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Mail’s multichannel power

Despite rising postage and paper costs, direct mail remains an important part of apparel marketers’ multichannel mix. Developments in variable data printing and database marketing enable these marketers to send targeted messages to their best customers that feature high-quality imagery and creative that attracts buyers.

The mail channel’s effectiveness has even led at least one “dot-com” retailer to embrace postal means as a way to reach its customers. Shop.NHL.com, the e-commerce arm of the National Hockey League that sells league- and team-related apparel, found that focusing on a good catalog experience can spur online sales. With 30 teams and a number of different apparel styles available, sifting through the Web site can be daunting for some consumers, says Joslin Warren, director of commerce and development for the company.

Catalogs are often a more compelling way to showcase apparel. “People like getting things in the mail, flipping through and seeing all the options, she explains. “Sometimes, with our site, we have an overwhelming number of products, so to be able to sift through all of them quickly and easily in a 30- to 32-page catalog is easier for consumers.”

The marketer’s catalogs are heavily customized based on information collected online, and Warren notes that customization helps draw customers in to explore fully what’s being offered — both in the catalog and online.

“[When they] get a catalog and see their team on the cover, it makes them more likely to buy,” she says. “We find the more that we customize the catalog, the more they are going to purchase.”

Shop.NHL.com isn’t the only online company that sees value in direct mail, says Mike Gatti, executive director of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, a division of the National Retail Federation. “You see a lot of pure-play online retailers advertise in print,” he notes.

The drive to reach consumers with the most relevant message possible to drive the most response for the least amount of dollars, especially given the realities of the economy, has led to even more synergy between CRM and direct mail, Gatti adds.

“The CRM program allows direct mailers to identify customers for products — it helps cut out the waste,” he says. “The tighter the economy squeezes you, the more important it is to pinpoint the best customer.”

There’s another plus for mailing with customer relationships in mind: Retailers that already have a relationship with the customer stand out in the mailbox, driving sales by reminding the customer of his or her relationship with the mailer. The NHL has seen this effect — Warner says that the company “definitely see[s] bumps in both traffic and revenue whenever we drop a catalog — it’s a way to remind customers that we are still there.”

Other types of direct mailings have this effect as well, notes Jay Suhr, SVP of creative services and account planning at agency T3, which counts JCPenney among its clients. The main thing, he reiterates, is to ensure that marketers reach consumers with the most relevant message possible, whether through postcard mailers or catalogs.

“With fewer things being mailed, postcard reminders of a special sale are great,” he says. “Invitations to special events that feel more like a personal invitation can be very strong. Anything tied to my past purchase habits is good.”

In addition to a targeting strategy employing CRM, industry stakeholders point out that it is crucial to leverage mail as part of a multichannel push involving other touchpoints, such as the Web.

Dawn Maire, managing director and chief retail officer for Rapp, whose clients include Macy’s, says that it’s important to integrate campaign messaging across different channels because consumers make purchases in a number of ways. The challenge, she says, is getting retailers that have traditionally siloed print and digital marketing to cross those borders to create the best cross-channel marketing.

“Where we’re taking our fashion retailers is integrating messaging,” she says. “If there’s a large campaign going out in mail, we’ll build a site that goes with the direct mail campaign, and we’ll make sure that the e-mails that go out as a part of that have the same look, message and offer.”

There’s nothing to lose with this approach, says Steve Kimmel, president of suit manufacturer Bagir USA, which uses direct mail in its marketing. It’s important to remember one benefit of direct mail — its staying power.

“You might find a consumer base or niche market untouched by reaching out on several levels,” Kimmel says. “Direct mail gives immediate attention to those different touchpoints by engaging consumers on a visual level in their home and office. The idea is that it has time to sit with them.”

The economy has forced marketing departments to cut budgets, and direct mail has certainly taken a large portion of that hit. However, those apparel marketers that integrate the database and online marketing sides of their businesses will continue to see success, experts say.

“I know that catalogs can definitely be an expense as postage and paper prices have increased, but targeting them the way we’re doing with the covers and getting them to our best customers really is the way to go,” says the NHL’s Warren. “We actually do want to explore doing some postcard-sized mailings, to both cut costs and reach more people.”

Old Navy’s multichannel Supermodelquins campaign was supported by direct mail efforts, including this circular, which was adapted from an in-store version by adding an additional discount offer on the back panel. Gap Inc. spokesperson Catherine Rhoades said in an e-mail to DMNews that since the campaign was launched, Old Navy has seen its target consumer participating with the brand in a number of ways, including online. “We have seen a remarkable increase in our direct relationship and dialogue with mom bloggers,” Rhoades said. “These bloggers are particularly excited about the coupons offered in our circular and direct mailers.”

The NHL continued an initiative to customize its catalog covers by customizing the inside front cover and back covers of its catalogs as well. The goal, says the hockey league’s Warren, is to reach its audience of consumers displaced from their favorite teams’ hometown. “When we started, we had five teams — now we have 10,” she notes.

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