Is It Time To Turn The Page On Catalogs?

Industry suppliers reflect on the longevity of print in a digital world


As more and more of our transactional experience moves away from paper, pen and phone orders to online fulfillment, the question of printed catalogs as an industry staple continues to pop up among suppliers and distributors alike. The mere existence of print isn’t the only conversation; rather, the content and its usefulness are equally responsible for many of the conversations that suppliers are having among themselves.

“Catalogs are an interesting topic; on the one hand, so many distributors still attend trade shows and ask suppliers to scan their badges and have ‘x’ number of catalogs sent to them,” says Mike Schenker, MAS, vice president of promotional sales for supplier Keyfetch (UPIC: KEYFETCH) based in Miami, Florida. “On the other hand, many distributors say that we suppliers send too many catalogs. On the other other hand, more and more distributors and suppliers are eschewing the printed version, and I truly believe that’s the future.”

In light of the argument, Schenker says Keyfetch executives struggled with whether to take catalogs to The PPAI Expo 2016 in January. “The partners of the company and I differed on what we were bringing to the show. They wanted to have just some giveaway items featuring our revolutionary service, along with a business card which featured a link to a number of our websites. This would allow distributors to peruse all of our products and services when they got back to their offices.

“While I fully agreed with the logic,” Schenker says, “my industry experience told me that we had to have something of substance to hand them, something on which we and the distributor could both scribble notes during our on-site conversations—and something that wouldn’t get lost in the bottom of just one more bag collected at the show. As such, we compromised, and printed a one-page tri-fold that highlighted our offerings and still referred to our website.”

Schenker believes websites and digital catalogs in general are the way to go. He says by the time the show material was printed, one of the prices had changed. “I’ve stuck with it, and honored that price, even though we clearly stated that prices are subject to change. But going digital and online is always better for instant and seamless updates to be made. I always advise customers to check the website for the latest information.”

With plenty of demand for print catalogs coming from distributor clients, the goal then becomes creating and publishing a catalog that is user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. Cheryl Gallagher, director of marketing for supplier Starline USA, Inc. (UPIC: STAR0009) in Grand Island, New York, explains her company’s process, from design run-downs to press runs, and who the key decision makers are.

“Decisions about the key elements of our catalog are made as an executive decision. The design is created by the graphics manager working with the graphic artists to ensure the vision is being presented accordingly,” says Gallagher. “Each year these elements can change. For the 2016 catalog, some of the key elements were a unique cover, TruColor ads [promoting the supplier’s digital imprint method], and presenting images as big as possible with white space around them.”

Starline’s marketing department spearheads the production process, working with company executives and the graphic house. “Once the product line has been finalized, a mock-up layout is prepared and approved. Graphics will start working on the layout, while photography and information is gathered for the new products. There are a few rounds of proofing where feedback from different departments occurs. Approved files are sent to the printers and the press approvals are handled by the marketing team,” Gallagher explains.

As Starline and the industry have grown, and as technology has progressed, the production process has evolved as well. “Before some of the graphic programs that we currently use were available, the layout was done manually and was very ‘cut-and-paste’ based,” she says. “The final product would be a mix of images on one page and text information on the other.”

Typesetting photography and layout once took months to complete; now, graphics programs allow for digital placement of images and text on the same page. “The printing process has evolved as well, as the move to digital/web printing has improved the print colors,” she adds. “With technology, the whole creative and printing process has sped up, allowing catalogs to be produced in a shorter time frame.”

When new products roll down the pike, Starline may choose to print supplement catalogs. “We currently print a main full-line catalog at the beginning of the year, and we have two printed supplement catalogs,” says Gallagher. “These supplements are smaller in page count and are used to feature new products; one at the beginning of the year, and new products that we launch mid-year for the holiday season.”

But Starline, like its contemporaries, maintains an online catalog that features the same information as its print product—with the added ability to split the contents into product categories, making smaller catalogs for clients to view. “On the website product pages, we do have the ability to expand on information that is in the catalog, providing more details,” Gallagher says.

