You Have a Choice: Death or Catalog.com

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When someone has a loaded shotgun pointed at your forehead it's not the time for subtlety. And this is exactly the kind of situation facing catalog marketers who have not yet embraced e-commerce.


The time for theorizing is over. It's either catalog.com or die.


The truth is that while some enlightened catalogers have moved aggressively onto the Web, others, who should have known better, have yet to embrace the e.future. Remember, it was they who transformed the retailing landscape in the first place. By revolutionizing the "All in the comfort of your own home" mode of buying goods, catalog marketers delivered a new level of convenience and control to the shopping experience. Catalogers also succeeded in creating the focused brand appeal of a specialty retailer.


Well, the Internet takes this concept to a new level, giving marketers a truly unique opportunity to build a much more complete relationship with customers than they could have ever hoped to accomplish using the mailbox. A much more complete relationship.


Spend five minutes over someone's shoulder shopping online and you'll know why catalogs can no longer afford to pay lip service to the future. Watch someone browsing through eddiebauer.com and you'll see the future of shopping. Or take a look at someone logging on to jcrew.com to see the potential of e-commerce.


No traditional printed catalog can compete with a well-thought-out and executed Web experience in terms of product information, service and, perhaps most important of all, entertainment.


That's right, entertainment. With an increasing lack of product differentiation -- with information more widely available than ever before and with high quality customer service easily attained by virtually any e-commerce business willing to invest in the required software -- Web marketers will need to embrace and integrate entertainment into the mix as a way to involve consumers and bring them back again and again.


Amazon.com -- not a cataloger, but definitely a Web merchandising leader --integrates service and entertainment on its site with title suggestions customized for customers and with the chance to post personal book reviews.


Eddie Bauer provides a virtual dressing room online, where customers can try various combinations of clothing and even accessories before purchasing.


Victoria's Secret does it with sex. Increasingly, too, smart catalogers are using dynamic, data-driven sites to personalize the shopping experience, thus making it more unlikely that the consumer will go off to the competition. It's no different than a restaurant maitre 'd who welcomes you back by name.


Personalization, information, service and entertainment, all coupled with the ability to shop at 2 a.m. in your underwear. So what else is there? Price!


Here too, catalogers will have to adjust to a new reality. The days of sellers and manufacturers establishing price may well be numbered. With the Web, we're seeing a return to the days when barter and bargaining ruled the marketplace. How else would you describe the success of priceline.com, ebay and their inevitable imitators?


Smart online marketers like J. Crew and Tweeds now present weekly specials -- current in-stock items at attractive reductions in price. There's no longer a need for a clearance catalog after the season. In some cases you can request advance e-mail notification of sales or specials.


For the catalogers with a strong brand meaning -- those who have invested in building a clearly defined brand world -- the Web offers a way to amplify that focus and build a much stronger emotional bond with a consumer than can ever be established within the confines of the printed page.


Conversely, those who have never really invested in building a brand, and instead have offered merely a consistent merchandising focus, are the ones at a distinct disadvantage. In this new world, it's the customer who decides -- as Microsoft says -- where they want to go today.


Does the new Web world signal the end of the traditional catalog? For some it will. However, for strong brands and smart companies, it is a new powerful tool that can solidify a brand's relationship with a new generation of consumers. Now, Pottery Barn customers can browse at their leisure, see what's new and different while on the train to work, and can preview how something may look in their living room before they buy it.


It's clear that the future of cataloging, as well as retailing, will be defined by e.commerce. And any cataloger who still feels they can avoid jumping in with both feet is a leading candidate for the "Ostrich of the Year" Award.


Brett Shevack is CEO of Partners & Shevack/Wolf, New York, a unit of Wolf Group Integrated Communications, Toronto, Canada.
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