As far as Chuck Teller could tell, he was the only service provider at this month's Annual Conference for Catalog and Multichannel Merchants (ACCM) offering an iPhone application and widgets. It's plausible, at any rate -- ACCM isn't a true e-commerce conference in the manner of, say, Shop.org or eTail, and Teller, the executive director of nonprofit catalogue-regulation service Catalog Choice, notes that "historically there hasn't been a lot of innovation in the mail industry." However, as more and more consumers make the shift to electronic channels, merchants -- even catalogue merchants -- have no choice but to follow suit.
Catalogues had been considered a successful direct marketing strategy for generations, Teller says -- until about two years ago, when the cost of customer acquisition began to explode, thanks in part to the ever-rising cost of producing and delivering catalogues. Moreover, consumers have grown increasingly concerned not only about their own impact on the environment, but also about the environmental impact of the companies they do business with. In addition, the younger generations -- that is to say, future customers -- are conducting far more of their lives and transactions online than any generation before them has. The combination of factors is pushing multichannel merchants to embrace tools designed with the new "digital reality" in mind.
Direct marketing has traditionally been a one-way street, making it difficult for a merchant to know when a consumer no longer wants its catalogue. Old-school marketers, Teller says, "come from a position where it's scary to [give] the consumer the choice of opting out." What exists today is a black-and-white solution that only gives customers the option of either receiving or not receiving all mail from a particular sender. (All commercial emails, for instance, require the inclusion of an embedded opt-out link, even if it's in small, light-colored font.)
Catalog Choice gives consumers the more-nuanced option of limiting the frequency of catalogues they do want -- every other month, for example, or just during the holidays. Catalog Choice's 1.1 million customers can sign up for an account and set their catalogue preferences with more than 350 merchants and 550 titles. Consumers click on a tab that takes them to a popup page and, without disturbing the shopping experience, allows them to adjust their preferences, including how they want to be contacted and at what frequency. "It's all about customer choice," Teller says. "We're enabling consumers to make a choice about how they want to be contacted." And consumers clearly want that choice: On Earth Day, Catalog Choice saw its site traffic skyrocket to 10 times that of the day before.
At the ACCM conference, Catalog Choice announced a new set of online services that the company claims will "better connect with consumers using customized digital tools and online distribution methods." One of the new offerings is a contact-preference center that merchants can easily install as an overlay on a Web site, allowing customers to convey their individual preferences regarding marketing materials. From a technological perspective, Teller admits, the solution may not be groundbreaking, but the goal is to innovate the user experience, and to provide merchants with an expanded preference-center tool that doesn't require a massive additional investment.
For many marketers, though, customer empowerment is a difficult pill to swallow. While voluntary opt-out services exist, "it becomes pretty impractical for a mailer to look to every different service to get mail suppression information," says Hamilton Davison, executive director of the American Catalog Mailers Association (ACMA). (Incidentally, Catalog Choice purports to be the only catalogue-preference service endorsed by the ACMA, thanks to a year of advanced due diligence by catalogue executives.)
Given various levels of opting out, instead of the former all-or-nothing option, consumers now need to understand why certain materials are important, and Teller says it's the responsibility of the marketer to convey that value. "There's a need from a customer perspective for consumers to get educated by these contact methods," he says. There's customer interest in emerging channels such as Twitter, but also a lack of understanding in terms of how Twitter can aid the shopping experience.
Catalog Choice has also rolled out paperless merchandizing products in the form of widgets that consumers can place on their iGoogle pages or on social networks such as Facebook. (The company also plans to launch its own Catalog Choice platform for this function, but is in the process of acquiring a critical mass of merchant participants.) "We studied hard what [the] benefits of catalogue are," Teller explains -- and the company concluded that one of those benefits is that the catalogue enters the consumer's personal space by coming to the home. In that respect, Catalog Choice's widgets attempt to become part of the consumer's personal life online and on any Web-enabled phone. The widgets aim to provide consumers with another means of shopping, building shopping lists, and sharing with friends.
Even in light of the digital craze, Davison says he expects catalogues will endure, in part because, unlike the Internet, a paper catalogue:
- is always on (i.e., you don't have to boot it up like a computer);
- allows for quick browsing;
- is portable; and
- provides higher-quality images.
"We don't want to burden [an uninterested customer] with a catalogue," Davison says. "But there are real advantages to a catalogue that aren't easily replicated elsewhere."
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