`New’ is nice, `multichannel’ is trendy…but guess what? The print catalog channel has lots of life left in it

The press is full of stories predicting the demise of the printed catalog.

Wellll…as Samuel Clemens said, “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

I staunchly defend the printed catalog. We already see catalog customers clutching their printed catalogs to their bosoms, thanking the good Lord for a medium that, no matter how dog-eared and weatherbeaten it gets, never accuses its user of performing an illegal act that will shut it down.

Still, only the blindest die-hard dismisses the Web as a flea in the ear. No question about it: The Web is siphoning sales from conventional catalogs and yes, in many cases its broad reach does cannibalize some sales from a company’s own printed catalog. (Latest statistic: 80%-90% of print catalogers have a Website.)

Does that mean copywriters, layout artists, printers, and lettershops should start hoisting “The end is near” signs? Hardly. Coexistence makes sense, just as radio and TV coexist…and just as chat rooms and online catalogs coexist. Granted, it’s often an uneasy truce, even within a company’s own marketing department.

For the last three or four years I’ve been writing copy for both print and online catalogs. Within the past year, my own ratio has changed, and the change isn’t subtle. Everybody wants a Web “version.” Note that word version. It’s our indicator that the two media aren’t parallel, any more than Idaho potatoes and sweet potatoes are parallel.

For today only, I’m going to ignore a circumstance most of us regard as temporary: Not everyone has a PC and not every PC is hooked into the net. That’s a truism, but so is another statistic: 3% of U.S. homes don’t have a telephone. What might be worthy of greater exploration, during the next few years, is the percentage of Web customers who are nontraditional catalog buyers.

The old and the new together

Anyone who has a printed catalog in his hand and tries to find the identical item in the same company’s Web catalog knows how frustrating the search can be. Links too often are imperfect or missing, prices and sizes are elusive, and the order form can be a teeth-grinder. A second problem is the innate fear many people have of being ripped off on the Web. Somebody orders a toy from an online auction, gets no merchandise, and damns the entire concept of ordering online.

Let’s make the obvious assumption that those two problems won’t exist two years from now. Online catalogs are entering their second generation, where dictatorial fiats by Webmasters are giving way to a more humane fiat by a marketing executive: “Let’s make this customer-friendly.”

And the triple combination of escrowing payment money, confidence based on the catalog’s pre-existing print version reputation, and the safety of paying by credit card should pretty much wipe out those “I paid and got nothing” horror stories that infect the innocents as well as the guilty.

Channel balance

The cataloger that wants the “old business” – that being print – to survive can’t be blinded by the Web’s temporary glamour. Nor can that cataloger succumb to the siren song of a Webmaster whose interest lies in glitz and production rather than in the friendliest of all persuaders, clarity.

For the smaller catalog, clarity is manna, a welcome relief from mouse-pushing and blind clicking and scrolling down/up and filling out what seems to be an endless order form, even though in actual number of entries it’s no longer than the one in the printed catalog. Recognizing that we’re in the middle of the year 2000…and that Web catalogs are constantly improving while printed catalogs are standing in place…we still have to give the edge for convenient product-finding and ordering, at this time, to the printed catalog. (Technology, you haven’t yet killed the goose.)

But to maintain that position, printed catalogs have to pay powerful attention to two facets:

1. An easy-to-browse index.

2. A user-friendly order form.

Online catalogs are far ahead in recording and acknowledging a buyer’s total ordering mechanism, in which a prior buyer can click a single box and voile! The preferred credit card, shipping address, and other non-changing information is entered automatically. So score one for online, although some office products printed catalogs are mirroring the online procedure. (It’s about time.)

Another nod has to go to online for the ability to milk customers through apparently personalized e-mail. We’re dealing in both existent and potential superiority here, because for no logical reason the majority of online catalogs don’t use the e-mail power seething below the surface of their sites.

Being able to hold and share images for joint viewing with another family member also yields preference to the printed catalog. Online shopping would require a bookmark or a “favorite place” or staying connected. Score one for print.

