Internet-Retailer--------Dec 29, 2006



To further leverage the catalog and boost online sales-now only 5% of Hyde Parks business-the retailer has given the luxury book a second home at as an e-catalog. But that created a challenge in re-producing online the high-end imagery of the print catalog, Pollak says. On the web you dont get a feel for the metallics of a metal and the refractiveness of a diamond, he says. You can come much closer in a printed, four-color format.

Early in 2006, Pollak and his staff started looking for a vendor to adapt the 48-page luxury book and a lower-end, 32-page wish book to e-catalogs. They decided on Scene7 Inc., Novato, Calif., which Pollak concedes usually works with bigger fish, like, Lands End and Williams-Sonoma. Nonetheless, Scene7 set Hyde Park up with a template that accomplished virtually everything needed without any customization, Pollak says.

The jeweler opted for the vendors full service e-catalog, which runs about $50 per page, not including hosting. Hyde Park sent PDFs of its two catalogs to Scene7 and went through two or three rounds of adjustments, making sure that the products were properly linked and everything worked smoothly. Both books launched at the beginning of the 2006 holiday season.

Its a quaint notion in some ways: putting an exact copy of a mail-order catalog up on the web, sometimes with special effects that mimic the turning of a physical page. Surely at this late date we can forgo the paper metaphor?

Window shopping And yet, sophisticated retailers, even those with thriving web sites, are finding a place for e-catalogs. Flipseek, a site that aggregates e-catalog links for the enjoyment of folks who prefer to shop that way, has almost 200 e-catalogs on its roster, including big names like J.C. Penney, Nordstrom, L.L. Bean, IKEA, Wal-Mart, Circuit City, and Linens n Things.

A lot of people who go to e-commerce sites have an idea of what theyre looking for, says Adam Marino, who worked in the catalog industry before founding Cleveland-based Flipseek. But on the other side are people who dont know what they-re looking for. Thats what catalogs have always brought to people-the browsing or window-shopping side.

Images of catalog pages have been kicking around the web since its beginning. Any retailer can get a scanned version of a standard-size catalog up on Google Catalogs for free, and it will even have searchable text. But an effective e-catalog-one with clickable links that gets shoppers to the product page and ready to fill up a shopping cart-requires some investment of time and money.

E-catalogs arent ragingly popular, according to the report, The State of Online Retailing 2006, by Forrester Research and Only a third of the 174 survey respondents reported having an e-catalog, and of those, only a third thought they were very effective.

But e-catalogs have their place, say retailers who use them. They help maximize what is often a substantial investment in producing a paper catalog. They can offer a showcase for merchandise that goes beyond a standard product page. And they provide a familiar experience for customers who havent quite cozied up to the web.

For a relatively minor cost, somewhere between $20 and $100 a page, a retailer might as well put its catalog into e-form, and not even worry too much about a return on the investment, Forrester Research senior analyst Sucharita Mulpuru says. Retailers that have multiple types of catalogs can get a wider circulation by posting an e-catalog-especially apparel and home companies, she says. E-catalogs can also help with cross-selling.

Easier shopping Office Depot, Delray Beach, Fla., launched an e-catalog in the last quarter of 2006, its first full-blown clickable effort (although the company had experimented previously with posting its sales flyers). The majority of Office Depots customers still use the paper catalog to order, even if they ultimately place those orders through the web site. The e-catalog is meant to cut out a step and make things easier for those customers, says Dean Jackson, director of integrated marketing.

A lot of customers in our research have voiced a preference for navigation of a printed vehicle, he says. They understand what it is and how it works, and its what theyve grown up with, so having that environment out there is always a good thing. Our goal is to minimize the number of clicks and get the customer to the ordering page as quickly as possible. We think the e-catalog will increase our conversions.

Office Depot contracts with RichFX Inc., New York, to create its e-catalogs, though its internal information technology team also plays a role in getting them up and running. The first ones were time-intensive, but now we have a fairly easy way of moving the books into the virtual environment, Jackson says.

Jackson doesnt have any data yet on how the e-catalog affects conversions and overall business, but hes optimistic. The incremental payback will dictate how much more we do and invest, but so far everything is very positive. Its also possible that the presence of the e-catalog may reduce the number of paper catalogs that Office Depot has to print and mail, but Jackson says its too early to say.

Art merchant The Artful Home has always been a web-based enterprise, though its had both a paper catalog and an e-catalog almost since its inception, says president Mike Baum. Its an offshoot of The Guild, Madison, Wis., a company that represents more than a thousand artists and makes their work known to design professionals who are trying to locate artists for commissions and special projects.

