Catalogers Must Face Growing International Issues

It is nigh impossible to pick up a trade paper or general business journal without reading a few to a dozen or more articles about the Internet and e-commerce. This isn’t surprising, not because there is nothing else to write about, but because the impact of the Internet is so great.

In another 50 to 100 years, the world will look back on the Internet as being as influential as the movable press, greater than television, the telephone or the computer. True, it relies on these other inventions to function, but the Internet is what uses all of their individual strengths and builds something greater — especially interactivity.

One of the Internet’s biggest impacts will be the shrinking of the world into one giant marketplace. A cataloger will have customers in every corner of the world – from Europe to Asia to Latin America. The pressure to service this demand will only increase when e-commerce malls like launch regional versions of themselves in the near future, like CatalogCity Latin America or CatalogCity Japan, and start generating sales from abroad for U.S. catalog companies. Some catalogers, primarily the larger ones, are addressing — or at least attempting to address — the scramble to service international Internet and paper catalog orders.

However, for the majority of catalogers, international sales are not even considered. As an illustration, at this year’s annual Catalog Conference, the titles of 21 sessions – out of 82 total, or nearly one in four – indicate they are about the Internet and e-commerce. Yet, none will focus on international catalog marketing. As recently as a few years ago, the annual conference had a separate track on international cataloging, but no more.

Why catalogers are ignoring the international impact of the Internet is puzzling. Fortunately, not everyone is ignoring it. Governmental organizations as well as private businesses are starting to set up the infrastructures to facilitate international cataloging and direct marketing spurred on by the Internet and the potential it has spawned. These services can be divided roughly into three major areas.

Delivery of paper catalogs in a timely and accurate way. This is seen in the services being offered by the Deutsche Post and its new rival, the alliance between TPG Royal Mail (the Dutch postal service) and Singapore Post, as well as in our U.S. Postal Service through its ISAL program. A newcomer to the fray is La Poste, the French postal service.

In addition to servicing France, which is one of the world’s five largest catalog markets, La Poste has struck a deal with the Italian and Spanish postal services to create a new market for direct marketers. If this effort is successful, it will open a huge, underserved market. These three countries combined have a population of 157 million and, other than France, both Italy and Spain are almost virgin territories for cataloging of any kind. This potential market is larger than Germany and the United Kingdom combined. With the attraction of American goods in almost every part of the world, this may be a great opportunity for U.S. catalogers.

Taking the order. Most catalogers cite this as their No. 1 reason for not pursuing international sales. The need for operators who speak foreign languages is perceived as a major barrier. Most catalogers, other than very large firms, do not possess the resources, either human or financial, to service an international order-taking operation. However, in every area of the world, qualified telemarketing services are capable of taking orders for a company.

The impact of the Internet will only increase the need for every cataloger to figure out how it can accept and handle international orders. While English has become the international business language, it has not reached the consumer level – although it will during the next 20 to 30 years. Therefore, for a while it will be imperative to have the capabilities to accept orders in a customer’s language.

Delivery of the orders. This is the most complex challenge and includes how a company gets the order to the customer, the duty issues, timely delivery, customer service and returns and liquidation. Recently, several companies started to solicit U.S. firms to provide these services. Catalogers are a natural market for them, as are e-tailers.

These companies specialize in delivering packages from the United States to individuals at their residences. The cost of this service is not extravagant and is borne by the customer. In addition, the aforementioned postal services all provide package delivery service. La Poste is probably the most ambitious, as it has to work with both the Italian and Spanish postal systems, which historically have not provided a high level of service.

The bottom line is that U.S. catalogers soon will be faced with one of two choices. Either they take advantage of the prestige in which consumers around the world hold them and develop the ability to service orders and customers outside U.S. borders, or they watch e-tailers take this business from them.

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