September 07, 2008

Debunking An Article/Study: Catalogs Still Rule?

Multichannel Merchant published an article titled "Print Catalogs Still Rule, Survey Shows". The first sentence says "If you think the print catalog is a dying channel, you better think again." Sounds like an agenda will be shared. Let's explore this article, which is an advertisement for the DMA's State Of The Catalog Industry Report, 2008 Ed, a $245 article for members, $445 article for non-members.

Quotation #1 = "Of 106 merchants polled by the Direct Marketing Association". Who was polled? Is the polling representative of all catalogers? We don't get to know in this article.

Quotation #2 = "And our data suggests a consensus among successful marketers that there are consistent and integrated standards across all channels". Could we get a definition of a "successful marketer"? Bloomingdales just killed their catalog division. Nordstrom killed their catalog division, and enjoyed the most profitable years in the history of the company. Is that success?

Quotation #3 = "And despite buzz to the contrary, the number of print catalogs in circulation has actually increased since 2003." Ok, let's assume you are right. Tell me what has happened since 2006? In the past two years, you have a postage increase averaging about 30% that wreaked havoc, an economic downturn that is shredding circulation, and the implosion of catalog customer acquisition. None of those points are mentioned in the article. From 2003 to 2006, we enjoyed the buoyancy of the home equity piggy bank.

Quotation #4 = "The survey estimates that total annual housefile circulation reached about 15,463,891 while total annual prospect circulation reached about 5,536,424. That's up significantly from the total annual housefile circulation of about 5,169,011, and total annual prospect circulation of 3,423,389, recorded in 2003." What does this mean? Are these total numbers in the survey, or are they averages per survey respondent? And how about the word "about", bantered around in the quote? What does "about" mean? Does it mean that 5,536,424 is really 5,536,429? Or does it mean that 5,536,424 really means 2,536,424? Help us understand!! Finally, let's assume these numbers are accurate, representing an average cataloger. Let's ask a question. Have you tripled your housefile circulation in the past five years? Have you nearly doubled your customer acquisition circulation in the past five years? Ask Talbots, or J. Jill, or Nordstrom, or Lands' End, or L.L. Bean, or Eddie Bauer, or Bloomingdales, or Lillian Vernon, or Hanna Andersson if they tripled their housefile circulation in the past five years. If the numbers are accurate, this suggests that the sample of respondents are small catalogers that are growing rapidly. Heck, I know of several small catalogers that are growing rapidly --- that's the nature of a young, growing brand. These businesses rent/exchange names with big companies, growing from the hard work of the larger brands that preceeded them, while big companies already have all the names available. Catalogs are wonderful for small, growing catalog brands.

Quotation #5 = "The findings are also based on a detailed analysis of billions of transactional records from 100 million households in the Abacus Alliance database, maintained by marketing firm Abacus, a division of Epsilon, which helped underwrite the report." Ah! So the DMA did a survey, Abacus kicked in a few bucks to complete the study, and results were merged together so that the reader does not know in this article which statistics are from the study and which statistics were paid for by Abacus. Why doesn't the mystery author honestly tell us which stats are from the study, and which stats are from Abacus? And how come the information in the article is so glowingly positive? How come there is no discussion about the true hardships facing catalogers, including but not limited to declining response rates across housefile and especially customer acquisition segments? And why isn't the fact that Abacus contributed metrics and underwrote the study not mentioned in the title of the article --- the title of the article says this is a survey?

Why do our industry leaders continue to offer us misleading information? This style of writing/selling is exasperating to me, a sales pitch to continue to execute the practices that make sure the DMA and Abacus stay in business.

Or am I way off base? If I'm off base, please use the comments section to defend the article ... I'll even publish your responses as a complete post if you wish. What do you think?