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What Do Effective Catalogues Have in Common?

Catalogue covers and page spreads
A handsome catalogue isn't always a profitable one

As an editor at a U.S. trade magazine, I was heavily involved in the Annual Catalog Awards. Among other things, this entailed moderating panels in which some of the industry's best and brightest discussed (and occasionally argued about) the reasons particular catalogues were and weren't worthy of an award. Readability, pacing, explanations of product benefits and features, and imagery were among the criteria. To this day whilst browsing a catalogue I hear Lois Boyle-Brayfield of consultancy J. Schmid pointing to a spread that could have benefitted from a hero image or see John Lenser, now CEO of CohereOne, explaining how a certain catalogue, given its lack of product density, could not possibly have been profitable.


I decided to judge a few recent catalogues by these time-honoured criteria. Nostalgic for the days when my daughter wore yellow polo shirts and navy trousers as a student at Barnstaple's Orchard Vale Community School (she's heading to art college in Oregon in a few weeks, so indulge me), I started with Studio's back-to-school catalogue.


Studio gets extra points for its adorable models.

image: Studio gets extra points for its adorable models.



Value is one of Studio's chief selling points, and that's clear from the get-go. The front cover even has a red callout declaring "amazing value"; product prices are struck out and lower prices added below them, also in red. Loads more product strikeouts appear within. Because the catalogue sells low-cost items, the pages are dense. However, the book maintains a sense of energy thanks to the variety of the layouts—a spread with a row of models is followed by a grid that intersperses product lay-downs with models, followed by several more spreads with variations on a grid.


As is often the case with catalogues selling value-priced commodities, the copy is sparse, and in some cases a bit of explanation would have helped. For instance, several items are described as having a "Teflon EcoElite finish," but nowhere does copy say exactly what that is. And the type verges on the tiny. If recipients have to squint to read the product details, they're going to toss the catalogue in the nearest bin. While typefaces, fonts, colors, and backgrounds all affect readability, the rule of thumb is that once type is eight points or smaller, the average person will find print copy appreciably more difficult to read.And that's black type on a white background. Italics and knockout type—white on a darker background—are even tougher to read.


Readability was problematic in Williams Sonoma's August catalogue as well. Overall the font and size were legible, but when the captions were white against a dark (but not black) or busy background, I tried my best but gave up. Which was a shame, as the quality of Williams Sonoma's copy is rivaled only by that of its imagery. Williams Sonoma sells cookware and tableware. Much of the photography shows its items in use: a copper pot filled with risotto, a table set for a Portuguese-theme dinner, a tabletop oven cooking pizza. (Do not read this catalogue when hungry.) And the propping! Knives are laid out on richly grained butcher block amid impeccably sliced limes and perfectly chopped scallions; a stack of gleaming stainless-steel cookware reflects a casually folded linen napkin. If there were a beauty pageant for catalogues, this one would take the crown.


This Williams Sonoma cover makes me want to cook, eat, and most important, open the catalogue to learn more about those dishes.

image: This Williams Sonoma cover makes me want to cook, eat, and most important, open the catalogue to learn more about those dishes.



But back to the copy. Many spreads have at least one callout highlighting a feature or a benefit—or both—of a particular item or brand. For instance, "Made in the US exclusively for Williams Sonoma, Copper Goldtouch Bakeware adds warm color to your kitchen. Advanced nonstick coating releases easily without sticking and is dishwasher safe." That's three benefits—good looks, nonstick coating, dishwasher safe—in one elegant callout, which also reminds you that the item is made in the USA (a selling point in the States) and is available only at Williams Sonoma, so don't even try to comparison-shop. Or take the callout of a pasta spoon: "Unique design drains water quickly." Or "Copper provides precise temperature control," for those wondering if paying extra for copper over stainless steel is worth it. (Studio could have used a callout to explain the benefits of its Teflon EcoElite finish.)


The Williams Sonoma catalogue includes recipes too. These not only burnish the brand's kitchen cred, but they also help extend the shelf life of the catalogue—and the longer a customer holds onto a catalogue, the more likely he or she is to make a purchase from it. There's also a QR code taking readers to the website for additional information about one of its cookware collections and other callouts directing readers to the site for additional recipes, tips for choosing coffeemakers, and other guides and advice.


The summer catalogue from menswear merchant Peter Christian makes ample use of callouts too. Many are quotes from Lord Trousers of Small Dole, aka company co-owner Nick Alderton. These don't provide benefits so much as add personality to the brand; for instance: "They say, 'blue and green should never be seen.' I say go for it and make your own rules." Other callouts direct you to the website for additional options or to Peter Christian's social channels ("See Lord Trouser showing off his Gingham Style on Instagram.").


