Benchmarking for Catalogers

Working with financial paperworkby Stephen R. Lett

Benchmarking can be described as a set of performance standards for a specific task. Although there are many industry benchmarks which can be used as “standards” for all markets, most benchmarks need to be adjusted to meet the requirements, limitations and needs of your specific business.

There is no one model or standard of performance that works for all. Understanding your current performance levels will help you set new goals and map out the steps toward greater efficiency. There are many benchmarks that you can set in addition to those listed below. What I have chosen to highlight are key examples of metrics which should be measured within your marketing department.


  1. 12-Month Buyer Count — If your 12-month buyer count declines, your sales will also decline by approximately the same percentage. Therefore, it is important to track your 12-month buyer count from one period to another (same time frame) — for example, August, 2009 versus August, 2008.
  2. Catalog Page Count (percent increase or decrease) — As a general rule of thumb if you increase pages, you will realize one-half of the percent increase in pages in actual demand lift or increase. Make certain you understand the effect that changes in page count are having on your sales.
  3. Selling Expense to Sales Ratio (Print and Web) — Track your direct selling expenses as a percent of net sales (after returns). This ratio should not exceed 30% for a consumer company; 20% for a B2B firm.
  4. Repeat Buyers Percentage — Repeat buyers are what make your business profitable. How many buyers, for example, make a repeat purchase within one year? If you can benchmark your current rate of repeat buyers, and focus on turning one-time buyers into two-and-more-time customers, you will see a significant gain in results. What’s more, your profitability will increase as a result since it is difficult to make money on first-time print buyers.
  5. Ratio of Housefile vs. Prospect Circulation — Mailings to prospects should represent approximately 50% to 60% of your total circulation depending on the season. Do not get overly aggressive by increasing the ratio of prospecting to housefile mailings. At the same time, avoid cutting the amount of prospecting you do and over relying on your housefile.


  1. “Open” Rate — These differ by industry segment, but higher rates indicate effective SUBJECT copy with compelling offers, incentives, or calls to action.
  2. “Click-thru Rate” — A higher percentage means that once the email has been opened, the customer is interested enough to learn more or make a purchase.
  3. “Conversion Rate” — The best indicator of effectiveness because these are actual orders/sales.
  4. Average Order Value (AOV) — This is a traditional historical tracking statistic. It is a meaningful benchmark for any individual company. Compare the average order size from email campaigns with your print catalog AOV.
  5. “Bounce Rate” — This is a list management/maintenance tool benchmark.  Rising bounce rates over time are telling us that we have not been keeping up with the general email address turnover rate of about 30% per year. It points out the need to perform appropriate periodic email list hygiene.

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) ANALYTICS TRACKING

  1. Site Traffic Origins — Comparative percentages of traffic driven by organic searches, direct access, referrals from other sites, email, PPC, and other specific sources.  High percentage of direct traffic speaks well for brand awareness.  High percentage of organic search traffic generally indicates good website content optimization for search engines.
  2. Conversion Rates — To verify actual sales from these sources.

There is a common theme to these stats.  The actual bottom line dollar return from each of these marketing methods is the ultimate indicator of their effectiveness.  However, the numbers behind them (and their trends), tell us how we can improve our efforts to maximize the return on our marketing investment.

Financial performance against budget and against last year’s year-to-date sales is another important and critical benchmark. It is important to compare key ratios on the income statement with your historical ratios. There are industry ratio guidelines to compare your ratios against as well.

There are many other benchmarks to consider. By setting benchmarks, you will improve your customer’s order experience and therefore, loyalty. You will also find opportunities to save some money by improving efficiency. Benchmarks will help you manage your business.

Stephen R. Lett is the President of Lett Direct, Inc., a catalog consulting firm specializing in circulation planning, forecasting, and analysis since 1995. Mr. Lett spent the first 25 years of his career with leading catalog companies; both business-to-business and consumer. He is the author of the book, Strategic Catalog Marketing. He can be reached at 302-539-7257 or by email at

About the Author: Jim Gibbs

Vice President of Sales & Marketing at The Dingley Press. Jim has been with Dingley since 2002 and lives in Maine near our Lisbon, Maine plant location.