We're Still Waiting for the 11th Order

Most of you that know me, know that I am a history buff. The license plate on my truck is HISTORY.  One of the traits that comes with being a lover of history is that you generally have a really good memory – especially for important things. 

I just got back from the NEMOA Fall conference where I had a flashback moment to a very important moment from a prior NEMOA Fall Conference. There are probably only a handful of NEMOA members that remember when Pat Connelly, then Senior VP of Marketing at Williams-Sonoma, spoke at the 1994 Fall NEMOA Conference in Manchester, NH.  His talk was the most memorable one I have heard at any NEMOA conference in the past 25 years. 

Let’s put this into context – 1994 was the height of what can best be described as the “golden days of catalogs”. This was before the Internet, before the co-ops, and before all of the industry consolidation. Response rates were high, and competition was minimal.

Pat gave a detailed account of how Williams-Sonoma had tested, at great expense, switching their core Williams-Sonoma catalog from a digest size book to a full size (8x10) book. Pat stated that the management at Sonoma just could not conceptualize how a bigger book could possibly be more productive, more responsive and more profitable than their digest size book. Moreover, they knew that their customers loved the small book, with all that great product crammed in. As Pat described it, “the book was an engineering marvel”. But, they did a head-to-head test on over 1 million books each, controlling for product count and square inches, and the big book won. It was not even close. 

That lesson alone – that even marketers as experienced as those at Williams- Sonoma can convince themselves of knowing what their customers really want without testing it – was memorable for me, all these years later. 

However, the comment that Pat made at the very end of his presentation, almost as a “throw away comment”, is the one which has always stuck with me. After he described the head-to-head test, Pat said “Oh, one more thing, we also built a website to support the catalog. We are still waiting for our 11th order”.  Everyone in the audience laughed, confirming that the internet was just a passing fad.

I flashed back to that parting comment at last week’s NEMOA conference when several of the speakers stated that catalogers must have three platforms now to support mobile ordering from smartphones, ordering from tablets, and ordering from PCs.  I could see several members of the audience saying “my customers will never order from a smartphone”. 

OK – for many of you, if you built out a platform for smartphones and tablets, it would take you a while to get your 11th order. And, it is doubtful (in my opinion) that any of those orders would be incremental.  But, the change is coming. 

The basic problem I see among many NEMOA members is the continued reliance on their “gut feel” about who their customer is, what they want, and how much they are willing to pay. We, as an industry, don’t do enough research either through focus groups, surveys or testing to determine what our customers really do want for products – and how much they are embracing new technologies.  Stop acting like your customers were an imaginary friend, and find out what they really want. 


by Bill LaPierre

VP of Business Intelligence

Datamann, Inc.



Read more from Bill here.