Exec Rejects Internet 'Truism' for Catalogs

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Rebecca Ackerman dealt with what she called "a largely accepted truism" yesterday at The Annual Catalog Conference at the Moscone Center here.

" 'An Internet customer costs less,' and I've never seen that actually proven," said the vice president of marketing at The Company Store Group, a division of Hanover Direct, Weehawken, NJ. "You have to maintain the Web site, which we don't find to be inexpensive. You do send e-mails ... but many people are paying to send them also. You still have to process the order just as you would if it came over the phone.

"We're continuing to get the same number of customer service calls, regardless of an increase in the number of orders that come in through the Internet," she said. "If the customer is unhappy, they're still going to pick up the phone and call. And we need to have the resources there available for them. And we'll probably send them a catalog. For catalog companies, the catalog is a big expense."

Ackerman then asked attendees about the alternative: If someone doesn't call, what is the opportunity cost? She addressed the possibility of calls creating positive personal connections.

"Some of us worry about our customer service staff and how positive an experience that is," she said.

Greater customer satisfaction also was discussed.

"Some people are much happier to hear a person say, 'Yep, it's going to go out Express today,' " she said. "If you have run out of a piece of merchandise and [your site] says, 'Sorry, we're out of it,' the Web site with some exceptions … is not able to suggest appropriate replacements. A customer service rep may be much more prepared to do that."

Ackerman cited supporting statistics:

* 50 percent to 60 percent of customers report shopping online with a catalog in hand.

* About 80 percent of customers report being driven to the Web site to purchase by a catalog they received.

"This is a big area of concern," she said. "It's not clear that you can stop mailing catalogs and continue to get the same kind of business on the Internet. In order to do that, we need to make multichannel more economic."

Ackerman described things that her organization is testing to reduce catalog costs. They include fewer contacts and fewer pages, as well as non-catalog contacts such as postcards and letters. Initial tests reveal that success has not been realized regarding fewer pages, she said.

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