The tone of the copy maintains a casual, cheeky tone without getting twee ("A suit that will see you effortlessly through the season's social events. Lord Trousers wears his accessorised with a Panama hat, monocle and a Mint Julep. Check out the dandy paisley lining!"). Even if you don't like puns, you have to admire headlines such as "Pique of Perfection," "A Sucker for Summer" (for seersucker shirts), and "The Linen Is Easy." More important, the copy excels at pointing out the unique selling proposition of the items. The description of the Essential Linen & Cotton Shirt, for instance, reads: "A linen shirt is great but, to keep you looking smarter longer, we've put some cotton in the mix. Easier to wear and care for. Featuring a contrast collar lining and concealed collar tabs to keep the neckline neat..." Features (the concealed collar tab, the cotton-linen fabric) and benefits (stays crisp, neckline stays tidy) are quickly clarified. Captioned insets of product details further highlight unique elements (the texture of a shirt's waffled cotton, a hidden button placket).


You have to love a spread with the headline 'Boaty McBoatshoe.' Peter Christian also packs a lot of product-feature callouts into the spread, which serves as a nice disrupter from the previous pages of clothing on models.

image: You have to love a spread with the headline "Boaty McBoatshoe." Peter Christian also packs a lot of product-feature callouts into the spread, which serves as a nice disrupter from the previous pages of clothing on models.



Like Studio, Bidfood sells primarily commodities—in this case, supplies for restaurants and caterers. Its 420-page catering equipment catalogue isn't especially attractive, nor is the product copy especially engaging (and I spotted more than a few typos). But the book does a great job of explaining, in its first several spreads, why food professionals should shop here ("Our broad range ensures we can meet any budget requirements, with products from kitchen utensils for preparing the food, to tabletop items for setting the scene and adding authenticity to a particular trend, and warewashing and kitchen appliances to make your life easier behind the scenes"). It touts special services such as Saturday delivery and a kitchen design and installation service. And it helps simplify shopping with a table of contents in the front and a thorough index in the back.


Bidfood also excels at delineating the differences amongst its variety of similar lines. The less-expensive Simply tableware range, for instance, "offers outstanding quality and value... This versatile and durable porcelain collection perfectly suits casual dining with classic and contemporary shapes to enhance presentation." The more expensive but not greatly dissimilar in appearance Academy Fine China is "lightweight but strong... the chef's choice for inspirational presentation. Warm white, refined shapes enhance banqueting and fine dining service. Designed to withstand the demands of busy catering environments, Academy is the ultimate collection offering elegance, strength and durability."


Thanks to the Bidfood catalogue, I now know the differences between aluminium and stainless-steel baking trays.

image: Thanks to the Bidfood catalogue, I now know the differences between aluminium and stainless-steel baking trays.



To feature its thousands of skus, Bidfood relies heavily on a grid layout, but it does vary the grids throughout to avoid monotony. Select products and ranges are given succinct callouts. On a spread of glass jugs, many of which look alike, we're told that the Arcoroc jugs have "curved lips for controlled pouring," the Ice Lipped jugs are "flame finished for an attractive glossy appearance," and the Utopia Kuffra jugs have a "plastic lid and stirring stick inner tube ****that**** connects to lid to prevent ice from diluting beverages." A half-page of the section devoted to trays explains which types are best suited for which purposes; bullet points clarify the dimensions and features of more than a half-dozen tray trolleys (whether they have braked castors, the maximum size of trays they can hold). Copy blocks on such topics as what to consider when buying microwaves not only add visual variety to the rows and rows of stainless-steel equipment but also provide useful information to the target customer.


I feel confident that all four of these catalogues would have at least been finalists in the Annual Catalogue Awards, because by and large they do the important things right. To make sure your next catalogue gets them right too, keep these takeaways in mind:


Vary the layouts of your spreads. Even if you rely on grids to organise an extensive product offering or to ensure that pages have enough product density to be profitable, try to toss in a hero image to maintain interest. If your product doesn't lend itself to fabulous imagery, add the occasional brand-focused (rather than product-focused) page instead: Play up your exceptional service, for instance, or your charitable efforts.

Use callouts and close-up photos to highlight particular product benefits or features. These will have the added bonus of adding variety to your layouts.

Consider using a distinctive copy voice to set your brand apart.

Add blurbs to guide readers to your website for more information or a greater assortment.

For the love of all that is holy, do not go below eight points for body copy and be judicious in your use of knockout type.



author: Sherry Chiger

Sherry Chiger

The editorial director of Your Commerce, Sherry Chiger is an award-winning writer and editor. She was formerly editorial director of Multichannel Merchant and Catalogue e-business magazines.


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