How to sell a yellow shirt

Cynthia CloskeyGeneral


What could be more boring than writing descriptions of articles of clothing for a catalog? After describing your fourteenth long-sleeved yellow shirt, you’d have to be tempted to write something wacky, anything at all that doesn’t involve percentage of cotton versus linen versus rayon, or buttons or the lack thereof.

And if writing description after description is dull, reading them can’t be any better.

The J. Peterman Company takes a different approach. Each item they sell is described with a tiny short story, along the theme that the company founder, John Peterman, travels the world to find interesting clothing and other items, and sells them to his equally interesting customers.

Consider the description for a long-sleeved yellow blouse with dark pink collar and cuffs:

The Next Big Thing.

Breakfast at The Coffee Shop.

Union Square West, not too far from the Strand.

Forget Fashion Week. Forget Madison Ave. I eat here to spot the up-and-coming (trends and people).

Veronica, for example, plays the role of struggling waitress-cum-actress, riding the N train from her little studio in Chelsea to the 14th Street station for her midnight-to-six-a.m. shift.

Wears shirts like these, just in case any director looking for the next Joan Blondell has a late-night craving for eggs Benedict.

Last month she landed a small part in an Italian thriller starring a couple names you might know. Starts shooting on location in Genoa next month.

“Some more toast, please, Veronica.”

The shirt has a name, by the way. It’s the Actress in Waiting Shirt. It’s priced comparably to shirts from other retailers. After the lovely little story of Veronica, the description includes a little more standard info you’d expect to see in a catalog: what the shirt is made of, details about its constructions, where it’s made. The major image for the shirt is a color illustration, but there are also photos of it, tucked into the lower right corner of the page.

The catalog for The J. Peterman Company is a cute little thing, sized smaller than a standard catalog and printed not on glossy paper but on heavyweight stock. It’s the sort of catalog you keep around a while.

As pretty as the catalog and illustrations are, it’s these unique descriptions and the world they evoke that make J. Peterman stand out. Sure, it may take longer to come up with a distinct story about every piece of clothing, accessory, and sundry item they sell. But the result is so distinctive, so memorable, and so much more appealing than standard catalog fodder.

Such descriptions are also what search engines rank highly, and what encourage visitors to read multiple pages of a site. So the time invested in creating them pays off in several ways.

And you can bet they’re a whole lot more fun for the writers to write as well.

Other companies do this well also: Photojojo, John Fluevog, and Betabrand all come to mind. They’re all retailers, but you don’t have to sell stuff to write interesting content.

(By the way, John Peterman is a real person, and not just a fictional company figurehead or a minor character on Seinfeld — he played second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates for three years!)