The preferred first marketing channel for your invention might surprise you

Retail stores are seldom in the business of gambling on novel products, or those without a substantial sales history.


In baseball, when a fair ball is hit, the runner heads for first base. He or she could bypass first base and head to second base—but at the risk of being thrown out. 

There are hundreds of ordinary examples of actions we perform in a certain sequence without thinking. We put on our jeans before we put on our shoes because reversing the sequence doesn’t work well.

The same logic applies to marketing an invention we produce.

We can start our marketing with Amazon because it sells 50 percent of the e-commerce in the United States and is growing at an annual rate of 2 percent to 3 percent. That’s an exceptionally inviting market channel. It almost seems like guaranteed success.

But is it?

A client of mine had invented a hair dryer accessory and was contemplating selling it on Amazon. I checked the hair dryer category and found 307 entries. His product would become the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack among so many entries.

If people knew about the accessory and were searching for it, they might be patient enough to search through those 307 entries and find it. But a novel product is best bought as an impulse item at first. And when it becomes well known, it graduates to the level of the intentional purchase as against that of the impulse purchase and graduates from the minors to the majors: the retail chains.

Catalogue advantages

So, what’s the answer? If your product is novel, start your marketing in catalogues.

Paper catalogues may seem out of date because much of their business is now done on the internet. But one attraction of the catalogue is entertainment. Page after page, we browse and discover products that we haven’t seen before.

A second attraction is that paper catalogues offer brands you won’t find on Amazon: L.L. Bean, for example.

An excellent example of a modern catalogue is Brookstone’s. Like L.L. Bean, Brookstone isn’t merely a paper catalogue; it sells from its website and has retail stores in many malls. Not all catalogues are this well integrated, but don’t bypass them if your product is novel.

Another important reason to start marketing in catalogues: if you start on Amazon, the catalogues won’t want your product. They know that many of their readers will see an item in their catalogue and then check Amazon to determine if it sells the same product cheaper. Catalogues can’t stay in business if they act as free advertising for Amazon.

Home shopping networks—QVC and HSN, for example—are also places to consider before marketing on Amazon. The same rules apply to these marketers as they apply to catalogues: They won’t welcome your product if it is already selling on Amazon. They want exclusivity, not competition.

 A disadvantage to market entry with these businesses is that you own the inventory. They pay you after they sell it—whereas most catalogues will accept your invoice and pay according to their terms, as late as 90 days in some cases.

Catalogues and home shopping networks provide publicity for your product. If your product creates a buzz and becomes known, it should sell much better on Amazon. 

No. 2: Specialty stores

If you are very fortunate and your product creates an ongoing level of demand, you should be able to eventually sell it through retail stores.

But retail stores are seldom in the business of gambling on novel products, or those without a substantial sales history. The retailers want every square foot of their shelf space to produce a certain minimum return on investment, and sales of novel products would depend on busy shoppers stopping to investigate an item that is not familiar. Their mood is significantly different than that of a person relaxed in a comfortable chair browsing through a paper catalogue.

One retail exception may be the boutique, or narrowly focused specialty stores. But be sure to check Amazon.

As I wrote this article, I assumed that large power equipment such as a lawn tractor would be sold only in local specialty stores, not on Amazon. I checked and discovered I was wrong. One lonely Husqvarna lawn tractor was featured.

But if I were to buy a lawn tractor today, I would want to buy it locally so that I could take it in for repairs by the dealer who sold it. June sunshine grows grass as fast as Jack’s beanstalk, and I don’t want to face a sales associate with a “You didn’t buy it here” look on his or her face when I need service or parts.

Here’s your batting order

So, marketing success depends on acceptance by the channel of your choice. And acceptance depends on a channel’s perception of existing competition and your product’s sales history. The sequence is critical: 

  • Catalogues; 
  • Boutiques/specialty stores; 
  • Home shopping networks; 
  • Retail stores, including Amazon.

The retail channel is not for market testing unless you are an established company with a lot of money to spend on advertising, and you have the patience and gambling instincts of a snail crossing an interstate highway.

As I have emphasized in many articles, catalogues want to be contacted with a sell-sheet. It must be in the body of your email, not attached. They don’t want snail mail. They don’t want phone calls. And they emphatically don’t want samples until they ask for them.

Best wishes for your success. And pay no attention to any rumor that it was my beanstalk that disgraces your neighborhood. That was another Jack altogether.