October 5, 2012, 1:27 PM

This catalog expert may be on to something

A blend of e-commerce, social media and tablets breathes new life into catalogs.

Several years ago, I slipped over to the offline world to attend a catalog industry conference where the keynote speaker was a luminary in the business. His paper catalog long an established success story, he did his best to fire up a staid audience about the importance of pushing a high level of customer service to win long-term customers and build sales and profits.

As luck would have it, he sat at my table after his keynote to listen to the rest of the morning’s speakers, and I had a chance to ask a few questions about his plans for growth through e-commerce. But they were questions that didn’t seem to spark his interest. “Oh, we have some people back at headquarters working on that,” I recall him saying matter-of-factly. He seemed more at home talking to the several attendees who later peppered him with questions about his catalog operation.

At the same conference, I also recall a noticeable lack of excitement and buzz of the kind that usually flows through industry conferences focused on hot trends and innovations in retail technologies and strategies.

Fast forward a couple of years to another conference focused on e-commerce, and the buzz was definitely stronger, though with some disagreements about where some retail technologies and strategies—like digital catalogs—were headed. On the exhibit floor, for example, more than one vendor was trying to drum up excitement about its new e-catalog application, providing online shoppers a digital page-turning experience designed to mimic the familiar experience shoppers had known for years with paper catalogs. Not far from the exhibit floor, however, an e-commerce luminary—a well-known expert who had already been a key player at more than one household name retailer—gave a keynote address and made a blunt and dire statement about digital catalogs: “I don’t like them—they don’t add any value to the online shopping experience,” I recall him saying.

Today some say the jury’s still out on the value of digital versions of paper catalogs. But one thing that’s for sure is that technology supporting e-catalogs has leaped ahead of what was available at those earlier conferences.

Just ask Mark Carson, the president and co-founder of web and catalog retailer Fat Brain Toys. With the rising popularity of tablet computers—and a slew of online shopping features like dynamic pricing, online customer reviews, and connections to social media—along with the digital experience of turning pages—shoppers can now sit in their easy chairs and flip through a catalog in ways that paper catalog experts of just a few years ago probably never dreamed of, Carson says. Catch the latest buzz about this when Carson talks about tablets and e-catalogs at the Internet Retailer Mobile Marketing & Commerce Forum next week.

From where I’m sitting, I think he may be on to something.

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