December 29, 2006, 12:00 AM

Saving the Trees

E-catalogs vie for online space with new imaging and shopping features.

Hyde Park Jewelers, a small chain with stores in Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas, reaches out to its customers with a “luxury book” catalog that shows off “the best of the best” in its inventory of high-end jewelry. “We’re in a very visual product area, and the closer you can get to the look and feel and touch, the better,” president Michael Pollak says.

To further leverage the catalog and boost online sales-now only 5% of Hyde Park’s business-the retailer has given the luxury book a second home at as an e-catalog. But that created a challenge in re-producing online the high-end imagery of the print catalog, Pollak says. “On the web you don’t get a feel for the metallics of a metal and the refractiveness of a diamond,” he says. “You can come much closer in a printed, four-color format.”

Early in 2006, Pollak and his staff started looking for a vendor to adapt the 48-page luxury book and a lower-end, 32-page “wish book” to e-catalogs. They decided on Scene7 Inc., Novato, Calif., which Pollak concedes usually works with bigger fish, like, Lands’ End and Williams-Sonoma. Nonetheless, Scene7 set Hyde Park up with a template that accomplished virtually everything needed without any customization, Pollak says.

The jeweler opted for the vendor’s “full service” e-catalog, which runs about $50 per page, not including hosting. Hyde Park sent PDFs of its two catalogs to Scene7 and went through two or three rounds of adjustments, making sure that the products were properly linked and everything worked smoothly. Both books launched at the beginning of the 2006 holiday season.

It’s a quaint notion in some ways: putting an exact copy of a mail-order catalog up on the web, sometimes with special effects that mimic the turning of a physical page. Surely at this late date we can forgo the paper metaphor?

Window shopping
And yet, sophisticated retailers, even those with thriving web sites, are finding a place for e-catalogs. Flipseek, a site that aggregates e-catalog links for the enjoyment of folks who prefer to shop that way, has almost 200 e-catalogs on its roster, including big names like J.C. Penney, Nordstrom, L.L. Bean, IKEA, Wal-Mart, Circuit City, and Linens ‘n’ Things.

“A lot of people who go to e-commerce sites have an idea of what they’re looking for,” says Adam Marino, who worked in the catalog industry before founding Cleveland-based Flipseek. “But on the other side are people who don’t know what they’re looking for. That’s what catalogs have always brought to people-the browsing or window-shopping side.”

Images of catalog pages have been kicking around the web since its beginning. Any retailer can get a scanned version of a standard-size catalog up on Google Catalogs for free, and it will even have searchable text. But an effective e-catalog-one with clickable links that gets shoppers to the product page and ready to fill up a shopping cart-requires some investment of time and money.

E-catalogs aren’t ragingly popular, according to the report, “The State of Online Retailing 2006,” by Forrester Research and Only a third of the 174 survey respondents reported having an e-catalog, and of those, only a third thought they were “very effective.”

But e-catalogs have their place, say retailers who use them. They help maximize what is often a substantial investment in producing a paper catalog. They can offer a showcase for merchandise that goes beyond a standard product page. And they provide a familiar experience for customers who haven’t quite cozied up to the web.

For a relatively minor cost, somewhere between $20 and $100 a page, a retailer might as well put its catalog into e-form, and not even worry too much about a return on the investment, Forrester Research senior analyst Sucharita Mulpuru says. “Retailers that have multiple types of catalogs can get a wider circulation by posting an e-catalog-especially apparel and home companies,” she says. “E-catalogs can also help with cross-selling.”

Easier shopping
Office Depot, Delray Beach, Fla., launched an e-catalog in the last quarter of 2006, its first full-blown clickable effort (although the company had experimented previously with posting its sales flyers). The majority of Office Depot’s customers still use the paper catalog to order, even if they ultimately place those orders through the web site. The e-catalog is meant to cut out a step and make things easier for those customers, says Dean Jackson, director of integrated marketing.

“A lot of customers in our research have voiced a preference for navigation of a printed vehicle,” he says. “They understand what it is and how it works, and it’s what they’ve grown up with, so having that environment out there is always a good thing. Our goal is to minimize the number of clicks and get the customer to the ordering page as quickly as possible. We think the e-catalog will increase our conversions.”

Office Depot contracts with RichFX Inc., New York, to create its e-catalogs, though its internal information technology team also plays a role in getting them up and running. “The first ones were time-intensive, but now we have a fairly easy way of moving the books into the virtual environment,” Jackson says.

Jackson doesn’t have any data yet on how the e-catalog affects conversions and overall business, but he’s optimistic. “The incremental payback will dictate how much more we do and invest, but so far everything is very positive.” It’s also possible that the presence of the e-catalog may reduce the number of paper catalogs that Office Depot has to print and mail, but Jackson says it’s too early to say.

Art merchant The Artful Home has always been a web-based enterprise, though it’s had both a paper catalog and an e-catalog almost since its inception, says president Mike Baum. It’s an offshoot of The Guild, Madison, Wis., a company that represents more than a thousand artists and makes their work known to design professionals who are trying to locate artists for commissions and special projects.

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