Starline’s catalogs also benefit from customer input. “We have received feedback from customers and the sales teams regarding the catalog over the years and do take all comments into consideration. Some do fit well with the creative direction of the catalog and we have incorporated them into the catalogs.”

So what does the future hold for catalogs? Gallagher says the idea of moving to a digital-only format has come up before, but “the consensus is that print catalogs are evolving and the size or format could change in the future. An interesting note: for 2016 more of our full-line print catalogs have been requested and handed out than in previous years,” she says.

“There is still a demand in the marketplace for the larger-format catalog. Part of this demand could be that the format does have the full product information and TruColor print technique compared to the supplement catalogs.”

NEXTProducts (UPIC: nextpro) is one supplier that believes strongly enough in the value of print catalogs to invest in revamping its book this year. Jeff Batson, CAS, president of Shelbyville, Indiana-based NEXT, says his company’s 2016 catalog is designed to be a centerpiece of the supplier’s modest rebranding. “We wanted a new look and feel,” says Batson. “Initially, we wanted to make it more lifestyle-centered, similar to a retail apparel catalog, and use people shots with the products in use while trying to avoid the stock photo look.” That idea, says Batson, evolved into adding a quirky, fun element with the use of a spokesmodel and an augmented reality video with the same spokesmodel.

In the earliest stages of planning, the team at NEXT looked at the catalog as more than a marketing piece. “From product pricing to product presentation, it became the central element for the year’s strategy,” Batson says. “We knew we wanted video elements delivered via an augmented reality platform, so those videos dictated many of the components of the catalog. The size of the catalog changed a few times as we added and eliminated products for inclusion.”

NEXT only produces one catalog a year, primarily due to costs. New products are introduced throughout the year through electronic media including electronic catalogs that are formatted like print books. And, electronic formats allow the supplier to provide additional information and images to clients. Since much of the print production process has moved in-house—graphic design and photography are done by NEXT staff—the team has been able to go to press later than in years past, says Batson.

Batson adds that the augmented reality addition has received a tremendous reaction, though the bulk of the feedback NEXT receives from customers is related to the presentation of information, rather than look or feel. “A number of us keep a catalog near us to record customer feedback, including information corrections for the next year.”

Given the near-limitless opportunities that digital catalogs and online-only product sales can bring alongside a much-reduced cost of production, Batson says NEXT considered eliminating print last year in favor of mobile apps that paired with the supplier’s existing website. “We often hear from customers that they don’t want a catalog. Also, we always want to position NEXT as a progressive company—the elimination of a print catalog makes a bold statement to that positioning.”

But NEXT, like so many others, has chosen to continue with print catalog distribution. “We decided to keep it because there is too much of a demand for a printed version now. When we tell this story of last year’s debate to have a print catalog, 95 percent of the feedback is that we made the correct decision,” says Batson. “Also, new data strongly suggests that print marketing media, including catalogs, is actually becoming more relevant.”

Make Digital Catalogs Work For You And Your Distributor Clients

Alright, suppliers. Let’s say you’re ready to make the leap to publishing a digital catalog. Perhaps you want to supplement your print version or replace it altogether; either way, online publishing comes with its own set of rules.

Bryony Zasman, director of marketing for business services provider ZOOMcatalog (UPIC: Zoom-cat) in Lafayette, Colorado, shares her expertise on producing and hosting online catalogs that are manageable and marketable.

One of the biggest differences between a print and digital catalog, says Zasman, is the ability to instantly share a line of products with a client, as opposed to sending them to a website. “It is much easier for someone unfamiliar with a brand to view and understand a supplier’s line of products by paging through a catalog rather than clicking around on a website,” she says. “Digital catalogs are searchable so you can quickly and easily find what you are looking for.”

Among the benefits of digital catalogs is the ability to update product information in a timely manner, without adding to the cost of production. “When you print catalogs, you cannot make changes to the content,” says Zasman. Additionally, digital catalogs can be customized multiple times for multiple end users. “If you spend time and money designing your catalog, there is no reason not to get it out there as much as possible, through as many channels as possible.”

