Last week, I was intrigued by an article in Fast Company that featured Ikea’s clever use of augmented reality in their new catalog to help customers see how furniture will look in their home. While many uses of augmented reality that I’ve seen are initially fun but more or less useless, this execution seems to have broken ground by having a practical application for the consumer, and thus a potentially measurable value for the business. If you don’t have an Ikea catalog, you can watch the video in the article to see how it works.
While this is a nice example of a retailer bringing new relevance to the catalog in the digital age, it’s all too rare that I read stories or see examples of catalogers who are making this kind of progress. And that’s surprising, considering that catalogers were among the first heroes of e-commerce.
In the early days of e-commerce, many catalogers were early adopters, selling online long before their brick and mortar competitors. They had a clear advantage in taking their businesses to the web. They had photography and product descriptions. They had fulfillment and customer service centers that were well versed in handling orders and inquiries. They had a staff that understood direct marketing. Perhaps most importantly, they had an established customer base that was accustomed to shopping from home. All good.
But beyond mastering the basic mechanics of e-commerce, digital evolution for catalogers has been limited at best. Catalogs look pretty much the same as they did back in the 1990’s, and unfortunately many of the corresponding websites do too. I’m bored with most catalogs I receive and I’m bored with most of the websites that catalogers operate. Something tells me I’m not alone.
According to the 2013 Internet Retailer Top 500, e-commerce sales for catalogers grew at an estimated 10.3% in 2012. Not bad, but far from the estimated 16.7% growth of retail chains or the estimated 24.8% growth for online pure plays.
So why the low growth? From my experience working with catalogers and my observations as a recipient and shopper of many catalogs, the tail is wagging the dog. Instead of putting digital first and evolving the catalog to support the web, the catalog drives the planning cycle, decisions and workflow of the company, leaving the web to take on the backseat role of a glorified vending machine.
For retailers with heavy catalog DNA, the book production schedule is the organizing principle of the company. That means that that the web likely “follows” the catalog since the catalog needs longer lead time, and that more nimble ‘up to the minute’ opportunities of the web may be overlooked.The e-commerce team may be forced to leverage catalog assets, likely sub-par for the digital experience.
Catalog marketers are data junkies by nature, and while it seems like this might bode well for the transition to the web, that’s not always the case. The heavy ‘test and control’ mindset and need to protect catalog sales volume may favor sticking to the status quo vs. a willingness to break the mold.
Historically, the catalog may have been viewed as a “channel” or “line of business” vs. a marketing vehicle, causing confusion over how to allocate sales, expenses and profits as e-commerce has taken hold. The result? Under-investment in the web.
So what does ‘right’ look like when it comes to catalog evolution? While I like the Ikea example mentioned above, I think there’s a happy medium between the leading edge use of augmented reality and where we are today.
In my view, no one is making a more relevant, engaging transition from catalog to web shopping than Crate&Barrel, so I’ll refer to them as a visual reference point in the 3 keys to evolution below:
1. Think digital first. Just as many e-commerce teams have had to shift their mindset to ‘mobile first’, catalogers need to shift their approach to ‘digital first’. Business and creative teams first need to think about how brand and product stories will come to life digitally, then determine how a catalog can most effectively support the digital plan.
2. Give catalog shoppers compelling reasons to go online. It’s not enough to list the URL at the bottom of every page. Of course shoppers are going to go online to order. In the Crate&Barrel examples below, the catalog builds engagement and actively drives shoppers to the web to see more products and get adjacent lifestyle content and tools like recipes, music downloads or digital dinner invitations to round out the product story.
3. Make the transition from paper to digital graceful and fluid for the shopper. When shopping from a catalog, a customer gets to experience a ‘story’ – an entire outfit, a fully furnished room, a photo that includes environmental and lifestyle elements to put the product in context. If your website offers only the standard category navigation and product grid, the shopper will likely have trouble putting all of the pieces together, or worse, they’ll lose the sense of engagement and inspiration that the catalog started. Below, Crate&Barrel’s transitions from printed page to digital page take many forms, and offer the shopper a variety of ways to experience the product and buy complete product stories effortlessly.
Keep in mind that execution of the examples above requires a strong mind shift and process shift from the way catalogs are typically planned and constructed. It means working off of a ‘digital first’ creative brief, and yes, adjusting web planning time cycles accordingly to be sure that photography and layout needed for the web are incorporated into the catalog design. It means committing serious horsepower (money and people) to web content management and the development of landing pages & shopping tools that break the ‘vending machine’ mold. It means strong creative direction and vision communicated across collaborating web and print design teams, or better yet, a single combined team. And yes, it involves a commitment to evolution by testing and learning – not just testing minimal iterations, but infusing new bold creative treatments and testing them against the tried and true.
When e-commerce began, many retailers declared the inevitable death of the catalog. Nearly two decades later, for many companies, catalogs are still viable. I get more catalogs than ever in the mail. But, just like the rapid evolution that’s taking place for retail stores as they invest to meet the needs of the omni-channel shopper, catalogers need to ask “How can we make the catalog more relevant to the digital shopper? How can we think of the catalog and digital as one connected experience?”. Otherwise, that question of catalog viability may again rear its head for the early heroes of e-commerce.