The Fuzzy Line Between Catalog Marketing
I don't get many catalogs at home. I'm careful to whom I give my
mailing address, and the catalogs I do get are ones I usually want. My
favorite is the catalog from a Chicago-based retailer called Design
Toscano that sells all manner of gothic art reproductions, gargoyles,
garden statuary and medieval-style decorative art. I've ordered only
sporadically from the company, as my relatively small apartment does not
lend itself to half-acre gothic armoires and life-size replicas of suits
of armor. Still, I do enjoy receiving the catalog four times a year and
imagining what I would order if a long-lost and heretofore unknown
Austro-Hungarian relative suddenly bequeathed me the family castle in the
Carpathian mountains (along with a large sum of cash).
Until the keys to my legacy in Transylvania arrive on my doorstep, I'll
browse through catalogs, though I seldom, if ever, use the catalog
ordering process anymore. This has prompted me to start thinking (always a
dangerous prospect): What's the difference today between catalog marketing
(which has been around for over 100 years) and e-commerce (which has been
around for less time than some pairs of shoes in my closet)?
I can't think of many differences either. Might it be said that
catalogs are now Web sites on paper with links that take just a little
more effort to visit? I'd say so. Could you say that e-commerce has been a
boon to catalog sales the likes of which the industry would never have
imagined 10 years ago? Yes again.
To jump-start my thought process about the topic, I started thinking
about the first successful catalog-based mail order company, which my
educated guess identifies are Sears. The Sears catalog first appeared in
the 1890s and was the brainchild of Richard Sears, who by all accounts was
a genius of selling, advertising and merchandising. The introduction of
the catalog was timed to suit the expanding U.S.'s need for goods and
services in areas that were, at that time, still considered the frontier.
People living in small settlements in the American West still couldn't buy
everything they needed in a local mercantile; there was a voracious hunger
for a system that allowed them to look at products in a catalog and send
away for them via mail order. Sales grew so sharply that Sears found it
necessary, just a few years after the introduction of the catalog, to
completely overhaul its production, order processing, fulfillment,
warehousing, shipping and customer service policies. Sound familiar, dot
When Sears finally finished overhauling its processes at the turn of
the century, the resultant system was so efficient that, according to a
history page on Sears' Web site, Henry Ford visited Sears' Chicago plant
to learn about the new assembly line techniques to acquire tips for his
own company. Ahaevidence of 100-year-old CRM.
Today, like most other companies, Sears has a Web site. Like many
companies, it sells goods and services directly off that Web site. The
company still has a print catalog (actually, many print catalogs) and
conducts a great deal of its business in the traditional way, with
customers browsing through the print catalog and calling a contact center
agent to place the order. A portion of the company's business, however,
now consists of individuals browsing the catalog and then logging on to
make purchases, and there is yet another segment of shoppers that skips
the print catalog altogether and just logs onto www.sears.com
The most intriguing relationship between traditional catalog retailers
and pure Web e-tailers I can think of is that each type of company has
something the other type wants. Companies like Sears and J.C.
Penney have had decades -- over a century in Sears' case -- to perfect
their ordering, fulfillment and customer service systems. Each company has
an enormous network of contact centers throughout the world, warehousing
facilities the size of small
European countries and rock-solid shipping policies that have been
serving them well since long before most of us were born. What they have
had to learn rapidly in the last few years is the concept of Web marketing
and e-commerce. Many companies with traditional storefronts and mail-order
sales capabilities were slow to produce their virtual storefronts, and did
so reluctantly. Web sites popped up, but were little more than online
brochures with very little real functionality. When they finally did open
their Web sites for business, the volume of incoming e-mail shook these
companies to their foundations and sent them scuttling to hide behind
large pieces of furniture.
On the other hand, let's think about pure Web retailers. These
companies have slick Web sites, skilled MIS teams, a five-figure line of
credit at Starbuck's and more processing power than NASA.
Many of them even have products. What a great deal of them don't have is
the first clue how to successfully move what they have to sell through the
sales and distribution channels and actually get their products to
customers in an effective and trouble-free manner. These are the companies
with no effective way to warehouse products, a non-existent returns
policy, little live assistance available on their Web sites, shipping
problems and the inability to fulfill all orders during holiday and
seasonal buying spikes.
That catalog marketers and e-tailers should be learning from one
another is a no-brainer. What will almost certainly happen in the
not-too-distant future is a further blurring of the already fuzzy line
between the two types of businesses. In a survey conducted by the Direct
Marketing Association (DMA), most catalog sales-based companies
admitted to anticipating that in the next five years, at least one-third
of their sales will be derived from the Internet. The DMA has termed the
merger between the two types of companies the "Janus Effect"
after the Roman god with two faces, one looking to the future and one
looking to the past.
Lately, you can't open a business journal without reading about how
much trouble you'll be in if your channels are not blended, open,
integrated and otherwise chatting together like girlfriends in a coffee
shop. Common sense tells us that if there are 10 secrets to running a
successful business, and you know five of the secrets and I know the five
others, our partnership will yield wondrous things.
For now, I challenge you to go find a catalog in your house that does
not prominently tell you where its company Web site can be found. I would
also be highly surprised if you visited that Web site and didn't discover
that you could buy at least some of the company's products directly off
Do I think the print version of the Sears catalog is doomed to
extinction? Not necessarily. I've heard it makes a fine child booster seat
in a pinch.
The author may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
in case Great Uncle Zoltan is looking for her.