Current Outlook for Digital Catalogs

by Stephen Lett

Image of a tablet with the words "Direct Marketing"

Companies use print catalogs effectively to engage the customer with multi-channel marketing. When customers and prospects receive a catalog in the mail, they most often go online to place the order. So, the catalog is driving a large volume of traffic to the web. What about online digital catalogs? It is common for print catalog companies to post an online digital version of their catalog. At Lett Direct, we encourage our clients to create a digital version of their catalog. This is something your printer can likely do for you for very little cost. I’d estimate that well over 50% of catalog companies have some type of digital edition. The Return on Investment (ROI) is favorable. For example, a few hundred dollars in cost can generate a few thousand dollars in revenue. Most cost vs. revenue ratios I have seen range from only 5% to 10%. While the ROI is not the issue, generating significant revenue volume from a digital catalog is the challenge. Here are the main reasons to have a digital version of your catalog:

  1. The cost for a digital catalog is extremely low, i.e., a few hundred dollars.
  2. Your competition probably has a digital version of their catalog online already.
  3. It provides another way (channel) for consumers to learn what products you offer.
  4. It’s a support tool for your outside call center.
  5. Online catalogs are useful to fulfill international catalog requests where it is not cost effective to mail a print catalog overseas.

Keep in mind that digital catalogs have not proven to be an effective sales channel. They typically generate a handful of orders and very little revenue in comparison to overall totals. In all fairness, one reason for the poor results is that most are not deploying any tracking mechanisms to learn about attribution. This is easily accomplished with the use of standard Google Analytics UTM tracking tags/parameters on the links. Regardless, digital catalogs are not used by the consumer the way print catalogs are used. Why aren’t the results from digital catalogs better? Digital catalogs do not provide the consumer with the same shopping experience that print catalogs do. Consumers don’t shop an online catalog the way they shop a print catalog. Print catalogs are viewed front-to-back and back-to-front, page-by-page. This is done in their easy chair, in front of their television, etc. Consumers don’t typically flip an online catalog page-by-page on their computer screen or other digital device. Catalog shoppers are not necessarily online oriented. They might go online to place the order but they are not necessarily page flippers on their computer. Digital catalogs are used as a reference tool to search and find an item. But they are not used to browse your entire line of merchandise as is your print catalog.

Even though most digital catalogs are mobile-friendly, most consumers do not engage with digital catalogs while visiting a website, unless they’re given a reason to do so.  That’s why the distribution and promotion of the digital catalog is so important. Adding a link to an email or having it available on social media platforms are two effective ways to get people to engage with it on their devices. Digital catalogs are certainly no substitute for paper catalogs. However, it is still a good idea to have a digital version of your catalog, but don’t expect it to replace or eliminate the number of print catalogs you mail. A digital catalog is a tool for the consumer, not an effective sales channel. So, at least for now, keep those printing presses rolling!