ETN: A Catalogue of Considerations

This month, I’ve chosen to dedicate a thousand words to the wisdom of catalogue publishing versus some of the more obvious alternatives. This is a tough assignment for me. I could easily write ten thousand words on the subject, maybe even enough to leave this issue of your trusty ETN looking like a… well, you do the punchline.

Of course, the reason I’ve only got a thousand words is the same reason you should avoid catalogues: cost. Printing catalogues can be eye-wateringly expensive but if you think that’s pricey, try posting them as well. Oh, and any mistakes in production can’t be corrected, leading to costly proofing processes, significant potential for missed opportunities and little alternative but to withdraw products from sale if they’re mistakenly priced too low. Catalogues also act as a Sword of Damocles over your stockholding – if you run out of anything, customers will not take kindly to your printed promise that you have it. Basically, they’re an argument with your suppliers waiting to happen.

While none of this is new, the financial risk these days is thrown into even sharper relief by the fact that in theory at least, the digital alternative is free. Email and Social are so much more immediate and far less costly. Any page on your site can be edited every day if need be and if products do sell out, you may miss sales but you have the choice to limit the damage by suppressing any troublesome items in the meantime. Finally, a website can carry your entire range but a catalogue reduces its ROI severely when it includes much beyond your winners. All of that being the case, why on earth would anyone pay for a physical compendium?

There are some reasons. A tangible presence, ideally, with some heft to it is a good way to symbolise your credibility: “Look, we can afford to send you this charming selection of products lovingly represented on glossy 50gsm paper” you can almost hear it say. They also convey an indication of the extent of your range that any homepage will invariably struggle to match: “never mind the production quality, feel the width”.

Catalogues also invite customers to indulge in the rather old-fashioned pursuit of browsing – not just searching for the specific thing they’ve recently decided they want but actually spending time considering owning every item their eyes dance over in a more relaxed, day-dreamy state of mind. If search-based web shopping is akin to hunting for today’s meal, catalogue browsing is more like foraging for a whole winter foodstore.

Unfortunately, the binary nature of this comparison is rather ruined by the fact that these days, almost all your catalogue recipients will, having chosen the items (on paper) that they wish to order, then go online to place it, thus messing up all your nice, neat reporting structures (more about that in next month’s issue) so this is not a by-extension suggestion that paper catalogues mean you can eschew the website. The best way to think about it is this: in the days before the web, a catalogue usually represented an entire conversation with a customer; today, it’s really only there as an ice-breaker – if you go beyond the small talk, the conversation will inevitably continue online.

A catalogue therefore performs a much more specific role than it used to, which is why you’re far less likely to see your doormats groaning under the combined weight of quite so many ‘big book’ versions. To prove the rule, there are still some exceptions – Next and Argos being the most obvious examples in the ‘normal’ world.

These leviathans of a bygone age may seem a comforting reminder of constancy in an uncertain world but bear this in mind: Next have flirted with charging for their directory and are also very sophisticated at deciding which customers should (and shouldn’t) deserve to be on their ‘VIP’ list to whom free directories are sent. If you happen to find your coffee table supporting the Next directory, their hard-bound Summer Fashions volume and the extensive Next Furniture opus as well, clearly, someone in your household is spending a fortune with them.

argos-new-catalogue
Last of its kind: The day the Argos catalogue is retired is the day ‘big book’ catalogues can safely be consigned to history

Argos have made overtures about ditching their familiar brick of paper, reduced its format and pagination but even with the simplicity and impressiveness of their app, they still haven’t yet dared to shake their money-maker out of their marketing budget.

In our own little part of the ecosystem, a similar story can be told – with the added twist that there seem to be a number of what we used to call ‘trade catalogues’ somehow finding their way into consumer magazines. It’ll also be interesting to see how successfully my old friends at Krämer will utilise their legendary katalog as a means to entice British consumers to send their orders to Hockenheim.

So, are catalogues really a relic of the past or an under-rated means to stake a claim to the future? With questions like this, there’s very rarely a simple answer beyond “it depends”. Catalogues are no longer the only way to carry out distance-selling but they are capable of out-performing all other techniques in certain circumstances. For that to happen, there are lots of variables to consider, not least number of pages and number of copies.

The ‘Holy Grail’ catalogues offer is a more compelling way to start a conversation with the right people on your list. I’d argue that if you don’t know who those people are yet, you probably shouldn’t be sinking too much money into catalogues until you do.

Why? ‘The 40/40/20 Rule’ is a principle established by marketing expert Ed Mayer in the 1960s which states that 40% of the success of a marketing campaign is based on reaching the right audience, 40% on the offer you make, with only the remaining 20% based on various other factors such as its presentation and format.

Without knowing precisely what to offer, and specifically to whom, you may be consigning yourself to an expensive mistake.

  • Look out for my next column, about the downsides of marketing your offer online, in the August issue of the ETN, out August 1st.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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