What Do You Need to Know About Catalogs?
When using the term “convergence” in the printing industry, it can mean to describe the phenomenon of print providers in one segment adding applications and services from other segments to their mix. Sometimes those adjacent markets seem like natural fits, and other times they seem to come from the proverbial left field, but far too often it seems to apply to operations, such as commercial printers, entering markets like wide-format printing and signage.
But, the reality is that it can go both ways.
Wide-format and signage shops are starting to look at expanding into new applications and markets right alongside their diverse print brethren, which means exploring opportunities such as packaging or direct mail. One of those small-format applications that may be on your radar are catalogs. What does the modern-day catalog look like, however, and what do you need to know about getting into this space?
A Shifting Purpose
The basic print catalog hasn’t really changed all that much over the years. It might have differed in size, or experimented in photo sizes or gloss levels, but the primary elements of products and descriptions, along with where to go to purchase those products, have always been present in the application. Those are the things that make it a catalog.
“What has changed is its purpose,” says Paula Jeske, VP business development, Lett Direct. “Thanks to the continued growth of e-commerce sites, catalogs no longer have to bear the burden of carrying the entire inventory from a company, and have emerged as a top driver to websites with one of the highest conversion rates and ROI.”
That has gotten even more pronounced in the era of COVID-19, where consumers have no choice but to find alternate ways to learn about new products. E-commerce has certainly seen massive gains, but that doesn’t mean catalogs are out, however. Instead, many retailers are using this as an opportunity to explore a more personal version of a catalog, rather than the mass mailings of years past.
“Even before the pandemic began, catalogers were being forced to do things smarter and more efficiently,” notes Ed Sheehan, SVP, Integrated Marketing Solutions at Quad. “For Quad’s customers, it is now table stakes to leverage data to segment audiences to deliver a more personalized approach to targeting (e.g., the right moment, audience, content, and preferred channel). This includes paying close attention to catalog format, while delivering content and messages that the audience will find compelling.”
He goes on to note that rather than being the major element that a marketing campaign revolves around, catalogs are evolving to be integral components of a multichannel approach that seeks to meet customers whenever and wherever they engage.
“Catalogs — like physical shopping spaces and stores — enhance the customer experience to reinforce and elevate brand perception,” Sheehan says. “In addition to providing a shopping experience, as a form of direct marketing they drive both online and offline sales. But they can’t do all of that independently; they need to be part of a broader marketing strategy. To create demand, catalogs have evolved to provide a deeper brand experience through storytelling that goes beyond product, price, and promotion.”
This is a trend Jeske notes as well, stating, “Many use their catalogs almost as a teaser, driving traffic to their sites for detailed product information instead of full explanations on print — they paint the picture and define their brand. For some brands, they have been able to reduce page count, and experiment with a variety of trim sizes. In addition to honing in on merchandising, wise catalog mailers are targeting through house file and prospect modeling, enabling them to reduce circulation with no adverse effect.”
But Not Everyone Agrees
That said, not all brands are finding that catalogs continue to serve their mission, with one of the largest examples being IKEA ditching its iconic catalog. After 70 years, the company announced that it was not only going to end the print catalog, it won’t produce a digital edition either.
A spokesperson for the company noted of the decision, “For the last couple of years, IKEA has tested new formats and ways to distribute our beloved catalog. During this testing period, a wealth of data and insights — from both customers and the IKEA retailers — has been collected and taken into account in the decision to discontinue the catalog. Meanwhile, online consumption has doubled, and e-commerce penetration has increased enormously. We have been evaluating how to best optimize the media mix to meet changing consumer behaviors, to invest in more efficient media to reach more of the many. The conclusion was that it is no longer justifiable to print and distribute the IKEA Catalog. Overall, this hasn’t been an easy decision, but now it is time to turn the page and to create new ways for IKEA to inspire and reach the many people across the world.”
But even as the formal catalog is being left behind, the spokesperson notes that it doesn’t mean IKEA is abandoning the content. Rather, the company is looking for new ways to engage with its customer base, taking a far more holistic approach to marketing its products.
“The content will continue, just not the catalog,” the spokesperson says. “IKEA is already working with integrated content, in many different channels — not only the catalog — in order to reach, interact, and inspire the many people with home furnishing solutions and products. We will offer full room inspiration online. We are committed to give our customers an inspiring experience, no matter where they meet us; whether in our stores, the IKEA website, planning studios, or our social media channels.”
IKEA is one of the largest brands pulling back from the catalog model, but it probably won’t be the last, as more brands try to determine the best way to reconnect with customers in the coming year as stores (hopefully!) start to reopen and life slowly begins to return to a semblance of normal. For those wide-format and signage shops considering dipping a toe into the catalog space, it is something to keep in mind — large, mainstream catalogs likely aren’t going to be the application of choice. Rather, those catalogs that survive will be far more tailored, and far more targeted than in years past.
