September 8, 2011, 12:44 PM

Those online catalogs might just be useful after all

Tablets could blow the dust off these web offerings.

Lead Photo

Catalog tablet apps like Google's (above) are gaining merchants and shoppers. Tablets could breathe new life into the catalogs that reside on retailers' e-commerce sites.

You just don’t hear much in Internet retailing circles about catalogs that reside on e-commerce sites. To me they seem like afterthoughts, something a retailer posts because they have all the assets in digital form already and there might be a chunk of loyal customers who will browse them. Nothing to write home about.

I will say that online catalogs likely play a somewhat larger role with apparel merchants, many of whom present tremendous-looking web catalogs with plenty of pizzazz. But in general, I believe web catalogs are not a key component of an online retail strategy.

That is until the iPad came along. I was having a discussion today with two of my colleagues about web catalogs. And we concluded that there may indeed be new life for online catalogs because of tablet computers. Tablet owners use their devices to read books and magazines, and tablets are approximately the size and shape of those physical products. Catalogs fall into this same category. Just like a tablet user will flip through the pages of a magazine in the magazine’s app or web site, he can flip through the pages of a catalog.

It seems like catalogs are a natural fit for tablet owners. Where someone sitting at their desk using their PC might not be attracted to a web catalog and instead prefer to shop the other parts of an e-commerce  site, a tablet user kicking back in his recliner may be more inclined to browse a catalog. It’s all about context, and routine human behavior.

If you are a retailer that already has a catalog on your site, I would strongly suggest you test it on the iPad and a couple of other tablets to make sure it works nicely on those devices. The pages should fill the screen and be touch-sensitive. If a retailer creates a great web catalog, it could even promote it on the home page using wording such as “Browse our tablet-friendly catalog.”

Tablets could turn dusty web catalogs into tools that help generate more sales. Tablet traffic to e-commerce sites is rising quickly. Retailers should really consider just how helpful a tablet-optimized catalog could be—and act accordingly.

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