From print to screen

With broadband penetration hitting critical mass, more multichannel merchants are adding interactive, or virtual, catalogs to their Websites. Usually presented as a link on the e-commerce site, interactive catalogs generally mirror offline print books; online visitors use their mouse to “flip” the virtual pages and to gain close-up views of specific products and descriptions.

As cumbersome as an interactive catalog might sound — for one thing, it takes much more time to flip virtual pages than print pages — many merchants are discovering that a significant segment of their customer base prefers them to navigating through an e-commerce site.

For example, the interactive catalog of gifts merchant Hammacher Schlemmer — created using technology from Novato, CA-based Scene7 — draws only a fraction of its Website’s traffic. But those visitors who do use the interactive catalog convert at twice the rate of visitors overall to, according to Dayna Bateman, the Chicago-based cataloger/retailer’s director of Internet marketing.

“It’s not the most popular option, but when people do engage, they convert,” Bateman says.

Experiential branding

Merchants’ tactics vary widely with interactive catalogs. A few luxury merchants have been known to send them via e-mail to top customers before their print books hit mailboxes, giving their best customers the first shot at new merchandise.

Hammacher Schlemmer, however, takes a more common approach, creating an online catalog to replicate each print book and making it available once the print version hits people’s homes. The reasoning behind this tactic: While e-commerce sites are great for shoppers on a mission, they don’t necessarily convey a merchant’s brand the way interactive catalogs do. At the same time, the virtual catalogs increase user interactivity with the brand.

“You have a number of buyers who go to your site who don’t really know what you sell, and e-commerce sites are notoriously bad at telling that story,” says Christophe Cremault, senior vice president, marketing for New York-based rich media technology firm RichFX. “They may know you sell pens, but are we talking a high-end brand or a low-end economy brand? Are we talking about somebody aiming at a younger crowd or an older crowd? In a catalog, you flip a few pages and you immediately see that.”

Adds Bateman: “What’s nice about having a digital approximation of the book itself is that, experientially, it anchors people to a very important part of our story, which is the catalog. There is something very familiar and very reassuring about going to a catalog where you know there’s something you wanted on page five and you can flip to that page.”

The superior image reproduction of rich media catalogs appeals to luxury merchants., the online arm of Wilmington, NC-based Reeds Jewelers, introduced interactive catalogs using RichFX technology last August. Reeds had previously published JPEG versions of its print books online. “We weren’t getting a lot of traffic with that, and they didn’t look that great,” says Web manager Peter Zelinski.

Before scrapping the JPEG images, Zelinski surveyed customers to see what they wanted in an online catalog. “They all said extremely nice images and an ability to zoom in on the details of the jewelry.”

Reeds’ virtual catalog gets almost 60% more visitors than the JPEG images had. What’s more, visitors to Reeds’ interactive catalog spend an average of six and a half minutes with it. This is on top of the roughly eight minutes of the average visit to, Zelinski says: “It really indicates a commitment.”

Also, as is the case with Hammacher Schlemmer, while Reeds’ interactive catalog draws a low percentage of the site’s overall traffic, those who open the online books convert at a much higher rate. People who use the interactive catalog take about seven sessions to convert to a sale, according to Zelinski.

“People who come through the catalog also tend to put things in their cart more often [and save them for later], which gives us the opportunity to speak with them,” Zelinski adds. “I think they’re more serious. They’re not browsers; they want to buy.”

And though more than 95% of Reeds’ sales come through its roughly 90 stores, there is anecdotal evidence that people are perusing the virtual catalogs and then making their purchases at retail. Zelinski suspects that more people who view the online catalog are converting at retail than through the site, but that’s difficult to measure without getting in the way of the sale or risking damage to the brand with coupon-type promotions: “You don’t want to get on coupon heroin,” he warns.

Twists and tweaks

A number of merchants are adding their own twists to virtual catalogs. For instance, CPA2Biz, the primary provider of marketing and technology services to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), is using the technology to publish the tables of contents of some of its products on the site. “A lot of AICPA products are books and continuing-education materials, and a lot of the titles sound pretty similar, such as Internal Controls Version 1 and Internal Controls Version 2,” says Melissa Rothchild, senior director of marketing communications. “The ability to read the table of contents and view page excerpts is pretty important.”

Jersey City, NJ-based CPA2Biz started testing a virtual catalog in December 2005 to augment the 200 direct mail campaigns and 400 e-mail campaigns it conducts each year. In the ensuing months, executives tweaked the e-catalog’s design to help site visitors read the copy-heavy catalog. CPA2Biz is now rolling out a full-blown interactive catalog program using Scene7 technology.

Seattle-based mega-merchant is also using interactive catalog technology for its At Home Catalog business. “For Amazon it’s all about the customer experience,” says director of customer experience Petra Schindler-Carter. “Consumers will always engage in research through the medium they prefer, and for some of these customers it means flipping through catalog pages.”

Interactive catalogs, she continues, capitalize on one of print’s most finely honed skills: the art of merchandising and product presentation. “This is a way of exploring visual merchandising that has obviously worked for a very long time,” Schindler-Carter says.

As an added feature, Amazon has hooked its online At Home Catalog into its inventory system so that customers get instant, real-time pricing when they roll their cursors over products.

In another twist on the concept, Luxury Motors in mid-April used technology from Santa Clara, CA-based E-Book Systems to launch an “e-magazine” with live updates of pricing and inventory. The book gives customers the option of browsing online or downloading it to their computers.

In its first two weeks of existence, about 100 people a day downloaded Luxury Motors’ virtual catalog, says Jeff Camacho, director of marketing for the Downers Grove, IL-based online merchant of high-end autos. “I wanted to create a soft-sell way to talk to our customers,” he says. “I created the magazine so that they could look at it at their leisure.” To drive additional revenue, Luxury Motors sells advertising in the e-magazine.

Complementary approach

In the future, CPA2Biz aims to find its most online-responsive customers and to try e-mailing them interactive catalogs instead of mailing them the print versions. The move is not merely a cost-cutting measure, however. “The whole idea is to give customers what they want in the format they want it,” says Rothchild. “Some customers would prefer to do everything via e-mail and online, but they also like the ease of flipping through the catalog pages. We can accomplish that with the rich media version.”

In fact, in an April survey, 82% of CPA2Biz customers said they would find the ability to purchase from an online version of a print catalog to be either “useful” or “critical,” says Rothchild.

But CPA2Biz doesn’t anticipate phasing out its print books anytime soon. It will continue mailing catalogs and following up with e-mails aimed to drive traffic to the corresponding interactive catalog online. “Right now we’re treating [the virtual catalog] as more complementary,” says Rothchild. “We feel it’s a good user experience for there to be a linkage between the material they get on their desk and the material they see when they go online.”

For his part, Reeds’ Zelinksi is adamant that the interactive catalog is in no way meant to replace print mailings: “It’s an augment. It’s another entry point to what we offer.”

Purposeful repurposing

For merchants that produce a print catalog, virtual catalogs enable them to maximize their investment in a book’s creative. “We spend so much money, effort, and time on the print catalogs that we wanted to see if we could leverage that intellectual capital in the online space,” says Melissa Rothchild, senior director of marketing communications at books and services merchant CPA2Biz. “When people go to find the product online they can just flip to the same page that’s on their desk.”

Most catalogers who’ve added interactive catalogs to their Website say that repurposing content from the print books is neither difficult nor price prohibitive. Doug Mack, CEO of rich media technology provider Scene7, says a marketer can expect to pay anywhere from $35 to $50 a page to repurpose print catalog pages into an e-catalog format.

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