Foreign Affairs

While in China two years ago, I stopped at a general store/supermarket in a dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of Nanning, a characterless, charmless city far from the tourist track. The store sold everything from cassette tapes to soybean snacks to pajamas. At one counter, two young Chinese women lingered over a much-thumbed Avon catalog and a display of cosmetics.

Reading Mark Del Franco’s cover article on catalogers’ waning enthusiasm for overseas expansion reminded me of that Avon catalog, and of how in the far more cosmopolitan and affluent city of Guangzhou, the prestige department store was thick with Chinese men and women snapping up Burberry coats, Louis Vuitton bags, and all manner of Western cosmetics and apparel.

I’m not saying that catalogers should rush to mail into China. But I do think ignoring the potential of foreign markets is a mistake. The U.S. catalog industry is a mature one. Among the 1,004 respondents to Catalog Age’s Consumer Shopping Survey last year (see the August 2001 issue or visit our Website, www.CatalogAgemag.com, for specifics), 49.6% had made at least one catalog purchase during the past year. Among those surveyed two years prior, 46.3% had bought by catalog. We’re not talking about huge gains in penetration here. And while we are seeing impressive increases in the popularity of online shopping, e-commerce is a new medium, and I expect penetration to plateau at the same 50% level as catalog shopping.

There’s still plenty of time to gain a foothold in less mature markets, however. And you don’t necessarily have to start with a costly print catalog. In her article “Spinning a Global Web” (page 42), Karen Kroll discusses the whys and hows of using the Internet to begin selling internationally. In fact, many U.S. companies have already received international orders without making an effort. For while people overwhelmingly prefer to shop in their native language, for many consumers in countries as diverse as The Netherlands, Malaysia, Denmark, and Iceland, English is almost a second mother tongue. (Trust me, that’s good news if you’re ever in Reykjavik on Easter, when most of the restaurants are closed, or wandering about Copenhagen alone except for a map that lists every street except the one on which your hotel is supposed to stand.)

The beauty of the World Wide Web is that it has no boundaries, except those we place on it ourselves. And given the state of our domestic economy and market, can we really afford to put up fences and gates now?

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