Impressive advances in e-commerce websites — and consumer web proficiency — have changed the business of online shopping. But while retailers may have started to downplay the importance of catalogs a few years ago, there is still plenty of insight to be gained from those print products.

In fact, according to Coy Clement, who runs catalog and multichannel direct marketing consultancy clementDirect, online shoppers who read retail catalogs are often better at using e-tail websites than those that get there through search engines. A look at one of his client's website's — J.Crew — shows how retailers can take those lessons to heart.

Clement, who spoke with eMarketer, has clients that include Procter & Gamble and Hewlett-Packard as well as J. Crew. He finds that catalogs are an excellent way to direct consumers, both online and off:

"I’ve seen cases where people who’ve received the catalog buy the featured items. They know what they’re looking for, and they use the catalog as a guide to what the company is selling. People who show up through organic search or a corporate high-traffic site have much more difficulty navigating the Website because they really don’t know what the key items are."

But that also means that retailers are doing a better job creating their catalogs than organizing content on their websites. Clement's been trying to change that:

"I’ve helped retailers design three or four different methods of accessing the Website, for instance shopping by intended gift recipient, by occasion, by a category or by price point. If you offer people on the Website the ability to do any of those four things, what you figure out is which ones are most used."

There are plenty of ways to demonstrate how retailers are taking catalog lessons to heart. For instance, features like this one from J.Crew that shows how the clothes can work together.

The web also provides more room to explore features that may not fit in the pages of a catalog, where conversations started offline can continue. J.Crew has implemented that strategy with its March catalog, which featured real life women who "inspire" J.Crew style. Online, the company has interviews with the women that customers can read:

Features like this may not directly send customers to product links, but they help convey a  lifestyle that a brand like J.Crew would like to promote  — something that catalogs and magazine features do so well.

J.Crew has gone through sizable efforts to help guide customers through the online shopping experience. While consumers can shop by items of clothing, they can also see entire outfits styled by J.Crew's team and see the clothes in ways that are hard to imagine in a grid of all shirts on sale.

Giving customers multiple options is one way to test out how different deliveries work with consumers. But also, search metrics can help with product layouts. According to Clements:

"Another thing I’ve done with retailers is look at search terms and learn about the customers’ terminology. Is she looking for blouses or tops? Merchants might be talking terms like tops, but maybe the customer isn’t ever using that word for search. Search terms can give you an insight into the actual way customers are thinking about your products."

But while catalogs are still a great way to reach consumers, the ways that people interact with them are changing. Says Clement:

"If you’re selling electronics for instance, anybody who’s a sophisticated electronics shopper knows that by the time you get the catalog, it’s old news. So if you send out catalogs, there’s got to be a purpose other than announcing new products in the electronics field. For a given audience or product category, print meets the customers’ needs differently."

Images: J.Crew

Meghan Keane

Published 3 March, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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