Convenience? No contest, if the printed catalog has its wits about it. The recipient can study images and text at leisure with a “portable” printed catalog. So assuming the catalog isn’t deadly dull, with a no-interest cover, add another mark to the print column.

What about one-to-one, personalized communication? Online catalogs can’t be as one-to-one as printed catalogs, because their visitors have to seek them out. That doesn’t apply to post-sale e-mail, which certainly is as one-to-one as a marketer can get, short of telemarketing or personal calls. But it does apply to the exclusivity factor a mailed catalog can represent, if the cover reinforces exclusivity. Score one for print.

E-mail is the medium of the future. Nothing in a printed format can compete with the power of e-mail, provided it isn’t raw spam. Marketing guru Seth Godin’s concept of “permission marketing” is both logical and ethical. That means catalogers should invent constant incentives to generate anticipation of e-mail from either print or online catalogs that have established a relationship. Another point for online…but here we can have marvelous synergism between the two media.

Regardless of advances in computerized personalization and the inclusion of database specifics, catalogs implicitly are less personal than direct mail. As we move more elegantly into the 21st century, we should find “president’s letters” tailored to the buying patterns of prior buyers and prospect demographics. Neither medium has an edge here, although at the moment online has a better capability.

Upscale vs. bargain basement

My view is firm: The Web is price-driven. It has to be, because the very nature of its sprawling conglomeration of empires exposes the competitive raw nerve-endings of any product or service. “Bots” quickly present a plethora of prices. Why pay more when the next listing has the same brand, same quantity, or same size, for less?

Vitamins, computer software, tableware, cars, books, cameras – the giant bazaar makes it possible to price-shop, and for most armchair negotiators the experience is exhilarating. The Web is unbeatable for bargain-hunters, and it’s the wise print catalog that trods a different path.

Assuming a catalog doesn’t want to compete on that level, what is the different path? Ah, here is where “brand” can count. But it really has little to do with catalogs. Exclusivity has more to do with catalogs. Or choose the word: Status. Sophistication. Pride-associated label.

Visualize two identical men’s suits. The label in one says “Brioni.” The label in the other says “Kmart.” Is one worth more than the other? The question is implicitly naove. The Brioni label justifies a $3,000-plus price. You won’t find Brioni suits at Kmart. More to the point: You won’t find Brioni suit buyers scouting the discount suits at Kmart.

Here are two identical women’s garments. The label in one says “Escada.” The label in the other says “Target Stores.” Is one worth more than the other? Oh, you say, but (and obviously this is a “for instance”) what if, in fabric and cut, the Brioni suit is identical to its Kmart counterpart and the Escada suit is identical to one hanging on the rack at Target? The sophisticate and the pseudo-sophisticate say, “No, they’re not. They’re Brioni and Escada.”

Now, follow the trail. Would the Brioni or Escada buyer risk buying on the Web? Oh, they might not buy from a print catalog either, because the nasty word “fit” can’t be assured. But we don’t have to limit exclusivity to fitted clothing. Exclusivity, relating to a comparison between online and print catalogs, belongs to print.

Does this mean that upscale catalogs are less threatened by online competitors than downscale catalogs? I think so, but the jury not only is still out, it also hasn’t been chosen yet. Still, if mine were a bargain-based catalog, I’d stoke it up with bound-in coupons and apparent discounts and deals and twofers and time-related dollars-off, to make it more Web-resistant.

The `stick rate’ factor

What percentage of shipped merchandise is returned? Does a difference exist between print catalogs and online catalogs? Many companies that operate in both media say, “You bet there is.” Williams-Sonoma’s stock fell 39% earlier this year when it reported unexpectedly large merchandise returns from its e-commerce operation. After-the-fact analysis relates a high rate of returns to the very nature of online buying, which often is a far greater impulse decision than is true of printed catalogs.

