Catalogs Make A Comeback

Ecommerce is to traditional business methods what a sci-fi cruiser is to a Model T. It’s all about technology, convenience, responsiveness—up-to-date stuff light years away fromthe sepia-toned days ofmail-order catalogs. Or so it would seem.

But consider this: the humble catalog is once again the vehicle of choice when ecommerce businesses want to upshift. That’s reflected in the buzz at multichannel conferences and in trade publications.

Combine websites with catalogs

“Everybody seems to be in pretty solid agreement: websites that start putting out catalogs seem to get a great increase in business,” said Larry Maher, vice president of Data Management Associates, Inc., of Cincinnati, Ohio. The company makes the order management system MACH2K, designed to keep multichannel businesses flowing smoothly.

The numbers back up Maher’s observation; some studies calculate that catalog customers spend up to two and a half times what Internet-only shoppers will.

Perhaps more surprising is the fact that it’s the customers who consistently request the print component, said Gina Valentino, owner of Hemisphere Marketing of Kansas City. A catalog and marketing consultant, Valentino has a long list of why and how catalogs pay off.

A catalog grows your venture because, “when people are ready to shop on the Internet, they already have in mind what they want—it’s all business. But the catalog—the catalog inspires.”

Customers might look for a watch, then notice a pair of boots on the facing page. Compared to the less-than-30- second viewing time of merchandise on web pages, print media offers the lingering effect that entices, persuades and ultimately results in that elusive event—a purchase made outside the time of need.

In addition to boosting the buying habits of existing customers, catalogs have the benefit of drawing more buyers to the website.

Maher said the two channels are not an either/or proposition.

“It’s just like in the old days when you had retail stores, and people came along and said, ‘Let’s have mail order!’ You got the good old Sears & Roebuck catalog, and pretty soon, people said, ‘We’ve got to have both.’“ The same principle seems to work in reverse for ecommerce; a catalog puts information in the hands of people who might not easily hit on your website.

Catalogs point the way, Maher noted, with signposts on every page that say, “Call 1-800” or “Go to www.…“ When it’s time to buy, they may very well have the catalog in hand and say, “I’ll go to”

Once persuaded to take the catalog plunge, most ecommerce owners’ first step is a misstep, as noted on Editor Jim Gilbert summed up the mindset of risk-taking, hard-working entrepreneurs: “You’re thinking, how difficult is it to create and mail a catalog. I can just create the thing and well, if I build it, they will come.”

That lines up with Valentino’s experience as a consultant. She guessed that nearly 90 percent of the clients who request her services have tried—and failed—to assemble a successful catalog on their own.

A client in that position recently told her, “I didn’t know a catalog would be all-consuming.” Valentino chucked and added, “Realistically, entrepreneurs tend to be the type of people who don’t believe that until they experience it for themselves. The entrepreneurial spirit is one thing, strategic creativity is another,” she said. “It’s about science and math, not creative passion.”

Valentino suggested evaluating one’s ability to do the job using the same criteria that would apply to a vendor: Can you strategically design to incorporate an understanding of Gallup polls in reading and retention? Do you understand eyeflow, how to show upsells and cross-sells without being intrusive? Are you able to differentiate between between copy that’s editorial and copy that sells? Howabout the hierarchy of customer decision-making? Does the list “picture, price, headline, body copy” ring any bells?

“People say things like, ‘I can use a computer, so I can design my own catalog,’“ she said, “but if you didn’t already know that list, you shouldn’t do it [yourself].”

Along with plain mechanical costs—layout, design, printing, mailing—an ecommerce entity has to figure out who to send the catalog to, and how to respond once it’s in the hands of potential customers. One advantage ecommerce companies enjoy is that they already own a lot of names and addresses, the most expensive component.

Industry studies put the payback window at three years, which can scare away companies. Still, as always, businesses must face the “grow or die” choice.

“Hey, if you’re happy with your business exactly like it is right now, and you’re comfortable with your client base, great,” Valentino said. “But if you don’t do something to branch out, eventually you’re going to die.”

As she sees it, despite the long-termperspective it demands, the catalog option is a win-win choice for companies and their customer base.

PEC Staff
PEC Staff
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