July 12, 2012, 11:01 AM

Retail’s role players

Catalogers rely on the interplay of print, stores and the web to drive growth.

Kevin Woodward

Senior Editor

Lead Photo

Retail growth for catalog and call center companies hinges on a combination of channels.

While it’s true that catalogers ranked in Internet Retailer’s 2012 Second 500 Guide trail other merchant types in e-commerce sales growth, it’s also true that some of these smaller catalog retailers consider their e-commerce operations successful. Much of that success can be attributed to the natural interplay among catalogs, stores and the web, they say.

In 2011, companies that sell predominantly through catalogs and call centers averaged online sales growth of 10.8%, behind the Second 500 average of 17.7%. They trailed retail chains, which averaged 18.7% in growth, and web-only and consumer brand manufacturers, each averaging about 18.4% in growth last year.

But approximately one-third of the 39 catalogers in the Second 500 found ways to generate double-digit online sales growth in 2011. Sporting goods retailer Mack’s Prairie Wings Inc. (No. 525), for instance, is growing online because its three main sales channels play well together, says Cheryl Raney, chief financial officer at Mack’s Prairie Wings, a retailer of hunting gear and accessories. The merchant’s 27.1% web sales growth in 2011 ranks among the top five gainers among catalogers in the Second 500.

“We find that catalogs, bricks-and-mortar stores and our web site drive each other,” Raney says. “Our web site traffic jumps when we mail a catalog or send an e-mail. We also see increases in traffic on the web site as well as in-store when we advertise in-store events.”

Not to be overlooked, the bricks-and-mortar store also has advantages as a sales channel, she says. “Our situation is unique in that some of our items that we sell in the store, such as rifles and shotguns, we can’t sell online,” she says. “We can send e-mails advertising them, but the customer must come into the store to buy them. That means our bricks-and-mortar store will always be important to us. But we get a significant portion of our sales from e-commerce. Both channels really drive each other, so we will continue to grow both channels.”

Catalogers are finding new ways to drive sales as they compete for shoppers’ attention in multiple channels. Content plays an important role for retailers such as eco-friendly apparel merchant Soul Flower. “Now, with so many different ways people can find you, it’s more important than ever to provide relevant content and an engaging site for prospective customers,” says Mike Shoafstall, CEO and chief financial officer at Soul Flower (No. 916). Soul Flower’s e-commerce sales grew by 11.1% in 2011.

As Raney says, “Catalogs are still one of the best means for driving traffic to the web site. Every year, web sales increase and call center sales increase, but the e-commerce channel increases are always bigger than the call center’s.”

Comments | 2 Responses

  • Part of the reason catalogers are "behind" is they were the original adaptors. Their business model was most adaptible to ecommerce, much more than brick and mortar or even pure ecommerce companies as those had to build an infrastructure. Thus, if you asked what portion of total sales are web based you'll find that in total catalogers have a higher portion of web sales than B&M companies. In many cases over 50%. Thus the percent growth is smaller as you get to the point of saturation of web sales. Some people like to call up and get questions answered prior to ordering. Thus, other than pure play ecommerce companies, no one will ever be 100% and even those companies are missing something if they don't have an 800 number for those customers/prospects who can't get their questions answered on the site--AND NO site has all the answers. Proof of this, look at Zappos and its huge call center. Bill Dean

  • Bill Dean's comment is spot on. Calculating percent of internet growth year over year is the wrong metric to apply - web sales as a percent of total sales is the correct one. That metric shows catalogers to be far ahead of retailers - and gaining faster than the retailers too. Additionally, I think that retailers will always prefer to have the customer in the brick and mortar store, where they have more opportunity to upsell, cross sell, and, more importantly, garner impulse sales. The retailer can better control the experience in the brick and mortar store.

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