Will video kill the catalog star?

USUALLY WHEN A PRINT CATALOGER goes to an online-only format, the move is interpreted as a sign that the title was not successful. And that is typically the case: When it’s not worth the cost to print and mail the catalog, merchants will just take the brand online.

Is that why Patagonia shifted its fly fishing print catalog to an electronic version? Well, if the book were doing gangbusters, I think the company would still be mailing it. Same goes for two-year-old Patagonia’s Surf spin-off, which went electronic-only in November.

But, there are two factors to consider. For one thing, Patagonia’s outdoor enthusiast customers are concerned about the environment and would likely get behind any effort to reduce the marketer’s carbon footprint.

Second, online catalogs are much more dynamic than they used to be. “Paging” through Patagonia’s Fly Fishing Spring 2010 e-catalog is an experience, complete with audio clips from experts, videos of the products in use and plenty of ways to learn more about the merchandise.

You can’t provide that level of engagement in print. And as Tim Parry’s cover story, “The value of video,” points out, it doesn’t have to take a lot of time or resources to shoot and upload video. What’s more, the effect on sales can be tremendous.

Not that Patagonia’s recent moves signal the end of print catalogs — the merchant has a long way to go before it’s online only, if that ever happens. But if catalogers can get the same results with an electronic effort that they get via print (and in the past, that’s been a pretty big “if”), they will definitely take books out of the mail.

That is not good for the U.S. Postal Service, which finally seems ready to play nice with catalogers. At the ACMA’s National Catalog Forum last month in Nashville, postal officials went out of their way to stress that their aim is to help catalogers mail more.

And initiatives like the just-approved Summer Mail Sale 2010, which is said to be a forerunner of other catalog pricing incentives to come, show that the USPS is really, really trying.

But since many catalogers have learned to mail less or, in some cases, not mail at all, it might be too late. Catalog mail volume will probably never return to historic highs, and the USPS is going to have to readjust its expectations and get creative with solutions — just like the catalogers have done.

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