October 9, 2012, 9:46 AM

Tablet catalogs tap into bygone browsing methods

It’s like flipping through a beautiful paper catalog, but with digital features, a retailer says.

Lead Photo

Mark Carson

A few decades ago, the arrival of a giant, glossy holiday catalog was a big event in many homes, including his own, recalls Mark Carson, president of toy retailer Fat Brain Toys, No. 454 in the Internet Retailer Top 500. He says he remembers hours spent taking turns with siblings circling items or dog-earing pages. E-commerce sites, with their focus on speed and price, don’t replicate that experience, but a catalog on a tablet can—and add capabilities not available in print.

"There is a very specific way a lot of people grew up interacting with catalogs," he says. "If you can emulate some of that, it translates well to the tablet." Smartphones, with their small screens and the difficulty of entering data, are another beast altogether, he adds; digital catalogs are best suited to the relaxed couch shopper scrolling on her tablet.

Carson presented his take on tablet catalogs at the 2012 Internet Retailer Mobile Marketing & Commerce Forum in San Diego in a session titled, "The new world of tablet catalogs--endless opportunities, new challenges."

Carson explained that 23% of the traffic to FatBrainToys.com is coming from mobile devices this year, but only 11.2% of the revenue. In considering how to turn more of that traffic into sales, he decided to take advantage of the tablet to update the experience he had as a kid of flipping through a catalog with beautiful images and flowery descriptions of toys.

That led the e-retailer to develop a catalog app for tablets that Fat Brain Toys plans to introduce in a few weeks, in time for the upcoming holiday season. Navigation on the tablet catalog will be very different from on the retailer’s e-commerce site.

"Five to 10 years ago, it was simply bad practice to encourage users to scroll down a page," Carson says. When, after searching for items, consumers needed to spend time scrolling through long lists of results to find what they wanted, it meant a retailer did not have a simple, streamlined web page, he says. But with the advent of Pinterest and other such image-intensive web sites, shoppers are not only getting used to scrolling through page content, but they've come to expect it.

"How you shop is greatly influenced by the medium from which you're shopping," he says. In the late 90s when e-commerce was taking off, basic transactional behaviors were all that PCs could handle, he says. But now with touchscreens and especially tablets, "the swipe is the digital representation of what you do with a page."

But retailers must design their tablet catalogs carefully he said. He presented three guidelines:

                • Include useful information, but keep it in check. Tablet catalogs are more about experience than blasting consumers with lists of product details and shipping information, he says. Remember that a tablet catalog is ideal for elements like videos and product reviews intended to give the shopper information, not move her immediately to purchase, he says.

                • Tablets are about visual merchandising. "In the tablet area, definitely, images speak louder than words," he says.

                • Build a tablet-friendly experience. Carson again points to Pinterest and the new popularity of scrolling, as well as pinching, swiping and other modes of navigating a tablet's large touchscreen versus navigating on other devices by clicks. Make these actions part of the design of tablet catalogs.

In response to a question about why Fat Brain Toys does not have a mobile web site, Carson replied the company is small and self-funded, and can’t do everything. He chose to build a tablet catalog before a mobile site or app, he says, because he felt it would be a great way to present toys.

Previously he'd created digital catalogs with the Google Catalogs service from Google Inc. that allowed him to upload a PDF document of his print catalog and add tags and links to convert it into an enhanced web version, he says. But it did not provide the desired user experience on tablets. That’s why Fat Brain Toys now is working to create a new catalog app designed specifically for tablets. He offered to send mobile conference attendees a report in January about how the new tablet app performs during the holidays.

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