Putting the E in E-Catalog

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Looking through the schedule for this week's catalog conference, you'll notice a concentration on e-commerce. Like that's anything new. Electronic marketing has been a key topic at the catalog show over the last decade, though clearly the meaning has changed in recent years.

Consider this from DM News' coverage of the 1989 conference: Disturbing to many in the audience were remarks by Stanley Marcus, former chairman of Neiman Marcus, who said customer loyalty is diminishing, service is slipping and the marketplace is oversaturated with companies all selling the same merchandise. The only foreseeable solution is electronic marketing. Electronic marketing presents catalogers with the opportunity to retain unique identities. Marcus suggested that catalog firms learn lessons from supermarkets regarding effective use of bar coding for marketing purposes. In his opinion, grocers are leading the electronic revolution.

A few years later, the Internet had taken over and sent marketers in another direction, as evidenced by our 1995 show coverage: "The new media provides us an opportunity to reach what some are calling the largest potential market in history," said then-DMA president Jonah Gitlitz, who was more restrained about the wonder of cyberspace than at previous conferences. "But we need to keep it in perspective. It will not replace our existing media -- anymore than television replaced magazines."

These days, not a week goes by without a cataloger announcing some online initiative, but there's still much to be learned as they adapt to this new landscape. They're headed online with aspirations of hitting it rich and rebuilding languishing stock prices, but many only did the basics -- they simply put their catalogs online and ignored the Internet's biggest draw: its interactive element. Lands' End got it right, letting you click and change that blue Oxford shirt with French cuffs into a red one with short sleeves. It takes testing and a lot of work, something DMers learned a long time ago, but eventually they'll get it right.

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