By Susan J. McIntyre
The Catalog Doctor™

Susan J. McIntyre, Founder

"Shopability" means making your catalog easy for your audience to shop from. There can be differences in methodology depending on your audience and product category, but all fall under the same basic shopability principles.


  • No Roadblocks: Don't let anything get in the way of your customer's shopping experience
  • Make it quickly scannable
  • Make products easy to find
  • Make features and benefits easy to find
  • Make it easily readable

Let's explore each of these principles.


You put the photos on the page, you put the copy on the page, it seems like you should be set to reap sales. But, if you're like many catalogers, you may be putting roadblocks to shopability on the page too.


You can't use a seller's instincts when building a catalog — that will create roadblocks. Your catalog will be full of "why I want you to buy from me" when it should be full of "what my products and my company can do for you."

You can't use advertising instincts when building a catalog — that will create roadblocks. Ads are built to grab attention, to intrigue, to motivate users to go to a store and take a look. They're not built to sell — for ads, selling happens in the store with the clerk and being able to touch/see/feel the merchandise. A catalog must sell directly.

You can't use designer instincts — that will create roadblocks too. It's too easy to end up with a book that is pretty but unclear, slow to scan or read, and missing critical customer aids to help them make a buying decision.

Instead you must get inside your potential buyer's head — use customer instincts — only then can you build a highly shopable catalog that will maximize sales from your target audience.


You may have gotten letters from customers saying that they love to curl up with your catalog and read it cover to cover. Don't be misled — that's not typical of all your customers. And it's not always true for your curl-up customers either — they have hurried hours and hurried days too.

Your goal should be to make your catalog easily scannable for the customer who wants to spend the absolute minimum time with your catalog. If you can capture that customer, you can capture the loves-to-read-every word customer too, and all the customers in between.

Scannable means:

  • Hero products on spreads that help grab the reader's eye when quickly flipping through pages, or...
  • A big eye-catching headline on grid-like spreads that orients the reader.
  • Copy intuitively connects to the product, so when the reader's eye is caught by a product, that reader can drop their eye down and find the copy that goes with the product intuitively — that is, they don't have to search. To do that, copy right next to the image is best. Letter designators can work too, if they come in the same order as the photos. Keylines or screen tints around the copy/product combination to intuitively keep the two together work well too.
  • Details should be easy to figure out. Example: Let's say the nighty comes in all 7 colors, but the short sleeve robe comes in 5 only, and the long sleeve robe comes in 4 — it should not take a slide rule to quickly understand which robes come in which colors.

Shopability means shopable for everyone who's looking. And everyone isn't the same. For people who want to scan, communicate as much as possible with the photos and big heads. For people who want to understand more, make it possible for them to read and find additional information.


Groupings, page placement and placement in the catalog overall can have a big impact on how many users notice all the products. You'd be surprised at how many products you've worked so hard to place and design into your catalog may not get noticed at all by many users.

Where will your customers look for products they're interested in?

Practical products:

  • "Grocery store" organization can work: all cleaning products together; all kitchen products together.
  • "Works together" organization can work too: a cutting board near the knives; small hand tools near the raised gardening beds. But if you sprinkle cutting boards throughout the book, some will get lost, resulting in lost sales.

Visual products:

  • Grouping by style, then by color (gifts, art) can work.
  • For apparel, grouping by use (travel, business) then by "works together" (this top goes with this skirt, this briefcase is perfect with this suit) can work. Keep in mind that many men are less responsive to "outfit" buying than women and prefer to see all coats together, all pants together (still sub-grouped by use though).

New products:

Past customers are very interested in new products so be sure to call them out on the front cover, and then to clearly label them inside. Don't say you have 100 new styles, and then force customers to guess which they haven't seen before.

Eyeflow matters:

  • In the natural act of turning a page, the upper right hand corner of the next 2-page spread gets uncovered first. In many cases it's best to put the most important product on that spread in that upper-right-hand spot. If something doesn't catch the user's attention in that spot, their eyes may not wander to the rest of the spread — rather, they'll keep turning pages.
  • Once you've caught attention on a spread, try to guide the user's eye quickly (think unconsciously and nearly instantaneously) through the rest of the spread using line, color, heads, and arranging what you can such that elements tend to "point" from the upper right, to the far middle left, and then back again from the far middle left to the lower right. That's the automatic eye's natural path in a horizontal print environment (such as a catalog spread).

Small table of contents:

If your catalog is more than around 48 pages, consider a small table of contents on the back cover or 2/3 (intro spread). It doesn't have to be big or complex. Some people want to just browse, but others know what they're looking for and are more likely to buy if you make it easier for them to find it (rather than searching part-way and then throwing the catalog aside, losing sales).

Where will your prospects look for products they're interested in?

