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The Current State of Catalogs

Catalog Printing

Catalog printing in the United States has been on a steady decline since 2007, when new postal rates went into effect raising rates as much as 20-50 percent almost overnight. The market, which mailed roughly 21 billion catalogs in 2006, shrank to 13 billion in 2014. However, the 2014 numbers were an increase over 2013, which mailed only around 11 billion books – so the market is starting to see a rebound. And commercial printers will be one of the suppliers who will benefit from a resurgence in printed catalogs.

“We hope we’re right in predicting that catalog print volumes and frequencies will continue to climb,” noted Paul Bozuwa, president and COO of Sheridan’s Dartmouth Printing Co., located in Hanover, NH. “For our customers, consumer confidence has a lot to do with it. Customers, once again, are able and willing to spend, and catalogers are responding by expanding their circulation. In our very short run niche, the increase in catalogs both general economic improvement as well as an increased interest in both artisan and local products.”

Hamilton Davison, president and executive director, American Catalog Mailers Association (ACMA), noted that for a while, catalogers were searching for an alternative to the traditional print method, primarily focusing on the Internet, such as paid search, pay-for-click and social media options. But, “no one yet—to my knowledge—has unlocked the secret sauce that makes the Internet as productive as mail from an average order and customer value standpoint.”

“Why is that,” he went on to ask. “Maybe we just haven’t optimized the medium, or maybe there is something truly different about the catalog. You can’t make me open your email, you can’t make me visit your Website, you can’t even make me go to your retail store; but you can mail me a catalog and force me to give you a third of a second of mind share as I look and decide if I’ll read it or trash it. And in that third of a second—given the high visual profile—you can show me the cover, romance me, tell me a story, and invite me in. No other medium has that set of attributes, and is both invasive into the home and is welcomed.”

Technology Working Together
Other attributes that make catalogs unique—and are contributing to their resurgence—are things like catalogs being much more focused, rather than trying to concentrate in the noise that is the Internet; and catalogs don’t require any kind of “signal” and can be read in places like the beach or bathtub where electronic devices are more at risk. Davison noted that research is suggesting catalogs are as relevant to 20- and 30-somethings as they are to older generations, and he also pointed out that catalogs aren’t actually working against the more modern mediums, but with them. “It’s the best thing to happen since the invention of the high speed printing press,” he said. “They work hand in hand; 65 percent of orders, on average, are coming in via the Internet, but most of the match-backs have shown the arrival of catalog in the home or office was the precipitation event.”

In fact, catalogers aren’t just printing books and mailing them, they’re creating sophisticated marketing campaigns in which catalogs feature prominently. They are using technologies that allow them to post the same catalog information online as in print, and they are experimenting with tying in things like mobile or augmented reality technologies.

“Mobile apps and digital editions are great for making catalog content available online and for the on-the-go customer while augmented reality and—love them or hate them—QR codes bring an added level of reader engagement and a great way to deliver more detailed information to the buyer,” said Bozuwa.

He went on to note that, “many catalog publishers are incorporating these technologies into their catalog to obtain postal discounts offered by the USPS. With proper forethought and planning they can easily be incorporated into the catalog marketing mix. It’s a smart way to engage your buyers and possibly save some valuable budget dollars, too.”

Another benefit to having the traditional print mediums work hand-in-hand with the newer options is product accuracy. Davison pointed out that every screen on every device is different, with things like color or texture open to interpretation based on the white balance of that particular screen. If you saw the Internet controversy several weeks ago over whether a dress was blue and black or white and gold, you understand just how big of a problem this can be for retailers. Catalogs, however, are controlled and color corrected, not to mention they use high-resolution images that have a great deal more detail than a screen can produce. When used together, consumers get the best of both worlds—accuracy and detail in the printed catalog, and convenience of ordering on their own schedule online.

What Can Printers Do?
Today’s commercial printer must do more than simply take a file and reproduce it. The most successful—like Sheridan—have realized that success comes when they serve as a partner to their clients. “We take a very collaborative approach with our customers,” Bozuwa noted. “We strive to not only understand the objectives of their catalog, but to develop a strong relationship with them. We have a highly skilled team of professionals that offers guidance and support from the first call through the delivery of the catalog to the customer’s mailbox. From the print side, we offer both low and high volume print solutions and provide co-mail and distribution services to help manage those ever increasing postage costs. We also offer digital solutions to help catalogers engage, entertain, and educate their customers.”

Sheridan has also set an example for other printers by ensuring its equipment list is up to any task—no matter how large or small—a cataloger might request of them. The company runs two web (8 unit) duplexed Heidelberg M-2000 heat set web offset presses; two web (9 unit) duplexed Goss M-2000 heat set web offset presses; two (6 unit) 40-inch Komori LS UV sheetfed presses; and a Muller perfect binder. Bozuwa said that right now, they are focusing their catalog efforts on the sub-50,000 piece market, since the company has found there are more “niche” catalogers out there looking to try new, innovative mixes of media than there are huge-volume mailers right now.

In addition to making sure the equipment list is up to the task of varying print runs, Davison noted that printers need to be looking at efficiency. He believes that printers who work with their catalogers to create the most efficient supply chain—from beginning to end— are going to see the greatest rewards. He also encouraged printers to look at services such as list and data management, since those are complimentary to the catalog publishing world, and is an area printers are well positioned to capitalize on.

Finally, Davison believes all printers need to get more involved with government. “The catalog industry doesn’t have a long history of being involved,” he noted. “Part of the reason the 2007 rate hike occurred and was so devastating was that catalogers weren’t involved. A lot of the policy makers said they didn’t know anything about us, so printers need to engage to make sure they understand what the issues really are.”

He said that while he understands all printers, as business people, have a lot to accomplish on any given day, this should be a priority. And, he stressed, getting involved with associations—his or any other—is the best way to go about it, since there is power in numbers. “Sophisticated industries get what they want and need, and they do that by engaging and participating in the process,” he noted. “Our industry—catalogers, marketers, and suppliers—have not traditionally been as invoiced as we need to be, and it has cost us, and will continue to cost us until we engage.”

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