Converting E-Catalog Requests to Sales

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While the Internet is an ideal medium for catalog sales, some consumers will always prefer direct mail and are hesitant to place orders online for merchandise. Even many would-be Internet shoppers still prefer ordering a free catalog first to get a better understanding of what the merchant has to offer before placing an order - be it online or off.


As a result, while selling is naturally the primary focus of any e-commerce site, lead acquisition should be part of every cataloger's Internet strategy.


Lead generation poses two challenges. First, offering a free catalog and paying for the lead and other costs associated with printing and mailing can be expensive. Second, Internet catalog-request programs are fairly uncharted waters. But like any other high-risk opportunity, the rewards can be gratifying.


Lead-generation is only one piece of the conversion-to-sale puzzle. The second piece is fulfillment and follow up.


Often, catalogers take the back-end process of data collection, shipping and follow-up far too lightly. For an online catalog request program, fulfillment can mean the difference between a complete flop and an overwhelming success.


To make your request fulfillment successful, follow these three rules:


• Automation. Transfer data electronically in an form that is easy to download. We're heading into the next millennium and re-keying leads into prospect databases should be gone forever.


• Speed. Once the lead comes in, ship the catalog!Don't wait for a certain quantity of leads to accumulate. Internet shoppers want their merchandise yesterday, so every day that goes by without mailing is an opportunity lost.


• Promotion. A $10 coupon or a gift never hurt anybody. Offer discount coupons to ride along with your catalog.


There are options to fulfilling catalog requests for merchants who don't have resources to do the job. Quik-Pak Inc., Indianapolis, is a common choice for catalogers looking to outsource catalog request fulfillment. Another is Fulfillment Specialties Inc., Portland, OR. Pricing is usually based on volume, so as you ship more catalogs your costs will decline.


Also, electronic catalogs could be the new medium for fulfilling an online lead. Remember, they requested your catalog on the Internet. Why not give them what they want cheaper, faster and through the same medium in which they contacted you?


If you have the e-mail address along with the mailing address, you can hit them with a one-two punch. As you mail the catalog, e-mail the consumer a printable online coupon. Retain e-mail addresses and keep consumers abreast of any clearance, promotion or new merchandise you may be looking to push.


Be careful though. Online privacy is an enormous consumer concern so make sure consumers opt in to such e-mail offers.


Among catalogers' options for acquiring leads online are service providers such as CatalogLink (www.cataloglink.com), CatalogSite (www.catalogsite.com) and Freeshop Online (www.freeshop.com). They usually require no long-term commitment and charge on a per-lead basis.


The nature of online catalog marketing will continue to evolve. Right now, online sales are a small portion of most catalogers revenue, so it will take some time to sort out. No one can predict the effect the Internet will have on direct mail and lead generation.


One thing is sure. Catalogers cannot afford to ignore online lead generation.
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