Pier 1 Brings Print Mailer's Browsing Advantages Online

Home furnishings chain Pier 1 Imports Inc. has become one of the pioneering retailers to reproduce its hard-copy mailer online and empower it with e-commerce functionality.

The move on the home page of pier1.com is part of a trend by companies to accommodate online shoppers more comfortable with a print layout.

“What sites have found is that there is a shopping behavior [that] may be more of a female demographic, who tend to a linear browsing shopping mentality, especially when you're giving gifts,” said Paul Cimino, chief operating officer at Rich FX Inc., a New York online visual merchandising service. “When you think of the structure of the Web site — with buttons across the top, search buttons on the left and categories down the side — it does not lend itself to browsing.”

Reproduced online by Rich FX, the Pier 1 mailer aims to capture this page-turning behavior as part of a trial by the Fort Worth, TX, retailer for the holidays. The online mailer is a replica of a holiday insert in newspapers nationwide.

Identical to the hard copy, the Pier 1 mailer allows for browsing by pointing the cursor to the dog-ears at the corner of the page. Buttons on the left also allow navigation between pages as well as double-spread or close-up views. Clicking on an item yields description, price, SKU number and a field for quantity. Adding an item to the shopping cart takes the user to checkout.

The mailer is distinct from the rest of the store on pier1.com.

For Pier 1, this is another step to add a direct marketing component to its retail business besides its site, inserts and some direct mail. The company has no catalog, but advertises on television and print.

Though Pier 1 is among the first to e-commerce-enable its mailers, many retailers are getting more adventurous with their catalogs. Newport News, Coach, Brookstone and Franklin Covey now e-mail online reproductions of their physical copies.

“I think the most obvious benefit that people see is they spend a large amount of capital on direct media, which tends to have a relatively short lifespan, and because of its logistics of physically mailing it or stuffing it into newspapers, they see a way to distribute it wider and in a cheaper, cost-effective manner,” Cimino said.

Newport News' online catalog is a Flash-rendered file that is put into an HTML e-mail. When recipients open the e-mail, they see the cover of the catalog with three direct links to products within the catalog that Newport News is promoting.

“Another great benefit is for customer acquisition,” said Cecilia Pagkalinawan, vice president of strategic development at Rich FX. “There is a mail-to-a-friend link at the bottom that allows the consumer to share the catalog. The real benefit is that it allows Newport News to be at the desktop of additional customers they may not previously have had. In this case, relational opt-in is what is happening. Obviously, the biggest problem now is getting consumers to opt in.”

If consumers have opted not to receive HTML e-mails, the sent catalog automatically includes hyperlinks that jump into a section of the site.

The technology for Newport News is used by Coach and Franklin Covey, backed by Rich FX's technology.

Brookstone is another in this vanguard. It uses RealRead Inc.'s online document browsing technology to create an online version of its 68-page holiday catalog for e-mailing to prospects.

In a way, retailers are borrowing from magazine and book publishers. They were among the first to dabble in reproducing offline material online with much of the same look and feel. RealRead, for instance, has 50 publisher companies, including Random House and Scholastic.

NewsStand is another e-commerce technology company that formats print media over the Internet. The company allows PC downloads of replicas of publications like The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, International Herald Tribune, Barron's, The Australian, China Daily and The Scotsman. Subscribers pay for the privilege.

The idea of reproducing catalogs, circulars or mailers online is not new and is rampant across major retail sites. But almost all of them were just good for browsing, not transacting. There was insufficient technology in the mid-1990s to accommodate huge file sizes, rich media or linking the marketing material to the shopping cart and checkout process.

That is changing via efforts like Pier 1. A tough economy is forcing retailers to seek ways to bump up incremental revenue. Mailers and circulars online seek to appeal to those predisposed to browsing by page. E-mailing catalogs cuts list rental, paper, printing and postage costs, especially if sent to a slice of the database that does not shop much with the brand.

“With this technology it allows the marketing executives to communicate their brand exactly as they've intended, especially luxury and high-end retailers who value branding as much as selling and have less concerns for the sales-per-square-inch factor,” Pagkalinawan said.

While not replacing print catalogs, online replicas to low-frequency customers with e-mail addresses are ideal as a test to see whether they stir a desire to buy more.

Still, optimizing traditional direct marketing material on the Internet also is an indication that the era of killer applications online is losing steam.

“Web sites are starting to even out as far as the yield they can get from their advertising, from driving traffic from banners and basket conversion rates,” Cimino said. “While volume is growing, the efficiency of the Web site might not be growing.”

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