Break The Chain

Need an audience for your latest invention? Skip the giant retail chains-mail-order catalogs might do a better job of hitting your target.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the May 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Inventors who think they have the next great product have been asking the same question for years: How can I move my products from local stores to national retailers? Because that jump is almost impossible to make in a single bound, many inventors opt for mail-order catalogs as an intermediate step.

Why catalogs? For a variety of reasons, actually: Catalogs will order based on a pre-production model and place orders of up to $50,000; they'll provide valuable proof for how well your product sells and let you make all your sales calls right over your telephone; additionally, catalogs are generallyprompt with their payments.

Chris McKay, 52, co-invented the DoodleTop, which was a big hit in the toy market in the mid-1990s. The product, which consists of a marker pen point that draws spirals while it spins, is currently sold in toy stores nationwide. But in 1997, when McKay came up with his next invention, the Magnawatch (a watch with an extra lens that can be used to magnify small print), he decided to launch the gadget through catalogs instead of large chains. With Magnawatch featured in about 5 million catalogs this past Christmas, McKay predicts that this will be yet another banner year for his Direct Hit Products, located in Carmel, California. He expects to see sales of up to $5 million this year.

Initially, McKay thought to only market the watch to seniors, but it turns out the product appeals to travelers who use the watch's magnifying lens for reading maps, and business people and lawyers who need to read fine print in contracts and Net addresses on business cards. McKay has since found the most success in catalogs such as National Geographic, Signal and Norm Thompson, which sell unique products for travelers. Products in those catalogs tend to sell for less than the Magnawatch's $49 street price, but McKay is currently developing a premium version that will be a better fit in higher-priced catalogs.

Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant and the author of Bringing Your Product to Market (John Wiley & Sons). Send him your invention questions at

Secrets To Success

McKay believes catalogs make for a fantastic marketing vehicle. First, the catalogs allow him to build a brand image. "Customers could potentially see the Magnawatch a dozen times," McKay says. "Catalogs build awareness."

Another benefit: Catalog buyers decide whether to buy from a picture and possibly from a prototype. This means that the product may only have to be produced once the orders start coming in. "I like to give buyers several options of the products they can buy," McKay explains. "Once they decide, I can then produce the model they've selected. There's plenty of time to produce the products, as catalogs typically give two to three months of lead time."

Reason No. 3: McKay likes catalogs because he doesn't have to compete with giant watchmakers like Casio. "The big [manufacturers] don't want retailers to handle a product from a small company," McKay says. "Catalogs, on the other hand, [prefer to sell] products [not carried by] the big retailers."

Last but not least, perhaps the most important benefit to selling in catalogs is that they can show a photo of the product actually being used. "I'm not sure people would really [understand] all the benefits of the Magnawatch in a store, where it's not displayed," McKay says. "In a catalog, the product can be shown in use, and the reader immediately picks up the benefits of the product, plus, with a catalog, you're not fighting for shelf space."

Making It Happen

Think you're ready to sell to a catalog? Choosing the right catalog is the first step to success. But before approaching a catalog, you'll need to get a copy of it and check out the kind of merchandise it carries. You'll also want to make sure it sells products like yours, and that your price point is comparable to other products in the catalog. You should even go so far as selecting the best pages where your product could go. All that information will eventually come in handy, because your next step will be to write the catalog company directly, telling whoever's in charge that your product would be a perfect fit. Simply call the company and ask which buyer handles your type of product, and then send your package to that person.

McKay even goes a step further when trying to place his products: Instead of sending the standard flier to each buyer, he makes up a mock catalog page featuring his product. "I want the buyer to see exactly what my product would look like in that catalog," McKay explains.

He also likes to present three or four different designs to each buyer: "Presenting options improves the chances the buyer will like one of the options," McKay says. "It also tells the buyer that we're easy to work with, and that we'll do whatever it takes to make the catalog buyer happy."

When it comes to selling to catalogs, you've got to be persistent. "You need to keep calling the buyers, even if they haven't taken your product before," says McKay, who also says that persistence helps show the buyer that you'll be dependable. "The buyers are constantly changing, and the new buyer might like your product, while the old buyer didn't. The catalog might also have ordered another product where the supplier can't make delivery." Don't give up on the catalogs you're interested in--you might get your break.

Catalogs remain a great outlet for inventors. Despite all the hype surrounding e-commerce, catalogs still consistently produce greater sales. Catalogs are also a great option for inventors because costs are low. You can do everything by mail, phone and e-mail.
Inventors hoping to sell their products should include marketing to catalogs as a key component of their strategies. The orders might not be as big as those from huge discount chains, but they're often big enough to establish your business with minimal risk. That's a winning combination you'd be hard-pressed to find in any other distribution network.

Finders Keepers

Over the past five years, there's been an explosion in the number of catalogs available to inventors-meaning you should be able to find at least 10 catalogs in which to sell virtually any product. But how to choose? The following resources should point you in the right direction:

  • The Catalogs of Catalogs VI: The Complete Mail Order Directory by Edward L. Palder (Woodbine House): This book lists more than 15,000 catalogs in 920 different categories, as well as 5,000 catalog Web addresses. Many libraries carry this book, but make sure they have the current edition. To order a copy, write to 6510 Bells Mill Road, Bethesda, MD 20817 or call (800) 843-7323. Cost: $25.95.

  • The Directory of Mail Order Catalogs by Richard Gottlieb (Grey House Publishing): Call (800) 562-2139 to order or check your local library. Cost: $275.

  • The Directory of Overseas Catalogs by Leslie MacKenzie and Amy Lignor (Grey House Publishing): Call (800) 562-2139 to order or check your local library. Cost: $190.

Next Step

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) established the Office of Independent Inventor Programs in 1999. The programs are designed to give inventors better access to the PTO through a network of customer service departments within the major patent and trademark examination divisions. The programs have already set up an easy-to-use Web site ( that answers common questions new inventors have about patents.


More from Entrepreneur

Our Franchise Advisors will guide you through the entire franchising process, for FREE!
  1. Book a one-on-one session with a Franchise Advisor
  2. Take a survey about your needs & goals
  3. Find your ideal franchise
  4. Learn about that franchise
  5. Meet the franchisor
  6. Receive the best business resources
Discover the franchise that’s right for you by answering some questions about
  • Which industry you’re interested in
  • Why you want to buy a franchise
  • What your financial needs are
  • Where you’re located
  • And more
Make sure you’re covered for physical injuries or property damage at work by
  • Providing us with basic information about your business
  • Verifying details about your business with one of our specialists
  • Speaking with an agent who is specifically suited to insure your business

Latest on Entrepreneur