Outlook 2005: Catalogs Will Play a Key Role in Multichannel Mix

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There are pundits who consider print catalogs an endangered species, but one look into the typical family mail box in the fourth quarter told us otherwise.

While online retailers continue to report impressive growth statistics, the printed catalog remains a key player in business-to-consumer and business-to-business selling. However, the catalog's role is in transition, from a hard-selling sole rainmaker to a flexible player in the multichannel marketing mix.

The reasons for and against print catalogs often are, paradoxically, two sides of the same coin. What could be perceived as a negative easily can turn to a positive by creatively focusing on the catalog's ability to influence a purchase decision in any channel.

Limited Real Estate: The space on a catalog page and the volume of any single issue are limited, both by design and production and delivery economics. But the goal of today's catalog is not to show every SKU available.

An optimal print presentation includes alternating large hero features with denser merchandising; showing enough variety to arouse interest and whet the reader's appetite for more options/models/price points/finishes - all available on a well-designed, easy-to-shop Web site.

Tactic for 2005: In addition to or instead of featuring the main online address on each spread, test providing specific Web addresses to highlight product categories. For example: "For 25 additional styles of XY brand, see www.ourwebcatalog.com/XYshop."

2D Product Presentation: Many e-commerce sites show a massive assortment of products in specific categories, with color swatches changing views in a single click. The best online apparel purveyors provide customized virtual mannequins to show off clothing in 3D on "our" shapes.

However, quality print catalogs, especially in fashion, win hands down in depicting high-resolution, true-to-life colors, so often distorted by computer screens. Catalog spreads with relevant lifestyle presentation and brand-appropriate product and sell copy form a harmonious story that inspires, entices and calls to action.

Tactics for 2005: When feasible, offer fabric/material swatches for items where color makes a difference. Also ensure that all photography and production equipment is calibrated regularly for consistent output.

Perishable Print. Most catalogs ultimately end up in the recycling bin. Before books disappear, their very portability, format and timely arrival allow flipping pages at the kitchen table, curling up on the couch to browse and visualize new looks or browsing gift options on the commuter train.

Catalogs accompany the multichannel shopper as handy references to the computer desk (even at the office) as well as on offline shopping trips. Delivered into the right hands, the catalog is the most persistent brand messenger and traffic driver of them all.

Tactic for 2005: Test sticky-note flags in print catalogs and wish-list functionality online to promote the selection of favorites, especially useful for dropping subtle hints for gift giving.

Saturated Market. Catalogs are not everyone's favorite shopping channel. But most money-spending adults long ago were included on database lists that keep getting better in helping us target relevant offers to receptive recipients. This well-established list universe allows respectable prospecting for growth.

On the Internet frontier, reliable direct response e-mail lists are still hard to come by. With spam and other e-mail nuisances increasing daily, access to inboxes (even for messages to your previous customers) cannot be taken for granted.

Though the younger demographic may be more in tune with online shopping than traditional telephone ordering, a desirable brand shown in a catalog can be their call to shopping action, online or at the mall.

Tactic for 2005: Brainstorm new angles to test for prospecting, from new lists to package inserts and more prominent gift card marketing. Benchmark the best brand marketers you experience as a consumer and business buyer.

By creatively playing up their positive attributes and fully leveraging the brand touch-point opportunities of multiple channels, catalog marketers will keep delighting their customers and thriving in an age of e-commerce, in 2005 and beyond.

Katrina Streiner is vice president of brand strategy at Ambrosi, a Chicago-based advertising and marketing services agency. E-mail her at kstreiner@ambrosi.com.

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