Catalog jam

Is there an actual "Pottery Barn" somewhere?

Is a barn the proper place to store pottery? Isn't keeping your pottery in a barn sort of like keeping your bull in a china shop?

Such questions have been on my mind, thanks to a chance encounter in San Francisco. My family was in a restaurant, my wife and I sneaking glances at the next table, where a group of young urban trendies seemed to be having a much better time than we were. They made us feel old and frumpy.

My wife turned to me and said, with a sniff, "Pottery Barn people."

She was exactly right, as usual. These were the people you imagine when you thumb through the Pottery Barn catalog of home furnishings. Young and fit, hip and stylish, they live in apartments with great views and espresso machines. They looked like guest stars on "Friends."

It started me wondering: Is this the newest way to sort us all into tribes? Can we be categorized by which slick mail-order catalogs litter our homes?

If there are Pottery Barn people, are there also Crate & Barrel people? And are they really well-organized?

We've already got a name for Williams-Sonoma people -- foodies. Only a "foodie" can tell you why it's imperative to have the proper stainless-steel whisk in your kitchen.

What about Harry & David people? What would you call them? "Fruities?" Wouldn't they object?

The more I thought about it, the more the catalogs seemed worthy of sociological study. I went through some of the approximately 17 trillion catalogs that come to our house each year, trying to find patterns and social demarcations.

Who are the marketers targeting? Do the customers already exist, ready to have labels applied to them, or do they somehow shape their lifestyles to fit the world depicted in their favorite catalogs? Has it become a matter of "you are what you buy?"

For instance, there's a catalog called Anthropologie, which features European-looking accessories and clothing. I asked my wife about the target audience, and she said, "Rich women who think they're French." Ah, oui.

Many of the women's catalogs try to evoke a sense of place: Coldwater Creek, Sundance, Maryland Square. Others sound like old-fashioned department stores: Talbots, Chadwick's, Spiegel, Nordstrom. Women apparently can recognize each other from such clothes. They see another woman and go, "Aha, a member of the Talbots tribe."

Then there are all the casual clothes catalogs, broken down by target markets:

L.L. Bean: Rugged outdoorsmen who hike.
Orvis: Rugged outdoorsmen who fish.
Land's End: Rugged outdoorsmen who live near a beach.
TravelSmith: Rugged outdoorsmen who spend too much time in airports.
Eddie Bauer: Rugged outdoorsmen who drive SUVs.
Nautica: Rugged outdoorsmen who own yachts.
J. Crew: Outdoorspersons who are too young and cool to be rugged.

Some catalogs are full of gadgets and gizmos. Brookstone and The Sharper Image have all kinds of electronic whizbangs you didn't even know you needed, ultimately designed to relieve you of your disposable income.

Bed, Bath & Beyond seems self-explanatory, though that "beyond" part worries me. Frontgate, Lillian Vernon and dozens of others appeal to homeowners who value the perfect decorative welcome mat.

Levenger is for fountain-pen fetishists. Abercrombie & Fitch apparently caters to nudists. Victoria's Secret is for anorexics and 14-year-old boys.

But where is my own tribe among all these slick catalogs? What company targets overweight, aging, non-rugged INdoorsmen whose most strenuous activity is reading? Is there a catalog called Olde & Frumpy? Nearsighted & Dumpy? Gerontologie? J. Whew?

I'll be watching the mail.

1 comment:

Erin said...

We buy from the "Cheaper Than Dirt" catalogue. Does that make us one of The Dirties?
I hate the fact that the moniker is probably fitting.