Still Fit to Print?
By Carolyn Heinze&000;&000;
Despite rapid online gains, future still bright for print catalogs
Considering it's now been at least a decade since debates first surfaced in this business about whether the print catalog would ultimately become obsolete in favor of online catalogs, you'd think you could make a stronger case for such a phenomenon in 2006. And today, with a rapidly growing number of catalogers reporting 50 percent-plus levels of orders placed online, the writing would seem to be on the wall.
But while it's nice to dream of the cost savings associated with alleviating paper catalogs altogether, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated, to quote Mark Twain. While the Internet offers an efficient vehicle through which to place orders, for browsing, old-fashioned catalogs still have their place, catalogers say.
Web Remains Cumbersome
Take Michael Arking, president of Frenchtoast.com, a Dayton, N.J.-based seller of school uniforms: He notes that even though the majority of his company's business is conducted via the Internet, the catalog is crucial. "Eighty percent of our business is done on the Web, and 20 percent is done through our catalog," he points out. "But I continue to be a big proponent of the catalog, because it's something that consumers like to hold in their hands. You can't hold the Web in your hands."
Arking says catalogs better adhere to consumers' thinking processes, whereas the Internet often can be cumbersome. "There's a linear way of thinking with print, because people always know where they are," he says. "Sometimes entering the Web is like being in an abyss: You don't know where it begins or where it ends, and you're always floating along. With a catalog, you know where it begins and ends, and you have much more control, in a sense, of moving through it."
Likewise, Julie Langlas, president of the Joliet, Ill.-based Educational Aids, a catalog targeted at teachers, predicts that although her catalog will undergo several modifications, it will remain a core channel through which to reach the company's clientele. "It will become smaller [in page count], but you need a print piece to drive business to the Web site," she explains. "If printing and postage costs continue to go up, you need to take a harder look at who you're selling to, and put a higher threshold on income per piece that each name you're mailing to is generating. So, you may not mail the same quantity as you used to."
What's more, a growing number of companies that began online now are exploring the option of publishing their own print catalogs to support their Web sites. "I really see online shopping as being an ordering vehicle as opposed to a shopping vehicle," says Debra Ellis, president of Wilson & Ellis Consulting in Barnardsville, N.C.
A print component also demonstrates a brand's commitment to remaining in the game for the long term. "A catalog supports a brand in a substantial way," Arking says. "It shows that you're here to stay — it shows stability."
Catalogers who cultivate multichannel customers stand to benefit from a higher customer loyalty rate. "They shouldn't try to transform customers from one thing to another," Ellis says. "The trick is to gather useful client information, such as what shopping mode customers come from and how they make purchases."
If you can encourage customers to go online as well as shop at a retail outlet, she points out, you'll have stronger customer loyalty, and "they'll be less likely to go to your competitor."
Ellis believes that catalogs will remain the cornerstone of multichannel marketing, serving to drive customers to the Internet to place orders. But new technology enables companies to better target their books. "As analytics and technology improve, catalogs will become more personalized and targeted," she says. "We're finally at the point where we can do one-to-one marketing."
A Real-world Example
Over the past six months, Duluth, Ga-based National Allergy Supply has been honing its data collection processes to do just that. The allergy relief products marketer, which plans to continue mailing its print catalog, is exploring the feasibility of mailing full catalogs to some customers, while sending smaller, less expensive mail pieces — such as postcards directing clients to the firm's Web site — to others.
In order to determine who should be receiving what, National Allergy Supply integrated a matchback system into its Web site. In this system, data on the customers who receive National Allergy Supply's print catalog are input into the Web site. When they visit the site and enter their information, the key code of the catalog they received automatically appears, alerting the company on how the client came to it.
This has enabled the company to separate general "Google customers" from established catalog clients, explains John Fry, National Allergy Supply's vice president of marketing and sales. "When you go online, instead of typing in our URL, you may go to Google and type in 'National Allergy Supply' and then you click on the link. To us, you're a Google customer, but you're really a catalog customer who just happened to enter our site via Google. This has confused the information that we've been trying to get about how catalog customers respond," he explains.
With this new system, Fry and his colleagues are better equipped to decide what print pieces to send where, and how effective their print catalog mailing efforts actually can be. "We've been trying to get clean information over the past six months or more that will guide us in the future," he says. "We may find that our response is even better than we think. Or, we can test those people, carve out half of the names and try a postcard instead of a catalog. We didn't feel it was time to do further testing until we hadaccurate information."
Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer and editor. Reach her via e-mail at email@example.com.