Your product may be better than your competitor’s, but if the way the items are presented in your catalog is not, sales are likely to go nowhere. It takes more than good products to make a successful catalog; creating value through design is essential. Take a look at your current catalog and see if you can spot any of these oversights:

#1 - Not speaking to the right customer
Understanding who you are selling to is essential for selecting your merchandise, styling your photographs, describing the product in the right tone of voice, and developing your mailing list. It will determine the image you present, whether urban or rural, high-style or wash-and-wear.

Tailoring your catalog design to appeal to your specific audience rather than a general population can have tremendous results. Catalogs for young people will have a different look than a catalog for business professionals. Make the style of your catalog match the style desires of your audience. You will gain more affinity and hence more sales.

#2 - Taking square-inch analysis too literally
Many companies determine the success of a catalog by calculating the sales per square inch on a page. This ratio provides useful insights, but it should not be taken at face value. Cramming more merchandise on a spread doesn't add up to higher sales if the effect is off-putting. Those who want a spread to "work harder" may find that overall sales will actually rise by featuring fewer items.

#3 - Thinking in terms of individual pages, rather than the whole catalog
A common mistake is focusing on what goes on a page rather than the visual impact of the catalog as a whole. Many people buy to fill a need, but most of the time people buy because of want. They buy something they want because they envision feeling better, more satisfied after they have exchanged their hard-earned money for the product or service you have to sell. The art of creating the desire to buy from your catalog is appealing to the customer's desire to attain a particular lifestyle.

Therefore, orient all the elements of your catalog around conveying a lifestyle. Do this at all levels. Your catalog might have an overall lifestyle theme while the individual products might have modifications or even mini-lifestyle themes of their own. The text and copy should not only describe the product in sufficient detail that the consumer can make a buying decision but it should tell the reader how this item will help them achieve the lifestyle they want. Show the customer the lifestyle they can attain and desire and you will sell more product.

#4 - Making pages too busy
Most catalogs are by nature distracting - with eight to 10 products per spread. If you shoot all products with complex propping, you intensify the busy-ness and confuse the reader. So when presenting complex photographs, limit the number used and make them large enough to be clear.

Some catalog companies attempt to save money on photography and printing by grouping items together in photographs. This often results in poor sales because no product stands out to draw the customer in. It is better to show items individually or in very small, related groups. A good idea is to show most products with no background and with a subtle drop shadow. This allows the product to stand out from the clutter of the page. Then add lifestyle shots with a subtle background to add variety to the design and convey lifestyle moods.

#5 - Relying on supplied photographs
A great photo is "worth a thousand words" but a poor photo can persuade a customer to not buy your product. Creating a catalog can be expensive and we all want to cut costs when possible. Don't risk it by scrimping on good photography. It would be better to show fewer products on fewer pages to save on printing than to cut your sales with poor photos.

In some industries and with some vendors you can get excellent photos of their products for use in your catalog. And so can your competitors. However, most supplier images are just not that good in the first place. Cutting costs by using manufacturer-supplied product photographs usually ends up with a mixed-bag of lighting, styling and photo quality. The catalog looks disjointed and, sometimes, less reputable. It may show the product, but it doesn't support the brand. The look and feel of the design must reinforce who you are. Individual products will come and go, but the survival of your brand depends on communicating in a cohesive and consistent voice.

#6 - Not including an order form
It is true that most of the actual ordering is done by phone or on the company's website, so some companies believe that an order form is unnecessary. But research has shown that shoppers like to use the printed order form to list and organize their purchases and gather the information they need. Especially for phone-in orders, this allows the operator to handle calls more accurately and efficiently.

When designing your order form, make the details clean and clear. Required customer contact information, price, quantity and tax should be simple to understand. Make it easy for the customer to complete your order form, and you’ll receive more orders.

As the ratio of mail to phone orders decreases, you may consider eliminating the reply envelope, which is the most expensive part of the order form. The envelope is also the creative element with the longest lead time, often adding up to 15 days to the production cycle. If you're a business mailer, you might replace the elaborate order form and preformed envelope with a simple 8-1/2" x 11" one-color "telephone organizer and fax" form.

#7 - Looking at feature copy as lost "selling space"
J. Peterman's chatty product descriptions. Williams-Sonoma's useful recipes. Neiman Marcus' brief features on designers. Text may invite customers to enjoy the catalog in a leisurely manner and make the product selection seem more meaningful and unique. You can also use this space to promote cross selling of your products. Mentioning other companion products in the copy can increase sales another 5-15%.

#8 - Skimping on the lesser details
Catalog shoppers can't examine merchandise firsthand, so they base their trust on what they can feel and see - the quality of the design, photography, paper and printing. When the budget gets tight, these details often get cut first, since some companies reason that if they are featuring the same products, people won't notice. They do. Keep in mind that presentation coveys the integrity of the products, the credibility of the brand and, ultimately, has the greatest impact on sales.

#9 - Your catalog does not reflect your brand identity
If your catalog looks different than your store, which looks different from your website, you have a problem. Customers should enjoy the same brand experience wherever they shop. That demands more than just using your corporate logo and colors. Translating your brand personality across all media helps assure customers that they will receive the same quality and service everywhere. Coordinate the efforts of your retail, graphic and web designers to ensure that they consistently reflect your brand personality in their designs.

And once a successful look has been established, resist the urge to change. One advertising rule of thumb is when you are tired of the look of your catalog (because you've seen it over and over again) your customers are just starting to recognize it as your look. Protect your investment by keeping your theme for several years and if you decide to change, do it in small increments over a long time. Repetition brings brand identity recognition and brand recognition brings acceptance and sales.

#10 - Always making the most expensive product the biggest object on the page
Instead, put important items on the outside edges of the page. Readers typically look to the top right first then sweep across the page to the other side. If they don't see something compelling they'll flip the page. Therefore put your most appealing products (which are typically your products that generate the most profit) on the outside top corners. Make these elements stand out – but not necessarily larger - than the remaining products on the page spread.

Keep in mind that the goal is not to sell one product, but to make the whole catalog sell. By making the editorial concept of the catalog more interesting, people spend more time with it and, as a result, more things in the catalog tend to sell.