, there are “thousands of distributors in this business and a lot of them can’t even turn a computer on. It’ll be a while before that happens.”

Look for interesting catalogs, and don’t overplay the Internet

BRIAN JEWEL

January of each year brings a lot of annual events — arguments over who is #1 in college football, losing weight from the holidays — and an inbox full of catalogs from suppliers every day to keep you dizzy for weeks!

What is going to get you through this annual event? What should I look for in these catalogs? And especially, why should I even go through these catalogs when I know most of them have an online catalog?

We have all read enough information about how catalogs should be laid out to last all of us for quite awhile. If a supplier is serious about the distributor business, their catalog meets all the criteria to meet the needs of the promotional products industry.

So, as a PPD, what should you really look for? First and foremost, is the catalog interesting, does it hold your attention, and does it excite you enough to buy something from the company? Why should these statements matter?

They do matter as you are actually reading a book. Does the catalog have “chapters” or is it just put together with little continuity, crammed pages, or no “sizzle” to the photography?

Is the supplier showing its new product in a new and unique way? If that shirt or jacket is new and important, then show it that way. Make sure that you can tell the texture of the fabric, see the versatile features, and especially come away knowing the features and benefits of the new item.

If a supplier’s catalog does not excite you, then keep on looking. There are plenty more catalogs in your inbox.

Or, for that matter, online. Why even look at the catalogs, if I can see them online? Don’t be too hasty in that decision. A number of issues are coming to light that might just make you re-think that statement. A lot of Internet-only companies have re-thought that philosophy.

Even they, the stalwarts of e-commerce, are mailing out catalogs in an effort to reach more customers, Catalogs expand their base and are much more effective in meeting a customer’s needs.

Look at you and your co-workers’ habits. A printed catalog does much more than an electronic catalog. Many people are reluctant to use the Internet. Reasons range from privacy to security to annoying broadcast e-mails from places that you have no idea how they got your address.

Many people are weary of the computer being at them constantly to do their work. Having to then spend more time in front of the old monitor many times is just too much to ask.

Moreover, an electronic catalog often takes too much time to download an image, and it takes more time to flip through than a traditional catalog.

Are we in the digital age? You bet. Wonderful things can and will happen in the future with your computer.

In the meantime, look for that catalog that will excite you and make you want to purchase from them.

Brian Jewel operates the Creative Design Agency in Kansas City, Mo., a marketing agency for the apparel industry that specializes in the creation of catalogs.

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