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I haven't heard a lot of pundits compare today's multichannel catalog/online environment to the county fair. Given that we are in the dog-days of summer, it seems reasonable to draw comparisons.

The signature ride of any county fair is the Ferris Wheel. This ride was invented by George W. Ferris for the 1893 World's Fair, in Chicago. Around the same time, Sears and Wards were expanding their fledgling catalog businesses in Chicago.

The Ferris Wheel is outdated in the world of modern amusement park entertainment. It is a two-dimensional ride, with the passenger going up, and down, up, and down. The first time down, the passenger gets that ticklish feeling in her stomach. By the thirty-sixth revolution, the passenger is ready to get off, and find a new form of entertainment. Catalog is similar. Catalog is not digital, it is analog. The in-home day of a catalog is filled with anticipation and excitement. Thirty-six days after the in-home, the employee is ready to move on to another challenge.

The Ferris Wheel is the signature ride at the fair. Without the Ferris Wheel, the fair loses its identity. Multichannel marketing loses its identity without the catalog.

After enjoying the Ferris wheel, it is time for a bite to eat. The fair offers all sorts of tempting treats that won't be found on the appetizer menu at your local Applebees. When was the last time you enjoyed an elephant ear? Or a cream puff? Or a hot dog on a stick? For just four dollars, a fair employee will roast an ear of corn over a hot fire, insert a wooden stick into the cob, dip the ear in a molten vat of hot, drippy butter, then generously shake grains of salt on the piping-hot ear of corn.

We willingly fork over our hard-earned money for this unusual snack that provides the carnival workers with a 90% profit margin. Fair food is a lot like the special services we offer our customers, services like monogramming or gift wrapping, the gift with purchase, or the free phone with two-year contract required. The food tastes good while you are eating it, but you later realize you didn't need the pork sandwich that was as big as your head. The same goes for so many of the promotions we offer our customers.

After our stomach is full, we decide to visit the midway. Game operators hawk us at every turn. They'll guess our weight for just a dollar, they'll allow us to whack-a-mole, they'll give us a chance to achieve a score of five-hundred in skee-ball. Sirens are constantly going off as lucky contestants reap the benefits of victory. We empty our wallets trying to achieve victory. If we are lucky, we score a 390 in skee-ball and earn the right to take home a small, stuffed snake with poorly glued-on paper eyes.

In today's multichannel world, the midway represents the series of pundits who hawk us at every turn, offering solutions to all of our multichannel problems. They are selling CRM systems, Web analytic software, on-demand printing solutions, or consulting services that promise to deliver the same look and feel, the same brand experience, across all channels. Sirens, in the form of press releases, go off every time there is a successful implementation or marketing campaign. We eagerly research these solutions, because we simply "cannot afford to lose an existing customer in today's highly competitive landscape."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Hillstrom is a database marketing executive with two decades' experience and the author of Hillstrom's Database Marketing: A Master's Complete Method for Success. Kevin's blog (www.minethatdata.com) covers topics in database, multichannel, catalog and online marketing.