Building one of many mobile platforms: Brands, retailers add digital tablet catalogs

While websites long ago diverted attention from print catalogs, they have remained a key visual marketing tool for outdoor and fitness brands and retailers. Now catalogs are are heading to tablets. Find out how the technology is being used and where it's headed.
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The print catalog is going digital and mobile.

While ecommerce long ago outpaced the business generated by print catalogs, they've stuck around to provide visual marketing for brands and retailers. A scarce few customers still fill out and mail in paper order forms, but catalogs drive them to visit stores or order online.

Now, as consumers flock to iPads and other tablets, companies see an opportunity to strengthen the catalog into a direct commerce tool once again by creating digital versions of the product storytellers.

Mobile commerce, while still minimal overall, is growing fast — up from 1.4 percent of sales in April 2011 to 4.6 percent in April 2012, according to a recent study by RichRelevance. Perhaps more significantly, research showed that 90 percent of mobile commerce now comes via iPads and tablets, versus devices such as phones.

Tablet catalogs are just one of several technologies outdoor and fitness companies are using to reach mobile consumers. SNEWS used an iPad to flip through digital catalogs from brands such as Patagonia, Ibex, Merrell, Bowflex, L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer. Retailers are there, too, namely Moosejaw, REI, Sierra Trading Post and Sport Chalet, to name a few. Even the Campmor catalog, with its old-school drawings of outdoor gear, can be found on a tablet today.

Third-party firms such as Google Catalogs, The Find Catalogue and Catalog Spree offer software and services for companies to convert any print catalog into an interactive tablet version, and provide distribution. In the simplest iterations, companies just need to add product links to their ecommerce or mobile platforms, which operate in the background. There are other services to build a tablet catalog from the ground up. Some of the catalog services are free, some come at a flat fee and others take a percentage of each sale.

“It was as easy as drag and drop to set up,” said Keith Anderson, vice president of marketing at merino wool apparel brand Ibex. The company used Google Catalogs to put out its first tablet catalog this spring.

Consumers can access the digital catalogs by downloading the third-party tablet apps, or get them directly from the brand or retailer. The third-party apps provide the advantage of offering multiple catalogs in one place, giving consumers the ability to browse by category, such as “outdoor adventure” in Google Catalogs. In most cases, consumers are kept within the app for any purchases, and some apps provide a single cart between multiple catalog purchases. The apps also allow consumers to tag, save and share their favorite products from the catalogs via social media.

“We thought it was a good opportunity to keep that visual element, but put it more in line with the ecommerce business. It seems like a good marriage,” said Marilee Landwehr, marketing coordinator for Sierra Trading Post. The outdoor retailer put out its first tablet catalog a year ago through its own app, but decided to go with Google Catalogs for more visibility and reach this year.

“From a marketing perspective, it puts us in good companionship with other large companies and their catalogs,” Landwehr said. “From the cost perspective, as a merchandiser, I’ve watched the price of our print catalogs go up, up, up. We still believe in our print catalog, but this balances out the costs some and it really supplements the print version well.”

Catalogs, just like books and magazines, have room to grow digitally with the advent of tablets. In the past, digital catalogs felt clunky and inaccessible while browsing from a desktop or laptop online. Reports indicate that consumers are taking to tablets in a more intimate way — finding them familiar and comfortable enough to read like a book while curled up on the couch.

There’s also the environmental advantage of saving paper. Merrell advertises its digital catalogs on the back of its print catalogs, to let consumers know of the option, said Jodi Watson, vice president of global ecommerce and consumer insight at parent company Wolverine Worldwide. But outdoor and fitness companies aren’t quite pushing consumers to give up their print catalogs just yet.

Retailers and brands alike told SNEWS that tablet catalogs are just one piece of the mobile commerce puzzle as they work on more dynamic and interactive platforms beyond just a static PDF with links.

“As with any new technology, people try to replicate what’s old in the new form factor because it’s familiar and usually cheap,” said Larry Pluimer, a consultant for with Revel Touch, which provides mobile commerce tablet services. “Tablet catalogs are really the earliest form of a much greater potential within mobile commerce.”

Plumier said companies will need to think deeper about the user shopping experience if they want to see significant sales from tablet catalogs. That includes synchronizing inventories, providing access to reviews and adding multiple photos and videos — all the proven staples of ecommerce — without requiring one to leave the app.

“We do see more browsing than buying at this point,” Watson said of Merrell’s tablet catalog. “But our main goal is to be where the consumer is. The people who use tablets tend to be our most valuable customers — they come back to us more often, they spend more money and they buy more products.”

Sales from mobile platforms now account for more than 10 percent of all ecommerce business at Ibex, Anderson told SNEWS, noting that mobile is one of the fastest-growing channels for the company. And echoing the RichRelevance study, he said the majority of that business is coming from iPad and tablet users.

Outdoor and fitness manufacturers also could see a shift to tablet workbooks in the near future. Already, tablet-ordering software (a story in itself) is making inroads within the industries. Digital workbooks would allow companies to customize books for each retailer based on their product needs, manufacturers pointed out. It would allow for easy corrections and updates to what are usually early and sometimes incomplete printed publications.

“I would certainly hope they move in that direction,” Pluimer said. “For an industry that likes to pride itself on environmental consciousness, that would save a lot of paper.”

It’s still primarily a print world with workbooks and catalogs today, but as tablet technology gets lighter, cheaper, more versatile and widespread, expect the digital shift to continue.

--David Clucas

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