Archive: The World of the Smaller Catalogues

First published on 7th February 2013 on www.robinsonsequestrian.com

As HMV, Blockbusters, Jessops and many others have found recently, if something can be downloaded these days, there’s far less demand for the physical version of it. While we’ve certainly noticed that we don’t sell the same proportion of books and DVDs that we used to, thankfully, most of our range needs to be a physical item because riding and horse-owning are physical activities – although I’m sure that if anyone was able to perfect a way of downloading a way to a groomed horse or a mucked-out stable, they’d never have to worry about money again!

On the one hand, we’re thankful that we’re not in an industry that is so vulnerable to digital alternatives but on the other, it’s a mistake to think that we’re not in any way affected by the changes to the way that the public consumes information digitally. Take for instance the case of the humble catalogue. Like most companies that were working in ‘mail order’ before the World Wide Web was even a glint in Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, the catalogue still holds a special place in our hearts.

Catalogues gave us the opportunity to find new customers, to try new things – to become the business that we are today. We’re so proud of our roots and the progress we’ve made since then that any visitor to our admin offices today will find our staircase adorned by pictures of every main catalogue we’ve ever produced.

Catalogues on Stairway

On the other hand, catalogues are incredibly time-consuming to produce, eye-wateringly expensive to print and post, they’re always one mistaken detail or broken supplier promise away from making us look like liars or idiots for months on end – and many people would say they’re not particularly environmentally responsible.

As much as we’re proud of our catalogue heritage, only a misty-eyed nostalgic would claim that catalogues don’t have their difficulties. Certainly, there have been many times over the years when looming deadlines or unreliable technology have raised our stress levels and we’ve had to console ourselves with the thought that ‘if it was easy to do this, everyone would be doing it’.

In rather a sharp twist of irony, the arrival of the internet as a shopping medium has all but proved that old throwaway line. Distance selling online is now much easier (and cheaper) for small traders than paper and, guess what? these days, it often does seem like ‘everyone’ is now selling equestrian products online. The battleground for us to compete for your affections these days is, it seems, not in the letter-box any more but in the virtual world.

In the 29 years we’ve been producing brochures and catalogues, we’ve seen the number of other companies doing the same thing go from two or three in the 80s to perhaps twenty or so ten years ago and back to two or three again today. It’s even conceivable that there will be no other equestrian-specific paper catalogue worthy of the name by this time next year. We won’t know until then but the fact that it’s even possible is astounding enough.

This puts us in a tricky position. We know that when we launch a catalogue, sales go up sharply. Would all of these sales still happen if we suddenly stopped putting ink on paper? We’d rather not find out if that’s the case by just trying it, in case it proves to be a big mistake. There’s also the question of catalogue size to consider. It’s great to be able to produce over 200 pages of products and, in doing so, show off the breadth of our product range simply by inviting customers to ‘feel the width’ (which is something that websites still struggle to convey). This is all well and good but at 200+ pages, many of them will contain the same popular-yet-unchanging products that we’ve printed ten or twenty times or more. Should we really worry that you might think that we don’t sell ‘old favourites’ in products like haynets or water buckets or grooming kits if we don’t keep showing you that we do?

Last October, I decided to put a question to the thousands of people who Like our Facebook Page. I created a poll called “What Form Should the Robinsons Spring 2013 Catalogue take?” and gave a choice of three answers:

  • ‘The Same as Usual: A4, about 150 pages, a full selection of Spring stuff’
  • ‘Just new stuff and good ideas – I expect you to still offer everything else’
  • ‘You know what? I don’t even need a catalogue these days. I’d still order!’

FB Poll Screenshot

At the time that I write this, it has elicited 72 responses:

  • 32 people (44%) chose answer ‘a’: keep the status quo.
  • 35 (49%) went for ‘b’: a version with fewer pages and a smaller range in print
  • Just 5 (7%) plumped for ‘c’: the paperless option – no catalogue at all.

While I’d like to thank those 72 people for their help, we have to be a little careful here – it’s not what a market researcher would call ‘scientific’ but it’s interesting, all the same. It proves nothing but it does lend support to the theory that we could significantly cut down on the amount of paper we produce without adversely affecting our ability to tell you what great products we can offer you.

We know what proportion of our orders are placed via our website but we have to be a little careful not to presume that all those orders were only brought about by the website, not the catalogue. In short, we don’t want to take for granted that you will order from us even if we don’t send you a catalogue. Why should you? It’s our job to entice you to order and if we don’t do that bit properly, why should we expect you to order at all? To inform our view, we’ve looked at what’s happening with paper in other industries and other markets.

Catalogue companies like Joe Brown’s and M&M Sports have dabbled in smaller, thinner catalogues. We may not know what those exercises have proved to them but the fact they’re even doing it indicates that they’re at the same crossroads that we are. Where the old-fashioned ‘big books’ still exist, they appear more likely to come with a price, albeit a nominal price and I even heard a rumour (and it’s only that so don’t quote me) that Argos may be getting away from 1,000+ pages, in favour of developing their very impressive smartphone app further. If that does happen, it’ll surely be another nail in the coffin of the old-style ‘doorstep’ catalogue. So, against all this background – and more besides, we’ve decided to keep in step with innovation and produce a smaller, slimmer Spring/Summer catalogue (see below).

It’s probably only a matter of time before we decide to do the same with its bigger sibling, the Autumn/Winter catalogue. Some may suggest that we’re even seeing the beginning of the end of paper catalogues as a means of customer communication. I’m not sure about that; there were many similar predictions about the impending demise of paper around the time of the ill-fated ‘dot-com boom’ nearly fifteen years ago. Just like the famous old Mark Twain quote, it turned out that rumours of the catalogue’s death were ‘greatly exaggerated’, the lesson being that just because someone has said that something is on the way out, it doesn’t mean that they’re right. It’s a good thing to remember but at the same time, let’s not forget that nothing lasts forever. Mark Twain did eventually die, so you could say that those ‘exaggerated’ rumours, although inaccurate at the time, would come true sooner or later…

SS12 OFC
Thanks for reading, as ever!

Paul

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