Internet Helps Catalogers Customize

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It's difficult not to get caught up in the excitement of dot-com as we see fortunes being made from where once there were none. It's the classic American dream unfolding before us, and having a hand in that success inspires a surge of new creativity.


I have done several presentations on catalog creative at our industry conferences, and, frankly, it's tough trying to come up with new ideas and unique creative twists to make the presentations exciting. It's all been done before. We just apply the same rules to a different market or different product line. Having a new medium to play with is a welcome relief for my creative juices, but it hasn't been easy.


As we sat around the conference room table, brainstorming ideas for our Internet site, so often I heard "This is not a catalog, this is the Internet" or "You've got to change your thinking, get out of print!" It was difficult at first to understand the subtle differences of the Internet shopper vs. the catalog customer. I continue to learn everyday how to improve the presentations on the Net, and interestingly enough, it's opened a door to new ideas for the print catalog, too.


As we learn more about our online buyers, we can start to apply this knowledge to the print catalog. The greatest luxury of the Net is learning an individual's behavior - not just what they buy, but where they explore, how long they stay, where they pause, when they lose interest and leave. In print, we learn only from those who buy. On the Internet, anyone who enters - buyers or browsers - teaches us something new.


So how do we take that knowledge and apply it to print? Can we make our catalogs better from what we learn of the cyber-shopper? Certainly we can. This new knowledge (data collected from your Web-site visitors), applied to your print catalog, will strengthen the power of your core business. Let's face it: While the Internet may be the fastest growing segment of many catalog company sales, it still represents a small portion of the business - somewhere between 5 percent to 10 percent.


If nothing else, the Internet shows us the power of "one-to-one marketing." While debates about privacy continue, customers still show us that they take advantage of customizing their Web site visits to accommodate their own personal likes. They respond to efforts made to create a "one-to-one" experience. While we economically cannot send each customer her very own catalog, we can move in that direction with little additional cost.


Cover imagery. Taking your catalog to a "one-to-one" perspective requires a slightly different approach and some extra thought on both the marketing and creative sides. Marketing has to have the ability to segment the customer file, not only by RFM (Recency-Frequency-Monetary) but by historical purchase behavior as well. This knowledge allows identifying one kind of buyer from another - for example, separating the gardener from the home decorator.


The creative crew has to be prepared to do extra versions of the catalog. This needs to be planned up front, budgets determined and schedules adjusted. It doesn't, however, take a lot of effort or money to accomplish. The degree to which you want to personalize determines the amount of work and dollars involved.


As you begin to look at ways you can dissect your house file, ideas will begin to form. The cover design can change to appeal to the different customer types. For example, a customer with demonstrated history of buying gardening supplies would receive a catalog with plants, pots and trellises on the cover. The home decorators would receive a catalog with a furnished bedroom set complete with linens, curtains and rugs. Tests we've done demonstrate that targeted covers such as these can lift certain file segments by a significant amount, easily offsetting the additional cost for the four-color plate changes.


Ink jet messaging. Ink jet technology has been available to catalogers for some time and regrettably most of us do not take advantage of it. The power of this medium is impressive. Credit has to go to the many printers in our industry who continue to develop the back-end technology that provides this powerful tool for direct marketers. Years ago we used ink jet addressing to replace costly mail labels. Now we can hit the front cover, order form, and a variety of inside pages with targeted messaging - and all at the same time! We can do so much more than just a customer number or source code next to the addressing area. The quality of the ink jet has greatly improved as well. We now have available to us a variety of point sizes, fonts, type styles, graphics and color choices.


An impressive application was done by the Spring Hill catalog's Spring 1999 edition. It's obvious that a lot of thought and effort went into the use and application of this personalization project. It took the concerted effort of marketing and merchants, as well as creative for the successful execution. They took it several steps further than the traditional ways we all do ink jet. They personalized more than 20 different locations on five pages of their book. In addition to using the customer's name, they took advantage of other demographic data, such as the customer's city or town.


The catalog's title, presented in a bold-face headline font, is the first to grab my attention: "The Giesmann Garden Book." Throughout the personalized pages, products are given reference to the town I live in: "Suggestions for Plants Ideal for Madison County, Virginia" with 4 plants listed, including page references so I can find them easily. On the back cover is another headline "A Special Gardening Idea for Jean Giesmann" followed by a subhead: "Enjoy Care-free Beauty Year After Year in Your Madison Garden." Very impressive use of the technology available. I'm sure it made quite a hit with their customers.


Product testing and expansion. The Internet affords us the opportunity to pretest products for fewer dollars than putting it into print. Costs for separations, ink and paper go away. This is a great way to try out those products you're just not sure how customers will respond. If you're into dry testing, your Web site is a perfect medium to do this. It can also be positioned as an opportunity for the customer to take part in product development. You can immediately glean useful information while at the same time giving your customers a concrete example that you value their opinion. Theoretically, this should minimize the risk of putting untried products in print and indirectly contribute to the profitability of your catalog.


For the most part, what sells in the catalog will sell on the Internet. However, we are discovering that some product categories do better on the Internet than in print and vise versa. As a result, we may choose to offer abbreviated selections in the catalog with more breadth and depth on the Web site, allowing more room to expand in those categories that do better in print.


A common problem I've seen with catalog companies developing their Internet sites is keeping their brand identity consistent across the two channels. Typically, the birth of the site is given to an outside resource who isn't familiar with the customer, product selection or creative strategy that has been established over the years. Even if brought in-house, this can still happen if the team is working too independently from the marketing and creative departments.


Our Web sites can benefit from our experience as print catalogers, too. We all know how a strong cover can lift response rates. That first impression will decide the fate of a catalog, whether it ends up by the phone or in the trash can. The same is true of Web sites. That first screen has to intrigue and invite the browser to stay. Look at the statistics of visits that exit within seconds of entering your site and never go beyond the first screen. Your creative team should work at keeping those exits to a minimum.


The lesson we've learned here is an old rule in cataloging: Give your customers what they want. The Internet provides a powerful tool for learning more about our customers' likes and dislikes. Look at the river of data pouring out of your Web site and learn from it to build a better catalog.


Jean Giesmann is creative director at Plow & Hearth Inc., Madison, VA, a subsidiary of 1.800Flowers.com.
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