Water those laurels!

As I write this, I’ve just returned from this year’s Annual Catalog Conference in Orlando, FL, which was one of the most energetic, positive ACCs I’ve attended during my nearly 10 years covering the industry. The show itself chockablock with fabulous sessions and speakers (kudos to Ellen Shannon, who heads the programming efforts on behalf of the DMA, Multichannel Merchant’s cosponsor of the event, and to all the members of the planning committee!); what’s more, the attendees were bursting with optimistic and vigor.

Some of that positive energy is no doubt due to attendees’ realization of the power and possibilities of the multichannel landscape. In the mid-1990s, many catalogers viewed e-commerce as a rival for the affections of consumers; now they realize that the Internet isn’t the enemy but rather another way in which they can woo and win more buyers.

But while more channels can — and should — mean more opportunities, they also lead to more competition. And not just from start-up online-only operations. Major brands and retailers have been easing into direct marketing, first with information-only Websites, then with transaction-enabled sites, and now with what had once been the bailiwick — not to mention differentiator — of many of you: print catalogs.

At the show I heard that merchants as diverse as electronics retail chain Circuit City, upscale shoe manufacturer Cole Haan, and restaurant chain Heartland of America were launching, testing, or considering expanding into the print catalog channel.

Many of these companies have pockets appreciably deeper than those of the e-commerce upstarts so feared in the 1990s. And like the rest of us, they also have a better understanding of the promise and shortcomings of direct marketing, so they’re less likely to make the silly mistakes (blowing the entire ad budget on one Super Bowl commercial comes to mind) of the previous generation of entrants into online and offline cataloging.

Does that mean you need to establish a physical presence to succeed? Not necessarily. Rather, it means that whichever channels you do decide to use, you need to excel in. Several consultants I spoke with at the ACC said that too many direct marketers feel they’ve done what needs to be done in terms of building a decent Website and crafting a solid circulation plan. And perhaps they have. But as the big-name, big-money brands become your competitors, “decent” and “solid” aren’t enough. This isn’t the time to assume that you know more about offline and online cataloging than the brick-and-mortar retailers and the manufacturers. Those who rest on their laurels soon find that without continued care and feeding, the laurels wither and die.

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