Don't Trash That Catalog Just Yet

The death of the glossy catalog once seemed inevitable as high-speed access to interactive, personalized, real-time product information and pricing became a reality on the Web. Yet the seasonal mailbox-glutting rituals continue, and new data from a United States Postal Service/comScore study helps explain why. The study results indicate that even for companies with heavy online sales, a low-tech paper catalog still drives greater interest and share-of-wallet. ComScore tracked more than 6,400 retail Web-site visits carried out by its online survey panel. During the study, which covered 40 retail sites tracked by comScore, just 22 percent of shoppers said they had received a catalog from the merchant. However, those customers accounted for more than one third of the dollars spent by the study group. The sales-conversion rates for visitors with a catalog was nearly twice as high as those without one, and total visits, item views, and overall time spent at the retail sites were also positively affected by the presence of a catalog. Sales to catalog-holders were 16 percent higher than those without catalogs. "The thinking was that the post office is getting a lot of pressure from some of their clients who don't think [they] need to catalog as much as in the past, or not at all," says Linda Abraham, executive vice president at comScore. "We were surprised at the number of metrics...that showed when the catalog is in the equation, almost every dimension was amplified. [There's] an overall tendency to buy more, visit more--and important evidence that catalogs drive people to sites more frequently." Perhaps its not surprising that the USPS would publish results emphasizing the importance of direct mail, but independent marketing strategists continue to validate mailings as an important part of a broader customer strategy. "Direct mail and catalogs have an important place to play," says Ray Brown, CEO of DRB Partners. According to Brown, the challenge is knowing who should receive the mailings. One client, an industrial truck-rack manufacturer, overshot annual sales expectations nearly tenfold when it began sending targeted catalogs to service fleet managers, rather than targeting the construction industry with broader advertising. Market targeting proved crucial in the comScore survey as well. The gain from catalogs was more stark in the apparel business, while savvy technology buyers were relatively less affected by the presence of a catalog. "A catalog can affect the number of items in apparel more easily than if you go to Dell...but it's still getting people into the consideration funnel," Abraham says. Despite the USPS study numbers, Brown says that many companies will still not support a catalog unless it can be seen as a direct contributor to sales, rather than simply a brand-building exercise. "It's an expensive proposition to produce a catalog, and most companies in the B2B world are not going to make a catalog unless it's a sales tool." But that's not to say he advises going fully high-tech in such situations. Brown also advocates the use of tried-and-true guerilla marketing through inexpensive coverage in local newspapers and "street publications." "These are the things you might throw away, and some people think of as rags, but they go right into the back rooms...this is where deals are cut."
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