Mistaking busy-ness for business

The traditional catalogue promotional cycle is a dangerous treadmill to be on, particularly in this new retail era.

An advertising vehicle that starts out as a servant to the business quickly becomes master. Instead of focusing on creating real and relevant reasons for customers to consider your store or website, the catalogue program itself becomes the be-all and end-all… the central driving force of your operation.

And so you start buying to the catalogue, sweating over each page in production, creating deadlines based around “getting it to print”, and launching each promotion timed to the brochure drop. Woe betide if you break the rhythm. A “calendar gap” is quickly filled with the same catalogue promotion you ran last year.

All this effort can be strangely satisfying. There is a sense of accomplishment in “putting a catalogue to bed” and measuring the somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy of a catalogue item that sold well. But there is a growing sense amongst retailers I talk with that all that friction does not necessarily equate to heat.

Progressive retailers are experimenting with a drop in catalogue spend (and redeploying money elsewhere). They are testing the effect of fewer catalogues, or of retaining the number of promotions, but reducing page numbers. Others are taking things further and questioning their entire promotional program.

US mid-market department store JC Penney has recently taken the machete to their whole marketing communications plan. In 2011, they ran 590 separate promotions, of which they estimated 99 per cent were ignored. This year, they have cut it back to 12 campaigns, or one each month. That’s right – 578 fewer promotions.

For JC Penney, this is not a cost-saving exercise. In fact, they are spending exactly the same amount of money – almost US$1 billion annually. But instead of frittering away their efforts and expenditure, they are concentrating the funds – apportioning a cool US$80 million to each month’s campaign. (Don’t you love the scale of the States? $80 million here is a pretty decent retail business full stop.)

By adopting a “less is more” philosophy, JC Penney will have a better chance of catching the attention of an increasingly distracted consumer. They will also be forced to focus internally on making those 12 “big bets” work really, really hard. (And by the way, catalogues are still part of the mix, but they have been put in their place – they are no longer the tail that wags the dog.)

So instead of getting on with busy-ness, get on with business. Step back from the promotional program you have set (particularly if catalogues are at the core) and consider your options. Ask yourself: are we doing things just because we’ve “always done it like that”? And is there a better, more focused way of attracting attention, and generating traffic and sales?

Jon Bird heads up IdeaWorks, Australia’s leading specialist retail marketing agency. Email Jon. Blog: www.newretailblog.com Twitter: @thetweetailer


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