The catalogue: is it time to say goodbye?

Catalogues: they are expensive, restrictive, inflexible and old-fashioned, yet 95% of office supplies dealers still use them. For many dealers, catalogues continue to be their principal sales and marketing tool. Across the Euroffice Group, we stopped printing catalogues a year ago. Our business hasn’t suffered. In fact, the opposite is true.

The case for …

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate catalogues – I have worked with them for many years and they have fulfilled a purpose in this and many other not-on-the-high-street selling environments. Why? Well, for plenty of reasons:

Traditionally printed and distributed with the first delivery of the year and often published without prices for longevity, catalogues build brand awareness – and then keep that brand front of mind – among customers for 12 months.
They can be effective and hardworking prospecting tools for one-to-one meetings, larger exhibitions and events, and other networking opportunities.
The cost to the dealer can be subsidised by the wholesalers’ and suppliers’ ‘marketing’ rebates.
For dealers, whose skills lie in areas other than selling products, printed catalogues are a simple way of cross-selling and up-selling.
It’s possible – but not proven – that catalogue buyers are less likely than online buyers to shop around to find the best price once they have found what they need.
Until recently, the quality of data provision for e-commerce in the industry has been variable, so it could be argued that the user experience in browsing a printed catalogue has been easier and more reliable than trying to navigate a website with problematic indexing.

The case against …

Times are changing and we now operate in an increasingly digital economy. Printed catalogues have a limited role to play within this economy and I believe it won’t be too much longer until they have no role to play at all. Why? For starters:

An annual print run means that catalogues are basic, unsophisticated and allow for little or no promotions. Even with more regular print runs, the impact of promotional mailers on sales and customer engagement is constantly questioned.
Content and pricing is increasingly irrelevant as some ranges are sourced from multiple wholesalers and suppliers, and other content can become obsolete halfway into the catalogue’s lifespan. This is especially the case in fast-moving product areas such as business machines.
They provide a limited level of ’cover’ branding for the dealer.
They are expensive to produce, which forces dealers to use them even if they are out of date and irrelevant. They are also increasingly expensive to post.
They are impossible to keep up to date, so they become obsolete and irrelevant very quickly.
They are not interactive so they do not facilitate customer engagement.
They ‘may’ protect dealers from online competition, but if dealers think their catalogue is the only catalogue on their customers’ desks, they are being naïve.
Finally, they don’t allow dealers to personalise for different customers or prospects, which can limit opportunities to improve profitability.
But, perhaps even more significantly, there is a rapidly changing socio-economic factor squeezing the life out of the catalogue and gently tapping nails into its coffin: customer demand.

The explosion in online consumer shopping and the move to “couch commerce” (browsing and shopping on laptops and tablets while sitting on the sofa) is fuelling the appetite among SMEs to shop online for business purchases. A survey of B2B office products buyers by MWA and OPI in the summer of 2015 revealed that more than half (58%) are already placing orders online, and this figure is only going to grow, and grow at a fast pace. Phone, fax and face-to-face orders – orders traditionally originating from catalogue browsing – now account for just 17% of the total.

A brave new world

Put simply, more and more customers want to shop online and dealers must offer a multichannel experience that has e-commerce at the heart of the strategy – not as a bolt-on. If dealers are to keep their customers, never mind win new ones, it is critical they start selling them what they want, at the price they want, via the channel they want.

And, yes, change is scary, and it can be expensive and you’re worried that putting more emphasis on your online presence will expose your customers to an increasing number of competitors and competitively priced alternatives. But when the alternative is stagnation followed by decline as your customers migrate to a supplier that does have a multichannel offering, it is critical to embrace this new world because, without change, growth is just a pipe dream.

Achieving the achievable

The good news is that change can be achieved in stages. Some dealers are already reducing their catalogue usage significantly. The day is rapidly approaching when dealers will need to radically reshape their business and marketing activity to find other more interactive ways to promote purchasing and engagement.

They need to think about replacing the printed catalogue with an ‘online’ catalogue experience that is as good as the previous ‘offline’ catalogue purchasing experience in line with changing customer demand.

By relying less on a printed catalogue and by making the transition to a multichannel commerce model, dealers will future-proof their business. As the younger generations come through as our new purchasing customers, they will expect an effective and engaging online shopping environment as the standard. So for this new generation, online isn’t the future, it’s the now and dealers need to be prepared to say goodbye to the catalogue and give their customers what they demand.

By Steve Robinson, Group Development Director of Office Power, for www.opi.net

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