An old medium that’s still vital in the new economy

Modern consumers demand a choice of shopping channels, but they all like to make their choice from an old-fashioned paper catalogue, says Richard Roche

Alice Beer, formerly of the BBC’s Watchdog show, is on the offensive on behalf of the Direct Marketing Association, explaining the virtues of the DM industry to consumers and promoting a new DMA website, mydm.co.uk. The campaign started last week, addressing public concern over “junk mail” and telemarketing and launching the DMA’s first Consumer Charter and customer-facing website. The DMA aims to help consumers control the direct marketing they receive, educate them on legal safeguards and protect them more effectively from bad practice.

But the fact is, many consumers welcome direct contact from brands and retailers. One area where this is certainly the case is home shopping – and demand is growing.

The internet has been instrumental in reinvigorating traditional home shopping and now plays a key role as an important communications and response channel between consumers and brands. With online sales expected to increase by 40 per cent in the approach to Christmas, and an estimated &£5bn predicted to be spent online (Interactive Media in Retail Group), the home-shopping sector looks set for something of a windfall.

Retailers engaging with customers who shop from home, or even the workplace, have been smart to embrace the multi-channel approach, giving customers the opportunity to choose not only how they are communicated to, but also how they communicate with their chosen brands. Yet, while the internet has made the process of ordering products and services a truly 24-hour-a-day business, other channels, such as the phone and the more traditional post, remain integral components.

The humble catalogue, for instance, is seeing something of a renaissance as a marketing tool, as well as fulfilling its traditional sales function. Over &£3.6bn in sales has been generated by catalogues in the past year and the average spend per person on catalogue purchases has risen from &£324 to &£364 since 2000. While some unwisely predicted the death of the printed catalogue when the internet first began to reveal its potential, in reality it has evolved into an important tool, even for retailers that only exist in cyberspace.

A recent Royal Mail survey shows that retailers of all kinds are embracing the catalogue, to generate both traditional sales and online orders. One in five retailers cited catalogues as the most effective method of attracting customers to the internet, and over a third of consumers stated that having an online retailer’s catalogue to browse through makes them more likely to buy from that retailer online.

There are a number of reasons catalogues represent such an important sales tool to both traditional and online retailers. They are a tangible form of information, which the consumer can browse at leisure whether at home, at work or even on the bus. And, as demonstrated over and over again by retailers, catalogues can be highly creative and designed to appeal to a specific target market, at a certain time of year or to promote a particular product range.

The effectiveness of delivering catalogues via the post also shouldn’t be underestimated. Research from the CRAM Institute has highlighted the emotional response people have with the post, and the role it plays in everyone’s lives. Unlike some other communication channels, where people can feel bombarded by marketing messages encouraging them to buy, the research demonstrated the daily delivery of the post is approached with hope and longing because of the “personal touch” implied by post. So much so that people are disappointed when they don’t receive any mail, and some even stated they would rather receive a leaflet than nothing at all.

The strength of catalogues comes back to enabling consumer choice and multi-channel approaches. A consumer might use their catalogue to choose which products to buy, and then prefer calling the retailer to place their order with a human voice. Others may find it more comfortable or convenient to shop online. Consumers are more demanding than ever before/ they want greater choice and convenience when shopping, so every retailer needs to provide a range of options for consumers to decide how, where and when they make their purchases. Particularly during the run-up to Christmas, when a multitude of traditional and online retailers vie for custom, choice and flexibility are key.

Similarly, the fact that catalogues have made a resurgence demonstrates retailers’ need to engage consumers using the most effective means possible in order to secure business and drive customers to their purchase points. As the research shows, catalogues fill this role perfectly. With nearly two-thirds of retailers surveyed, including John Lewis and Firebox.com, currently sending catalogues or brochures to their customers to drive sales, they look set to remain a central component in the home-shopping arsenal. DM demonstrates its tenacity once again.

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