The Return of the Printed Catalog
In the past decade, considerable resources have been assigned to websites and online sales channels at the expense of traditional marketing print collaterals (i.e., catalogs). Retailers across the globe are experiencing a rebirth of the print catalog. Many businesses suffered sharp drops in sales after cutting their print catalogs. They came to realize that three-quarters of the customers that make purchases are still reviewing catalogs.
J.C. Penney, for example, had produced its catalogs since 1963, and became one of the largest catalog retailers after Sears stopped producing its catalogs. For the last five years, J.C. Penney has been absent from the catalog business and lost many customers. The company's chief executive, Myron "Mike" Ullman, mistakenly thought that catalog customers would migrate online. Like other businesses, J.C. Penney learned the hard way that catalog customers use the internet to place their orders, which is distinctively different from pure online shoppers. J.C. Penney's sales dropped a third between 2011 and 2014.
J.C. Penney recently surprised the market by announcing that its catalog is coming back, although not as a thousand pager but in a smaller format. The move is designed to drive online sales. While an increasing number of product categories are now sold online, even cars, consumers still enjoy browsing the pages of a paper catalog.
The growth of online shopping wasn't the only reason that led marketers to believe that cutting catalogs would be a good idea. A large percentage of households dislike receiving unsolicited books in the mail. In addition, pre-press costs for catalogs are notoriously expensive. This is where catalog automation steps in.
There exist a few solutions that allow for fully automatic production of catalogs. At the same time, the pre-press expense can be eliminated. Since the catalog has now been rediscovered as an important branding tool that drives sales, the changes in attitude need to be enabled with flexible catalog layouts that adapt to the branding requirements of a catalog's target audience. Catalogs can tell a lifestyle story about a brand that's beyond the reach of an e-commerce site.
With such automation tools, magazine-style catalogs can contain photo spreads that create the desired impression upon readers with related scenes that tell a story. As an important image media, catalogs provide consumers with a feeling of relevance that communicates care and attention to their needs. The print medium can also help build trust and relationships with prospects of brick-and-mortar businesses that create value. It sharply distinguishes them from online-only storefronts that lack such trust, building tools as "real" suppliers. Catalogs make it easier for consumers to direct their buying decisions toward a seller they can trust. Not surprisingly, research has found that catalog customers not only spend more online, but they're also the best customers in physical stores.
According to the Direct Marketing Association, about 90 million Americans purchase goods and services from catalogs. Almost 60 percent of these shoppers are women. The American Catalog Mailers Association says that catalog recipients spend $850 per year on catalog purchases. With automated catalog processing tools, marketers can reduce the cost of producing catalogs and reallocate the savings to brand and relationship building through catalogs in order to stimulate sales.
Furthermore, aspects of the online shopping experience can be incorporated into print catalogs. For example, snippets of customers’ online reviews can be added to catalogs, thus embracing one of the top drivers for online sales into the printed media. However, the online experience just cannot match the feeling that a catalog provides, in particular when it's mailed to a well-defined target audience. In addition, the success of catalog distribution can be measured directly, which cannot be said of many other digital marketing tools. A catalog that's mailed to an address can be directly related to an order from the same location. Adding catalogs into your marketing mix provides not only for an effective tool to measure success, but it may just provide for the edge over competitors to grab the attention of otherwise overloaded prospects.
Besides the professional pre-press output, catalog automation systems should also produce lower-resolution versions that enable product management teams to check the catalogs in one-to-one preview format that corresponds exactly to the export of the final catalog. These previews can double as online catalogs. Errors can be identified by product management teams immediately and corrected without delaying the market launch of the catalog. After the final catalog run, the automated pages are merged with the manual insets and catalog cover. Without automation, such complex catalogs can't be produced fast enough, and time to market substantially suffers. Since layouts can be as variable as customers’ imaginations, catalog automation needs to be flexible to deal with product complexity and diversity in a dynamic and efficient manner.
H.R. Tschudi is president of Onison, a provider of enterprise-level brand management solutions with services for catalog automation.