Don’t dilute the value of print

April 1, 2005

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

My wife is a busy mother and grandmother with children spanning a wide age range. The proprietress of several businesses, she also is an active school, neighborhood and community volunteer. Not to mention that marriage to me is a job in itself.

My wife never watches television, rarely listens to radio and spends little time on the Internet. Lacking spare time to visit shopping malls, her profile makes her the perfect target for mailers of glossy specialty catalogs.

Oh, how they target her. The volume of coated groundwood that passes from our country mailbox into our recycling barrel is amazing.

Too much of a ‘good thing’

Once an avid catalog shopper, my wife is slowly succumbing to "catalog numbness."

She used to keep her catalogs in a big basket, readily accessible whenever the need to buy arose. Her catalogs once were valued tools. One recent day, I brought in the mail and asked where she wanted the newest offering from a favorite retailer.

"Just throw it away," she said. "They’ll send us another one next week."

Whoa! What happened?

The occasional plus-size apparel catalog my size-five wife receives is valueless, but such poorly aimed offerings aren’t overwhelming. On the contrary, the real problem lies with those who have accurately profiled my wife. Buoyed on by her steady stream of purchases, these enthusiastic vendors recognized that mailing her an extra catalog now and then might be good business.

"Rather than just send one catalog each season," they think, "why not every month? The last one might have been lost or misplaced. Why risk missing an order from a loyal customer?" Then, "If mailing monthly increases sales, perhaps we should mail every week during the holidays. Make hay while the sun shines! If that works well, we’ll mail weekly year ‘round." Which leads, of course, to ratcheting up to twice per week during the holiday season.

This added printing and mailing costs money. The returns, though real, do diminish exponentially. Can we do it on the cheap? An obvious cost-cutting measure is to send exactly the same catalog two, three or four times. Maybe we’ll put a different cover on it; maybe we won’t even bother with that. Where does that take us?

Right back to my wife, who was just saying, "Throw it away; they’ll send us another one next week."

The lesson

My wife has learned some lessons the catalog industry didn’t intend to teach. She now knows she needn’t save catalogs for future reference because she’ll likely find a duplicate in her mailbox before she wants to place an order. Worse yet for mailers, she needn’t even open today’s catalog. One glance confirms that it is no different from last week’s, so why bother browsing through it? Next week is sure to bring more of the same.

Regular readers know that irony abounds in "Johnson’s World." Here we seem to have a dream come true. For retailers, it appears at first glance that catalog sales can be increased merely by increasing catalog volume. Consequently, the direct mail printer’s volume doubles, triples and quadruples without any real sales effort.

What is the end result? To my wife, that new catalog from a favorite company is no longer a welcome arrival. It has become junk mail—unopened, unread, unsaved. For this some poor spotted owl lost its nest?

I’m not a catalog printer, but I am an evangelist for the value of print who ardently believes that, in most situations, the best way to carry a message is to put it on paper. It tears me up to see print’s value diluted to the point that a term like "junk mail" enters the vernacular.

There are only two ways to create real value in our business. One is with the simple economics of supply and demand. My wife still carefully saves the catalogs from a few direct-mail retailers because she knows they will be mailed only once. These savvy merchants have actually enhanced the value of their catalogs to my wife by printing and mailing less!

This might not be a good thing for those of us with press time to fill. Let’s move right on to the second way to create value: alchemy, the turning of base metal into gold.

Instead of making print more valuable by printing less, or making print less valuable by mindlessly printing more of things, we must increase the value of each printed piece.

Simultaneously, we must actively find methods that, to be effective, also require more print volume. Like all good things, this does not come easily. But it can be done.

This is not an April Fool’s joke—the subject is too serious. I’ll provide a surprising example in my next column.