Link Tactics Across Selling Channels

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When I began the e-tailing group in 1994, I believed then and I feel even more strongly now that catalogers have always had the upper hand with regard to selling online.


Recent research from BCG/Shop.org reinforced that notion, reporting that 72 percent of catalogers versus 43 percent of store-based retailers and 27 percent of Web-based retailers are profitable at the operating level.


Successful catalogers have long understood that selling direct requires a complete solution, with front-end visual branding and merchandising as key aspects of their business and back-end operations and fulfillment capabilities also playing vital roles.


As customer behavior is difficult to change and each channel brings inherent efficiencies and weaknesses, taking advantage of each channel's strength will best serve the merchant as well as the customer. A look at the tactics that catalogers can employ along with innovative merchandising techniques that best serve today's cross-channel shopper effectively will illustrate the real opportunity. Statistics from two proprietary studies conducted by the e-tailing group showcase the implementation factor of highlighted examples across significant merchant samples.


Attract attention offline, drive customer traffic online. Online retailers and traditional catalogers have leveraged their most valuable asset, the catalog mailing, to drive traffic. As the online world can only deliver limited eyeballs to a merchant's site, it is important to remind shoppers to visit. More often than not, you see a merchant's Web address featured in the same fashion as its toll-free number. Beyond just reinforcing a merchant's Web location, it should take advantage of frequent mailings to showcase special promotions such as free shipping on orders before a particular date, highlighting of a new product line or launch, or simple reinforcement of a brand image to keep a merchant top of mind.


Browse offline, buy online. If consumers are already frequent shoppers of a particular catalog, they know the catalog layout and its product offerings and can quickly make their selections offline. As the Web is browser-challenged, shoppers often choose to browse catalogs at home, subsequently using a site's quick-shop feature as more of an electronic order form.


I was reminded of just this feature on the back page of a recent fall catalog from Crate & Barrel. Eighty-eight percent of the catalog sites we previewed in our "2Q01 Merchandising Study" made this available, which certainly speaks to its prevalence online.


This allows shoppers to enter a unique item number online, though ideally the ability to enter multiple product SKU numbers at one time further adds to the efficiency. By going online, they can then save even more time while simultaneously gaining access to features not typically available via the print catalog, such as real-time inventory and order status, two staples of today's best-of-breed merchants. The study found that 66 percent of the 50 sites surveyed had real-time notification, and the ability to check the status of an order could be found on 84 percent of the sites.


Deliver consistent and unique promotions across all channels.One frustration I have found recently in attempting to shop online is that there are inconsistencies across channels. For example, as I was shopping for a wedding gift at a popular retail and catalog home specialty merchant, I found that prices and product offerings were inconsistent across channels. As a former merchant, I can certainly appreciate the need to select products based on both channel and region. However, it is frustrating as a consumer to be forced to price shop between a merchant's Web and retail store to ensure that I receive the best price on my gift purchase. This will no doubt continue to be a challenge for merchants, but one that can be a deal breaker in consumers' loyalty to shop a particular merchant.


Bring consistent merchandising across all channels. The Web enables functionality that was not possible or cost-effectively delivered via the catalog channel. Optimally, once technology has been deployed for a Web initiative, the ability for shoppers to use that functionality for all of their purchases can be of great value. Lands' End features a number of shopper tools such as My Virtual Model and Swimsuit Finder, which assists shoppers in determining their correct size or best fit for a particular body type. This information can be stored on a per-customer basis for use when purchasing via catalog or online. It certainly pays off, as the merchant can limit its returns in a category where those rates are significant, while a shopper is assured of making a better choice on her first trip.


Product comparison tools are a perfect example of where the Web shines as well. In selling consumer electronics or computer products that are feature-intensive, the ability to compare products across brands is powerful for consumers. When consumers receive mailings, you often see that comparison chart highlighted for previewing before driving the shopper online to make the final purchase with a more robust online engine.


Merchants invest much time and manpower to create seasonal promotions that resonate with their shoppers. They can be done on site and via e-mail for a unified consumer selling proposition. We have seen a number of the smarter players sending postcard or teaser mailings to highlight just such promotions. Shoppers are empowered to shop online or offline, but the message and power of the brand is effectively reinforced under this consistency theory.


Highlight offline vehicles through online means. Using e-mail to announce a new catalog and offering the option to request or preview a catalog online are both wise strategies for any cataloger. Over time, merchants will learn the most cost-effective ways to acquire new customers. As e-mail promotions are enjoying substantially higher conversion rates than on-site customer visits, the use of such vehicles offers abundant opportunities to promote visits to the print catalog or retail stores as well.


Similar to catalogers that often highlight the store nearest you on their back covers, catalogers such as J. Jill or J.Crew that also have retail channels can announce locations to online customers within a desired proximity. All of the sites we surveyed with retail outlets offered store locators.


Enable best-of-breed customer service for all channels. Through the development of comprehensive customer service, online shoppers are given one-stop information destinations to service all of their potential customer service needs. Though there can be substantial investments in the early stages, the efficiencies across channels for consumers will be well worth the upfront investment. Fifteen percent of the sites we surveyed incorporate online return forms. This capability can be found at CDW and Dell.


Catalogers have long known that the greatest number of calls a merchant receives are between the time an order is placed and the receipt of the product, with interim communication playing a critical role in reducing call volume and its corresponding costs. Ninety-four percent of the sites surveyed have a real-time confirmation of a customer's order, and 88 percent of the sites confirm their order by e-mail. Sixty-seven percent of merchants notify shoppers that the merchandise is on the way.


Wise merchants know that the real opportune component of these frequent communications is the ability to merchandise on-site promotions, upsell hot products or introduce new features and functionality recently made available on the site.


A consistent, comprehensive strategy delivers. You can certainly conclude that catalogers have many opportunities to market their brands via on-site and offline strategies. Through comprehensive strategies that use all channels for their perceived strengths, catalogers have an opportunity to best serve their shoppers. A consistent merchandising strategy that is feature-centric and one that also can be applied across all channels will deliver the goods for both merchants and shoppers in today's time-strapped, multichannel world.


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