Attitude plays a major role in accepting or returning merchandise. The Web allows far greater buyer-anonymity than a printed catalog. Note the paradox: A Web visitor has to seek out the site, while a catalog recipient is a passive receiver. So, one would conclude, an aggressive act would represent a more approving attitude toward a purchase. Sorry. That isn’t so for Web purchases. The commitment isn’t there. Even though the buyer has clicked on “Add to basket” and provided charge card information, that buyer’s posture is casual and once-removed.

A myopic peek into the future

By 2003, I predict that print catalog copy will be longer, more extensive, and more motivational. Headings that reflect only bare product names will disappear. The use of selective binding and advanced personalization will increase. Illustrations will be more pertinent. Covers will grab and shake the reader. (These predictions apply to effective print catalogs.)

Online catalogs? They’ll be the trendy medium. Once the bumps in the road have been smoothed out, they’ll become huge. Make that dominant. But with dominance comes the flood of competition, and the outrageous promotional cost of driving people to a Website will, a) eliminate the weaker competitors, and b) make database management and customer relationship management the keys to bottom-line happiness.

Talk about “no-brainer” predictions! Regardless, fascinating times are ahead.

Do you agree that technology drives catalog marketing? Or for that matter, that technology should drive catalog marketing? Do you agree that branding is the key to multichannel marketing? Do you agree that separate channels should set up separate, independent marketing plans? Do you think that the development of a new medium obsoletes all the management systems that pre-existed it? Do you agree that if you don’t go multichannel you’ll get blown out of a great puncture in the marketing wheel?

I don’t agree with any of those notions.

I’d better explain.

Technology, shmechnology

One of my strongest disagreements is with the concept that technology drives catalog marketing. Catalogs aren’t like airplanes, where without advanced technology a competitor is out of the arena.

I’m looking at a successful, old-line digest-size catalog printed in two colors on newsprint. Technology helps, and anyone who refuses technological help is a fool. But as much as computers have helped catalog writers who previously were trapped by typewriters, computers at the fingertips of semi-professionals will yield poorer dollar results than typewriters at the fingertips of professionals.

There’s that word `branding’ again.

How important is “brand” in catalog marketing? If brand were all that significant, the venerable “brands” would be running away from the pack instead of drifting back into it. The Web is price-driven. Who ever heard of the hot-selling non-brand computer e-Machines two years ago? And if branding is king, why are brand-name vitamins and supplements getting pummeled (along with brand-name prescription items) on the Web – and everywhere else – at the hands of generics whose selling point is price? Why is J.C. Penney, a brand with a 100-plus year history, lagging in all media? Why are L.L. Bean’s sales flat?

Will established and recognizable company names have an edge in generating traffic on the Internet? That hasn’t been the case so far. Barnes & Noble hasn’t come close to matching the volume of newcomer Amazon.com (and hasn’t matched the losses, either). Yes, established company names have more money to spend going in, but whether established or not, a link on AOL will outpull anybody’s recallable name.

Why have two plans?

Let’s talk planning. Should each channel be responsible for its own plan? If each plan is a stand-alone, this can lead to a “get off my turf” competition. Or worse, it can lead to corporate chaos, killing any master plan by what should have been top management but obviously isn’t.

I also don’t agree that the two selling channels require separate bookkeeping. Why? You don’t need separate bookkeeping for catalog and Web, any more than you need it for men’s and women’s apparel.

Management `eras’? Hardly

On analysis, has management really, within the past two generations, moved through three eras – “entrepreneurial management era,” 1950s-1980s; “professional management era,” 1980s+; “e-management multichannel era,” 1990s+?

I have to be in disagreement. The electronic channel is a label rather than a radical change. And this notion, that the intrusion of a new medium obsoletes all the management systems that pre-existed it, has been around for years. It stratifies, but in my opinion astute companies still are entrepreneurial, not musclebound by the MBA concept of “professional management” and no more in awe of the current buzzword “multichannel” than they were by predecessor hot terms such as “integrated database” and “situational analysis” and “CRM” and “branding.”

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