Sears Joins Online Catalog Movement

Sears has added an electronic commerce presence with the launches of its Wish Book toy catalog Web site and Craftsman tools shopping page. But as more catalogers scramble to hone their sites, offering a mere presence may not be enough.

This past summer, Sears, Roebuck and Co., Hoffman Estates, IL, established a direct division and a Web site (, but until the rollout of and the Craftsman page last month consumers were unable to purchase items online, putting the retail giant in a distinct minority. According to a new study by W.A. Dean & Associates, San Francisco, seven out of 10 catalogers now maintain a Web presence, 73 percent of those have e-commerce capabilities and 69 percent offer their entire catalog online.

The Wish Book site offers more than 2,300 toys and gifts, or a little better than half the products available in its paper catalog. The Wish Book is accessible from and is being marketed at other sites, including a planned link at that should be up by Thanksgiving.

Sears, which plans to examine more online opportunities to bolster its shop-at-home business, chose to launch with its most well-known brands, Craftsman and the Wish Book. Sears is counting on customers' knowledge and trust of these brands to overcome any reservations about shopping online. The use of the branded Sears charge card for purchases also should ease the transition to e-commerce.

“We hope to generate incremental sales from putting Wish Book online because of the convenience it affords customers,'' said spokeswoman Paula Davis. “E-commerce holds great opportunities for marketing products and selling them.''

What it lacks in product depth, the online version of the Wish Book makes up for with additional services. For shoppers in a hurry, the home page links to sections on the season's hot items, collectibles and special values. The gift reminder section lets customers develop a personalized calendar of events with e-mail date reminders, and the wish list area allows children to create a gift list that can be printed out or e-mailed to friends and relatives.

E-mail marketing is catching on among consumer catalogers, with 61 percent having tried it and 40 percent now using it on a regular basis, according to the Dean study. Eighty-two percent of those with a Web site now see it as a major profit center, and a number of catalogers have the ability to track whether sales come from their online or paper catalogs.

The growth of the Web has caused catalogers to post more ambitious goals for their online business. In the Dean annual survey, 92 percent of those with Web sites said driving catalog requests was the main reason for an online presence. In its latest e-commerce study, 95 percent said better customer service was a reason for being online, 92 percent said they needed to keep pace with competitors, while 85 percent use the Web to increase brand awareness.

“The whole dynamic is changing,” said Dean research director Richard Fazekas. “[Catalogers] are looking at it now as a great potential for profit.”

The study found that 68 percent of catalogers are seeing profits from their online business or expect to see profits by the end of the fiscal year. By 2001, 61 percent of respondents expect e-commerce will account for at least 10 percent of sales.

So which catalog sites do it best? E-commerce research firm eMarketer ranked Eddie Bauer tops in a recent appraisal of more than 100 online catalog sites. Sites were evaluated over a three-month period by product selection, price, service, ease of use, site presentation and added features. Traffic and sales, however, did not figure in the rankings.

The rankings were intended to identify the catalogs that have best made the transition from a paper to online version. Rounding out eMarketer's top 10 are L.L. Bean, Land's End, Levenger, Orvis, J. Crew, REI, Crutchfield, Harry & David and Brooks Brothers.

“Catalogers are reaching a whole new demographic by getting online and getting to younger, slightly more affluent people,” said eMarketer analyst Jonathan Jackson. “Companies that have had catalogs for 50-odd years understand all the nuances of direct marketing, and a lot of that is applicable to online commerce.”

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