From the May 2005 issue of Startups

Mail order catalogs have long been one of the top ways for inventors to sell their products. Catalogs can be used to accomplish several goals:

  • They let you sell to a small market that can't be reached in any other way.
  • They help you create initial sales momentum. Often, retailers are reluctant to handle a product until it has some degree of sales success.
  • They can be your primary sales channel.

Virtually any type of product can be sold through catalogs. Since most catalogs are aimed at specific niches, catalogs work best for inventors with specialty products. Products suited for catalogs usually have four characteristics:

1. They meet a need buyers already know they have. People skim catalogs and only notice products that catch their interest. That happens when the product meets a specific customer need.

2. They have a new or unique positioning statement. Most people think of products in categories. A consumer might see a new sleeping pillow and think it's just like the neck-bracing pillows sold in the past. Your product has to stand out in the market.

3. They are easily understood. You're lucky if readers even give your product a glance. Your invention needs to be understood in one to two seconds, or the prospect will move on.

4. They are priced appropriately for the catalog. Products priced from $12.95 to $29.95 do best in general-merchandise catalogs. Specialty and premium catalogerss favor products priced from $40 to $500. Catalogers look carefully at how many dollars a product generates relative to the space it occupies on the page.

Find Your Target

Catalogs cater to specific audiences with a narrow product line. Levenger, for example, is a catalog of upscale products for serious readers. Find catalogs that sell to your target audience, sell products priced similarly to yours (economy, midrange, or premium), and sell products that are complementary to, but not the same as, yours.

Get a copy of each catalog, and look at the different products to find where yours fits. Double-check that each catalog's target market and pricing fit your product. Then make a list of the top 10 catalogers to which you will send presentation packages.

What to Send

You typically won't need to send a sample product. Catalogers often prefer to see a brochure or sales flier and price schedule first, then request a sample if they are interested in the product.

When you mail your package to the catalog company, include a mock-up of a typical page from the catalog that features your product alongside other complementary products already in the catalog. This shows the catalog buyer how your pricing and product features are a perfect fit.

Create a clear visual that lets people immediately connect to your product. This image can be of the product itself, or it can be of the situation the product solves. For example, people easily understand from a product picture the dispensing racks that hold multiple drink cans in the refrigerator. But they may need a visual of a dandelion-removing tool in action to quickly understand how it works.

Match the style of copy on your sales materials to the style of each catalog. Many marketers who sell to various catalogs custom-write their materials each time. Having the right style helps persuade buyers that your product is perfect for their catalogs.

If you have any past publicity, include it in your presentation. If you don't have any, manufacture some. Host an event--it doesn't have to be big-that allows people to use your product, and then ask them to offer testimonials. For example, you could organize a 5-kilometer bike ride for 10 people to showcase a new, more comfortable bicycle seat.

How to Send It

When you send your package is just as important as what you send. Catalogers typically decide to buy products only once or twice a year, when they are laying out their new catalogs. Often, this date could be four to five months before the catalog is actually printed. Find out when a cataloger finalizes its product decisions, then mail to the catalog twice: two months before the final date, and again two weeks before the date. Mailing two months before will help get your product considered in the regular decision process. Mailing two weeks before the deadline puts you in front of catalog buyers right when they are trying to fill last-minute holes in the catalog.

Before sending your package, find out the name of the buyer for your type of product. If you call and ask, most catalogs will tell you. If you don't know who the buyer is, you won't know if your information reaches the right person, and you won't know who to call when following up.

Catalogers don't want products everyone else has. You can often get a foothold in the market if you tell buyers your product will only be in one or two catalogs the following year. This gives them a little more incentive to buy, and it allows you to ask the buyer for a response by a certain date so that you can contact other buyers if the first catalog doesn't want your product.

Is It Worth Your While?

One of the biggest advantages of catalog sales is that you have few expenses other than manufacturing costs. There are minimal sales and marketing expenses, which in most other marketing channels consume 20 to 40 percent of your sales dollars. You will probably make money as long as you can sell your product for 50 percent more than your manufacturing cost.

The only major expense is that catalogers often ask you to pay part of the printing cost. This should be no more than 15 percent of your projected sales volume. If the printing costs are too high, you can frequently negotiate a better deal. Tell the cataloger you'll pay with free goods; for example, you'll include 15 percent extra merchandise with each shipment to pay for printing.

Many catalogs have gone out of business recently, and many more are operating on a shoestring. Ask for credit references, and don't pay for printing before the catalog is printed-pay only in free goods or discounts off your invoice.

Sustaining Success

As a rule, catalogers change a substantial number of product offerings every printing. So unless your product is a top seller, you can expect to be dropped from a catalog every now and then. You can minimize the roller-coaster effect of catalog sales by creating strong relationships with buyers. Ask buyers what their goals are for the next issue and what you could do with your product to help them meet their objectives. You should also:

  • Create variety. Catalogers don't like to have the very same products as other catalogs, so offer your product with several variations for catalogers to choose from. You can offer different colors or a few new features, or pair the product with different complementary items. A painting tool, for example, might come with a paint-can opener one season and a masking aid the next.
  • Add catalog customers. You may have offered an exclusive contract to a cataloger for the first year of catalog sales, but you can only grow your business by adding catalogs on a regular basis. Find new target catalogs, and keep going after them.
  • Support the product. Your value to catalogs declines rapidly if you have quality or return problems. Most companies try to overcome this by directing product returns to themselves. Give consumers a toll-free number to call for questions and problems, and provide instructions on returning a product to you. You want to clear up every problem on your own to avoid conflicts with the catalog.

The drawback to catalog sales is that your product is exposed to a wide variety of people. Potential competitors can see your product, realize it has potential and decide to compete with you. You should at least have "patent pending" status before approaching catalogers, or you risk someone taking your idea.

Key Resources

  • The Catalog of Catalogs VI: The Complete Mail Order Directory by Edward L. Palder (Woodbine House Publishing, $25.95): Lists more than 14,000 mail order catalogs in nearly 850 different categories. Available at www.communicationcreativity.com or (800) 331-8355.
  • The Directory of Mail Order Catalogs by Richard Gottleib (Grey House Publishing, $275). Available at libraries or by calling (800) 562-2139.
  • The Directory of Overseas Catalogs by Leslie MacKenzie and Amy Lignor (Grey House Publishing, $165). Available at www.greyhouse.com.
  • Response magazine (714-513-8400): In addition to mail order catalogs, this magazine covers infomercials, direct-response short-form ads and TV shopping networks. It also sponsors a yearly trade show where inventors can meet with direct-response marketers who license inventors' products.

Adapted from Entrepreneur magazine's Start-Up Guide #1813, Bringing Your Product to Market, by Don Debelak