Additionally, suppliers with limited in-house technology resources can rely instead on a technology provider such as ZOOMcatalog to host and maintain their digital catalogs. Regardless of who they choose, Zasman says suppliers should make sure the provider is an expert in the field of digital catalogs. “They should have powerful servers to ensure fast loading speeds with no downtime, allow for updates that are quick and simple, and provide them with access to live tracking with in-depth information about how their catalogs are used online,” she says.

The success of an online catalog doesn’t rest solely on its presence in the digital sphere, says Zasman. “The biggest mistake suppliers make is getting a digital catalog, linking it to their website and forgetting about it,” she says. “It is a great resource for those on your website—but with the correct provider, distribution channels, marketing and staff training, usage will be exponentially higher.”

Zasman encourages suppliers to take care with designing a cover that is meant to stand out on the web. “Have the cover tell a story about what is inside. End users do not know the suppliers in our industry, and the goal is to have distributors share your digital catalogs with them,” she says. “Small images and fonts can be difficult to view online. If you are designing a catalog for online use only, reconsider your fonts and images—the bigger, the better.”

Zasman also recommends placing fewer products on a page, since online catalogs don’t have to be limited to a certain number of pages. And, making a catalog more end-user friendly, by removing contact information, can make it easier for distributors to share with their customers.

PPB Asks: What Do Distributors Want From Their Catalogs?

All the full-color images and catchy copy in the world won’t do a supplier any good if distributor clients don’t find it easy to place an order. PPB asked a number of distributor members what they want from their catalogs. Here’s what they asked for:

• Suppliers need to be consistent with the placement of standard colors offered and PMS equivalents in catalogs. They should all locate them in the order instructions in the back of the catalog.

• Colors shouldn’t be hard to locate on online websites.

• Having separate logins for every company is frustrating.

• Some suppliers include about a third of the instructions online. Please put all instructions online or, better yet, put the full catalog online.

• Blank, high-res images should be offered instead of, or in addition to, images of items with logos on them.

• Supplier catalogs should be current on company websites and in SAGE.

Of course, some distributors are more than ready to see print catalogs go away for good. Their reasons? They say printing is bad for the environment, contents are out of date as soon as they’re printed, and the money could be spent on developing products, increasing inventory and developing better marketing pieces.

Jen Alexander is associate editor of PPB.

filed under may-2016 | ppb
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Comments (4)
Stacy Weiss - Your Choice Or mine
May 2, 2016

I've noticed that complete product information about is not always available on websites but can often be found in printed catalogs. SAGE also needs to be monitored by suppliers to make sure there are no errors or missing information about products, services, etc. Missing or incorrect information means we distributors either look unprepared in the eyes of our clients or our profits are hit. Either result isn't good. With these major issues addressed, we can move away from print catalogs.

Douglas Miller, Printing & Marketing Solutions
May 2, 2016

While it is exciting to page through a new print catalog, the reality is I hardly ever get one out of the file drawer. The drawer becomes it's final resting place until discarded next year. Digital catalogs and online services such as Sage are my medium of choice. However, too many times, the order confirmation comes back with additional charges that were nowhere to be found online. Now we are in a tight spot. The customer has already been quoted, so we have to take the hit on commission. I believe the General Information page in the back of the catalog doesn't work in the online world. I want to see all charges and options along with the product information. If there are charges to be applied, then please own it. Put it in a size I can see.

Richard Koolmeyer MAS
May 2, 2016

While I certainly believe that the future of the catalogs will be Internet based, there are benefits of being able to printed catalogs.

1. One can be left behind with a client as a constant reminder of your company, which at the same time also promotes the supplier's product line.
2. Although almost all decent size business have an Internet connection, not every company has a speedy download due to the fact that are still a lot of areas which still do not have full fiber optic connection.

I hope that suppliers will keep using catalogs for the next 3 -5 years, when hopefully the whole country is on fiber optics.

Linda booth
May 25, 2016

I am evidently on many distribution lists and get multiples of many catalogs. I have unsuccessfully through the post office to be removed from the mailings. I feel there are way too many catalogs printed wasting resources, time and money. Some days I really feel sorry for the mail carrier!

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