An Accelerated Rate of Change
There is no denying that COVID-19 accelerated the rate of change across the board for catalogs. While brands like IKEA may have been considering changes, there is no way to know if it would have happened so quickly had the pandemic not altered consumer behavior so profoundly.
“We have seen significant changes in the catalog industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, given disruptions in supply chains and changes in basic human behaviors,” says Sheehan. “With everyone confined to their homes, purchasing behaviors and the shopping experience changed dramatically. … We’ve seen 10 years’ worth of acceleration from offline to online shopping happen in the course of eight weeks at the beginning of COVID-19. Marketers who positioned their catalog as an online traffic driver have been able to efficiently create interest and encourage consumer purchasing. We have seen technology like QR codes and flow
codes grow in prominence as a means
of connecting offline experience with online ecosystems.”
That push toward digital because of the pandemic won’t last, however. While it will remain a strong and prominent marketing channel, Jeske sees catalogs returning for brands looking to optimize their messaging. “I believe we will continue to see more brands and retailers test direct mail and catalogs when they’ve reached a saturation point in optimizing their digital channels. Some existing mailers will increase their circulation, while those without the proper foundation for their mail plans will drop off.”
Sheehan notes that one of the reasons for this is that many consumers are battling “screen fatigue,” being bombarded with marketing messages across every screen they pass by. By contrast, print pieces such as catalogs can provide a quieter, more leisurely way of learning about a brand and its products, allowing consumers to step away from the screen and browse at their own pace, much like they would have in a retail store.
“Shopping is an experience that includes an element of discovery, surprise, and delight,” Sheehan says. “Catalogs have proven to be an effective means of delivering information that allows consumers to shop at their leisure. In a way, catalogs have provided a release or escape for people to get away from everything they are doing online.”
What’s to Come?
So where does all of that leave the world of catalogs, and how can a wide-format or signage printer take advantage of those changes? In today’s marketing mix, catalogs perform better when they are part of a broader campaign, integrated with pieces that span both the small- and wide-format mediums. Those looking to focus on transforming into full-service marketing shops would do well to consider adding catalogs to the mix of services.
“Catalogs perform better when complemented and orchestrated along with other media,” notes Sheehan. “They need to integrate with websites, email, social media channels, online ads, and other direct mail campaigns. All of the brands currently winning with their catalog strategy have integrated print with online touchpoints.
“To move customers from offline to online, marketers need to create a trail of breadcrumbs that they can follow and to remove as much friction as possible in the process,” he continues. “The catalog experience should be part of a chain of touchpoints, beginning before the customer receives the catalog, and ending when they go online and purchase what caught their eye.”
Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries of what a catalog is, either, notes Jeske. “The hottest trend I see today is experimentation with a variety of trim sizes. Traditionally, consumer catalog programs were just that — typically around 36 to 48 pages, 8-5/8x11-1/8" to 11-5/8". Nowadays, brands are testing Slim Jims, 6x9" digests, trifolds and double-gate folds, postcards, etc. — and these formats are delivering results. Existing mailers are mixing it up, and new mailers often test with a smaller format before committing to an ongoing year-round program.”
Programmatic catalogs is another way to approach the segment, which is when targeted mailings are triggered when a consumer performs a specific behavior. An example would be to send a personalized catalog of dresses and shoes to a customer that browsed a fashion brand’s website and viewed several different styles of dresses and pairs of shoes, but ultimately didn’t purchase anything.
This type of application might be more complicated to initially set up, but anyone with experience in producing variable data campaigns will likely find it to be easier to adjust, and it’s okay to start small — a postcard-style catalog with only a few products, versus a 36-page version with every product in the inventory, for example. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and to work with individual brands to tailor catalog programs to their specific products and customer base.
Finally, don’t be locked into the traditional “ink on glossy paper” idea of what a catalog should be. Sheehan notes that anyone looking to be successful in catalog printing should start thinking of ways to make their product stand out. “Shopping is a tactile and sensory experience, and the way a catalog feels makes a significant difference — paper quality, finishes, and textures create buying signals that can convey an impactful brand story.”
However, Jeske notes that catalog printing shouldn’t just be offered as an afterthought — anyone who wants to add this to the application mix should make sure they understand what they are getting into. “Catalog printing and mailing are a specialty. With postage possessing 50% or more of a mail budget, a printer must have deep expertise and capabilities to support mailers with the distribution of their catalogs. They must understand weights and classes to guide their customers in paper and trim decisions that will return on the investment.”
Despite the changing world, and the shifting buying patterns of consumers for everything from the latest fashion to their next automobile, catalogs remain a strong and relevant medium to connect with customers and educate them about the products a brand has to offer. As print continues to converge, more brands are looking for a single point of contact for their marketing campaigns — from postcard to billboard, and everything in between. Commercial printers already know this — it is why so many traditional direct mail and catalog printers have started offering wide-format services to their own customers. The time to start pushing back and capturing some of the small-format work for the wide-format and signage space, however, is now.
Related story: How Did COVID-19 Impact Catalogs?