Prospects are most likely to be attracted to the same best sellers that your customers buy. So put your seasonal best sellers up front in the catalog, and on the inside back cover, and on the back cover. If you have an insert of any kind, it will make the catalog tend to fall open where it's placed, turning the pages facing the insert into new "hot spots", so put best-selling products there too. Also, make best sellers bigger and more prominent.


"What does this product do, and why should I care?" That's the universal customer question you should always work at answering.

Invert your copy:

The untutored non-catalog writer will always write in this order: "It has A, B and C features, and that matters to you because of X, Y and Z." But remember that most of your readers will just scan your copy, seeing the head, sub, and the first few words in the first line of body copy. They'll only stop to read the rest of the copy if you tell them what's in it for them. So put the main benefit first — in the head or sub — then the next benefit in the sub or first sentence. Some benefits needn't be spelled out. Example: for a "27-POCKET TRAVEL VEST" the benefits are implicit.


  • Products that are useful work best with benefit headlines.
  • If there's some reason you must have product-name headlines, then put the main benefit in the subhead.
  • Products that are bought for their beautiful can work with product-name headlines.

Detail shots, captions and callouts:

  • Use detail shots to communicate what you can visually. Show an expandable duster brush both compacted and extended. Show an illustrated cut-away with the self-watering planter. Show a reversible jacket from both sides.
  • Captions are highly noticed and read in both newspapers and catalogs. "Duster expands a full 48 inches" adds power to your sell.
  • Callouts act like captions — they're captions pointing to places on the product image, or overprinting the product image itself. "Double stitched for strength", "Strong brass buttons will never break", "Cuffs adjust", etc., make features/benefits highly scannable.

Long copy or short?

  • If your items sell because they're beautiful, you may need only minimal copy. But make sure the photos are beautiful and best visually represent what the product looks like.
  • But don't let copy get too minimal. If you're selling a light fixture but you don't say how many bulbs it takes or what kind, you're going to lose sales no matter how beautiful the photo is.

Why not have super-minimal copy throughout the catalog and just say "see online for more details"? That would be like having a store where every item is in a glass showcase. The customer looking in the showcase wonders "Does that jacket have pockets? What's it made out of? Will it fit me well? Is it washable?" Then she has to stand in line at a counter to ask the counter person to get the sample out of the case so she can look at it. Sure, a few customers would do that, but most won't, losing lots of sales. Put as much copy as works for your catalog in order to attract the most customers.

The copy should answer questions the user might have before they're ready to buy. If you've been selling these products for a while, you should know what kinds of questions people will ask. It doesn't have to be super-long copy, but it needs to answer critical questions.


  • Products being sold for beauty should be photographed beautifully.
  • Products being sold for their function should, as clearly as possible, show the function.
  • Food is purchased primarily for taste, so photograph to look tasty — and color-match correction is important to maximize food sales. For example, greenish chocolates (and chocolates often tend to turn greenish or reddish on press) should be corrected to have a rich chocolate look that accurately shows how it really looks.

Overall, when a user sees your catalog, your job is to help them visualize making that product a rewarding part of their life: eating it, wearing it, working with it, giving it as a gift.


Reading takes over where scanning stops. Good scannability creates good shopability because it helps the user orient herself in the catalog, find the products that interest her the most, and identify features and potential benefits. Now she's really interested. Now she's willing to take the time to read the copy. Now is your opportunity to lead her to a buying decision.

Follow these readability rules:

  • Body copy color: black type: Not gray. Not a color.
  • Page/spread headlines: Very large type can be in colors
  • Body copy font: If you can grit your teeth and force yourself (many catalogers cannot these days), use a serif font. That's the kind with the pointy ends on letters. The variation in letter shape goes right to the hard-wired part of the human brain making it faster to mentally translate into words. Better comprehension. Better retention. And more of your copy ends up getting read.
  • Body copy point size: make it appropriate to the customer's age. Yes, there are such things as bifocals and trifocals, but once you're old enough to need them you realize that they work a lot less well than you'd think. Make it easy on your customer. More copy gets read, more products get sold.
  • Body copy background: avoid reversed copy. If you must reverse (here and there only please) reverse ONLY to white, not to a color. Do not reverse out of a textured background. If you're reversing out of a photo, you'll probably have to bold the font so the letter-shape doesn't fill in on press, and it would be a really good idea to increase the point size too.

Your catalog will be much more shopable if you can prevent your customers' eyes from glazing over. Glazed eyes = lost sales.

Making your catalog shopable means more users look at more pages, spend more time with your catalog, and end up buying more. A shopable catalog increases response rate in the short run. And because you're giving your customers a more pleasant, frustration-free shopping experience, you'll gain long-term loyalty and higher response rates in the long run too.

First published on ACMA (American Catalog Mailers Association) website October 2013 © 2013 Susan J. McIntyre