The future of catalog direct marketing

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gift made of catalogs
Is a catalog a gift to shoppers, or a blast from the past?
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What does the future of catalog direct marketing look like?

You've probably heard claims that selling by catalog direct marketing is a thing of the past. The Internet, some say, has all but eliminated the need for catalogs. 

But the story of catalogs' end is not only premature, it's dead wrong.  The fact is everything from informal online questionnaires about catalogs to official research says that the catalog is here to stay. The question then, is what form it will take, and which industries will continue to rely on catalogs to reach their customers.

The paper catalog in today's marketing mix

When it comes to specialty shopping, like sports gear, jewelry, car parts, home decor or outdoor supplies, paper catalogs continue to work as the marketing tool of choice.  Consumers looking for  these niche product groups prefer browsing through paper catalogs, where they can compare similar products, circle choices and read descriptions while viewing pictures. 

Catalogs and the business to business market

Another segment where paper catalogs remain the best way to reach customers is in the business to business (B2B) supply niche.  Packing materials, office supplies, industrial safety gear and lab equipment are a few of the areas where paper catalogs are still the shopper's choice.

Catalog users in the B2B sector cite ease of sharing and the ability to keep supply catalogs handy on desks or in bookcases as the primary reasons they lean toward these traditional marketing tools.

Changes coming to catalog direct marketing practices

Even with the on-going consumer preference for paper catalogs, there are some changes coming to the industry. Here are a few of the trends observed over the past couple of years.

Catalogs on CD

In light of rising postage costs and consumer demands for greener business practices, some retailer and wholesalers are turning to catalogs on CD. 

Some of these CD catalogs allow customers to print their own paper catalog when and where they choose.  Other, more sophisticated versions act as virtual catalogs on the prospect's computer, complete with fillable order forms, zoomable images and search functions.

Merchants and shoppers alike point to the portability of these electronic catalogs as a major plus.  They also cite the fact that no Internet connection is needed, so the shoppers can browse and complete order forms even when no WiFi is available -- business people shopping on a long flight is a common example, although the mom waiting for a child after school or a diner waiting for food in a restaurant are equally valid settings for shoppers to use these CD catalogs.

Greener choices in catalog materials

Even among those who prefer paper catalogs, there's a push for greener choices in catalog materials. 

Many catalog merchants are responding by offering catalogs printed on recycled paper using soy inks.  Others are sending out slimmer versions that use less paper.  A few have chosen to send out one main catalog per year, and then offering customers single pages of updates to keep the content current.

The online catalog

Working like a cross between traditional paper catalogs and the web shopping experience, virtual online catalogs, like the Dynalog dynamic catalog, bring the catalog page experience to computer screens. Shoppers can virtually turn pages to browse through what looks very much like a paper catalog on the screen.

Some virtual catalogs permit shoppers to remain within the catalog style while placing orders, while other take shoppers into a regular e-commerce website as soon as they click on a product. According to those who predicted the demise of paper catalogs, these online versions would make mailing actual catalog direct marketing pieces a thing of the past.

Consumers initially had a negative response to these virtual catalogs, saying the browsing experience was often unclear, and the shift to a website model made it different to compare products from the catalog. New, advanced e-catalogs have addressed these issues, and are popular alternatives to a paper catalog. Shoppers love the ease with which they can find and shop for everything they need; retailers find the economical and easily updated solution these digital catalogs offer their businesses.

What the future of catalogs may look like

For now at least, the paper catalog is here to stay.  But the rise of tablets and SmartPhones as common, portable tools may add a new dimension to catalog shopping, as customers carry virtual copies of their catalogs with them everywhere.

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