November 03, 2009

Chasing Fireflies: A Cataloger Growing In The Teeth Of A Recession

If you are a paying subscriber to the Puget Sound Business Journal, you can access this article about Chasing Fireflies, a Seattle catalog (gasp) kids apparel startup.

This business started three years ago at $0, and ended 2008 at $22 million in annual sales. The article suggests that, after a flat spring, sales are increasing again this fall.

Here's a link to their website. Here's a link to their Facebook presence, full of both negative customer sentiment and the loyalty of 1,600 fans.

Oh, there would be a long line of pundits ready to bash this business, especially in the online marketing and social media community.

  • They use list rental practices to find new customers, a terrible customer experience. FAIL!
  • Their e-mail marketing strategy is not targeted or personalized nearly enough. FAIL!
  • Their website is probably not optimized for search engine optimization. FAIL!
  • They do not have a Twitter presence. FAIL!
  • Their homepage is not optimized for maximum conversion. FAIL!
  • The actually present merchandise via print, in catalogs (gasp), destroying the planet. FAIL!
  • No live chat on the homepage. FAIL!
  • No recommendation engine on the homepage for cross-sell & up-sell. FAIL!
  • No stores, no "bricks 'n clicks" strategy. FAIL!
  • There is no mobile marketing opportunity, no iPhone app. FAIL!
  • They send catalogs without allowing you the right to determine contact frequency. FAIL!
  • They send e-mail campaigns without allowing you the right to determine contact frequency. FAIL!

I'm sure there's a thousand critical business mistakes that I failed to point out.

And yet, their catalog (gasp) business is growing multiple times faster than Forrester's predicted 8% online growth rate this Holiday season.

How is that possible?

Now, clearly, every company can do a better job, heck, every person can do a better job. But something must be executed correctly in order for a catalog (gasp) company to grow in the teeth of The Great Recession. Might a fusion of merchandising and marketing trump simple marketing tactics?


  1. I'm assuming the list of "failures" were the newspapers opinion and not yours Kevin. Because some are best practices and others not universally known to be good or bad. Others are tweaks that will bring incremental gains when the company gets to it, but it sounds like they're coping just fine with their growth right now.

  2. They certainly aren't mine, and they aren't from the newspaper, either. The failures would be things that we read on Twitter or in blogs, things that we're told we should be doing.

    My goal was to show that there are things we're told we should do (some work, some are debatable), and yet, these folks don't do those things and are successful in spite of them.

    Which, to me, means that having merchandise that customers want is really important, and we as a marketing community do not talk nearly enough about that aspect of our business.

    For instance, you could send an untargeted e-mail campaign featuring the best Halloween costume, or you could send a targeted, personalized campaign that features product that isn't desireable. As a marketing community, we sometimes spend too much time focusing on the targeted, personalized campaign, when we could spend more time trying to understand how marketing and merchandising work together ... the latter being more of an art, of course.

    So, the goal of the post is to point out that these people have been very successful, in spite of a lot of the tactics we read about that are promised to provide success. Granted, they might have been more successful employing the tactics in my list, but their focus yielded a growing business in a down economy using a business model that many marketing leaders have declared as being dead.

  3. Fascinating and totally normal, Kevin. In all of my years in this business, the most successful businesses have been those that listened to no one except their customers and broke all the rules the "experts" said were inviolable. In the end, the only people who matter are those who are paying for your products.

    And, as you know, there are hundreds and hundreds of catalog companies being successful and growing every year who simply choose to focus on doing one or two things well rather than twenty things poorly.

  4. On Twitter, I do a "question of the day". I get about 25 responses each day ... I set up the question with four or five tweets.

    A portion of the audience was very critical of my methodology, suggesting that it violated Twitter best practices.

    So I said I would try to adhere to the rules recommended by the masses. I am five days into my test.

    Test Result #1: Followers have actually declined.

    Test Result #2: Instead of about 20-25 responses, I now get 5-10 responses.

    Several people said my methods were "inappropriate", "ineffective", "difficult to follow", you get the picture.

    And yet, it worked better than the suggestions of those who asked me to adhere to best practices.

    It seems like a lot of what we're being taught is not all that effective. And that was the point of sharing the Chasing Fireflies story.

  5. If everyone communicates the exact same way, then the messages all start sounding the same as well, no matter the content or delivery system. I'm letting this notion inform each of my marketing practices, and letting metrics tell me if it makes a difference.

    Sometimes I think that the concept of "best practices" completely crushes the concept of "best ideas."

  6. Sometimes, Heather, you are right!!!

    I had it happen today, I had a conversation with an individual who told me that something couldn't possibly work, the individual wanted me to focus more closely on established best practices. And I had the exact opposite experience --- it was the opposite of the best practice strategy that worked for me.

    So yeah, we sometimes crush the concept of best ideas.


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