The Artful Home launched in 2003 at to sell original artwork that also functions as home decor: pillows, lamps, furniture, ceramics, glassware, and, of course, sculpture, paintings, prints and photography. Because its trying to convey the advantages of its wares over the latest products from Target, it needs to be able to display them in the context of a room, and nothing does that better than a catalog, Baum says. The Artful Home does 14 paper catalogs a year, and they all go up on the web site.

No tail wagging the dog The e-catalog project costs only staff time-The Guilds in-house web developer created the program using the electronic files from the catalogs printer. The e-catalogs are exact duplicates of the printed pieces, except with a mouse-over feature that links the images in the e-catalogs to the web site product pages. Print is still the priority when the catalog is designed, Baum says. It has to be driven by how people use paper catalogs. The e-catalog gives people who come to the web that same environment, but we havent changed it because its online. We cant have the tail wagging the dog.

Though Baum doesnt have actual data to measure how well the e-catalog works, he says hes fully committed to keeping it on the site. Its hard to track specific conversions from the catalog, he says. Its as much supporting the brand as anything. We get a lot of positive feedback about the catalog itself, both paper and electronic.

Like Office Depot, Rutland Tool and Supply also has a customer base of staunch paper-catalog fans. The Whittier, Calif.-based tool seller does about $55 million a year in both wholesale and retail sales. It does a mere 2% of its business on the web, but wants its customers to switch to Internet ordering, says advertising director Jim Henry.

To that end, the company introduced the first electronic version of its full catalog-1,300 pages with 85,000 items-in January 2006. Henry had initially tried Google Catalogs as an experiment, but quickly rejected it because of the inability to click into the e-catalog pages for more product details or to make a purchase. For the full-blown effort, he turned to Fenton, Mo.-based Dirxion, which specializes in digitizing paper-based publications: directories, books and magazines, as well as catalogs.

Converting Rutland Tools big book to an e-catalog cost about $30,000, Henry says. In addition to being on the Rutland Tool web site, the e-catalog has a second life as a CD mailed to the companys best customers. Rutland also publishes a 48-page sale flyer every couple of weeks, and has been converting those to e-flyers through Dirxion at about $1,000 each.

Rutland sends Dirxion the same high-resolution PDF files that its printer uses, along with URLs for each item in the catalog. A few days before the catalogs online debut, Dirxion puts it up on a test site so that Rutland can try it out. So far, Henry has found only one incorrect link in all of the converted publications-15 sale flyers plus the big catalog-he says.

The two companies try to have the new catalogs posted on the web site about a week before they arrive in customers mailboxes. Rutland has e-mail addresses for about a third of its customers, and they receive a heads-up e-mail that their catalogs are on the way. A weekly e-mail blast includes links to a half-dozen items from the current sale flyer.

English-Spanish toggle Both the catalog and the flyers have features designed to make them more user-friendly. One is an English-Spanish toggle, though it covers only the instructions and the table of contents, Henry says, because a full translation would be prohibitively expensive and probably unnecessary. The instructions and the contents are enough if the guy knows what hes looking for.

Rutlands sale flyers have a sticky-note feature that lets users annotate potential purchases and return to them later-a handy feature when faced with an assortment of products that arent as neatly categorized as those in the full catalog.

Rutland recently incorporated a video link into one of its e-flyers. Sometimes we have a product that requires a little more explanation, Henry says. One pair of safety gloves looks a lot like another, but the video explained the qualities that set this particular glove apart and made it worth the marginal extra cost.

Rutland frequently produces its print sales flyers cooperatively with its vendors, and Dirxion was able to accommodate vendor inserts by placing a logo icon in the main flyer that will take the shopper right to the vendors section.

What makes a good e-catalog? Adam Marino of Flipseek, who has test-driven more catalogs than most people, says speed is essential. People are looking for something thats easy to flip through, and very fluid and interactive, he says. With some catalogs, every time you flip a page, it has to reload itself. There should be no delay in graphics or stuttering of the page.

Shoppers also like it when they can dog-ear an e-catalogs pages, just as with print catalogs. The really interactive ones have a bookmark feature, so that you can tag the page where you were looking at a product, and you dont have to remember which page it was on, Marino says.

Retailers can also take advantage of a print catalogs high-resolution images by letting e-catalog shoppers zoom in and see the stitching on a jacket or the brushstrokes on a painting.

Are e-catalogs worth it? These retailers lack hard data, but their intuition tells them to stick with the technology. We dont have the capacity right now to measure our results, says Gavin Contreras, marketing research manager of Rutland Tool and Supply. But are we going to keep doing it? Absolutely.

Elizabeth Gardner is a Riverside, Ill.-based freelance business and Internet writer.

...your digital catalog source