January 4, 2006, 12:00 AM

Replacing Paper

(Page 2 of 2)

The Williams-Sonoma online catalog launched as a test of e-catalogs’ utility as another online shopping channel beyond what was already a robust web site. Miller says the company knew its customers liked to search, browse by category and were engaged by theme pages on the web site. Given the sizeable percentage of its online shoppers that also receive print catalogs, the brand speculated those customers might also like the catalog option when shopping online.

Today, all three e-catalogs are down, all three brands support active web sites, and as the result of its experience, Williams-Sonoma Inc. defines the value of e-catalogs for its own operation as an interim step toward fully interactive e-commerce. In fact, the e-catalog currently up at WShome.com, the web site of its latest brand, Williams-Sonoma Home, is filling just that role as the company prepares a fully-interactive web site it hopes to launch this year.

In settling on an e-catalog strategy and looking at the performance of the developed e-catalog on Williams-Sonoma.com, the company analyzed how shoppers used the catalog. “One of the things we looked at was, how far did people get in the catalog? Routinely we found that they were dropping off before they got deep into it,” says Miller. “Then you start thinking about building all kinds of tools into the e-catalog so people can search and cross reference and index. But you realize that if you are doing a good job with that on the web site, you don’t need to do those things in the e-catalog. It’s redundant.”

Targeted e-catalogs

Miller’s conclusion is that for Williams-Sonoma Inc., e-catalogs are a needed bridge between launching new brands and new sites, and having a fully developed site ready to go. The online interactivity requirements are particularly critical for the lifestyle retailer, which depends on environmental photography for compelling merchandising. So it integrates interactively with lifestyle and room setting photography on its Pottery Barn site, for example, using rich media technology developed by Scene7.

“I’d rather see effort spent on increasing the productivity of the search component of the site, or adding something to the site from an environmental or room standpoint than to try to take the print catalog, a great model offline, and make it do more online than it was ever meant to do,” adds Miller.

At Shop.NHL.com, the strategy is not a question of e-catalog versus fully-functional shopping site: the online store of the National Hockey League made a fixture of both. What the retailer is wrestling with is exactly what kind of e-catalog is most profitable, and how targeted it should be.

Conversion rates up

NHL Interactive, which operates 30 team stores on GSI Commerce’s platform, has been using hosted e-catalog service from RichFX Inc. since 2003 and director of strategic development Andrew Edelson says the e-catalogs work with the estimated 1.5 million print catalogs mailed every year. As is the case with Redcats, the e-catalogs are an online shopping option along with a fully interactive web site. “It’s a great reference point for our fans who receive a catalog in the mail,” he says. “People see the online catalog, and they remember seeing something in the print catalog that they wanted. The mailed piece is really helpful in driving business online. It gets into people’s homes, and, particularly around the holidays, reminds them to go to our site or our call center and order.”

Though he doesn’t disclose numbers, Edelson says sessions, visitors, and conversion rates on Shop.NHL.com increase after it posts an online catalog, which it does three times a year. This fall, however, it leveraged RichFX technology to try something different: custom catalogs. Rather than simply posting and e-commerce-enabling its fall print catalog on the site, it created 30 team-specific catalogs and one general catalog that was e-mailed to customers segmented by team preference indicated by the customer at the time of e-mail registration. “So if you were a Washington Capitals fan, for example, you received an e-mail saying, click here to see the Washington Capitals official online catalog,” says Edelson.

The team-specific catalogs were also promoted on each team’s site, as well as in each individual team’s online store. The online team catalogs were e-mailed and promoted at the beginning of hockey season in October, when traffic is high across NHL.com as well as at individual team sites, and they remained on the team sites until early November when they went down to make way for a holiday catalog that mirrored the holiday print catalog.

“Everything synched together,” adds Edelson. “If you were a Rangers fan and you got a notification about the Rangers catalog, it drove traffic to Rangers products in the Rangers store. We saw our conversion rates go up for that time period.” Edelson won’t say by how much, but depending on the outcome of an analysis of the cost effectiveness and the profitability of the team-specific online catalogs versus the general e-catalog, the team catalogs could be repeated in the future.

The C/B ratio

Given variables including low initial investment, the merchandising requirements attached to different product categories, the ongoing development of rich media alternatives both within and outside of e-catalog technology and the shopping habits of different audience segments, e-catalogs are being viewed as a key interim step at some merchants and embraced as a core part of the operation at others. As with any other web site investment, it’s a cost-benefit question.

“E-catalogs are not expensive to produce,” notes Miller. “They provide functionality and a certain role, but as you scale your business and look at what you are trying to achieve, they have to be in keeping with what that business is meant to do.”


For the Internet Retailer Guide to Providers of eCatalog Products and ServicesClick Here

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