The Great Catalog Debate


There are few topics that elicit as much passion and surprisingly differing opinions than supplier catalogs. The debate between print and digital catalogs is one that’s been going on for well more than a decade as needs and usage have changed. With rising paper and postage costs and the advent of technology that’s made it easy and convenient to browse products online, a growing number of suppliers began transitioning away from printing and mailing catalogs in recent years. Now fallout from the pandemic appears to be accelerating movement in that direction. But not all suppliers want to eliminate print catalogs and not all distributors want to browse products on a website; many have compelling reasons for wanting to continue with print catalogs.

In an October PPAI PromoPoll of member suppliers, 40 percent said they plan to produce a 2021 catalog in print compared with 33 percent who say they will produce one digitally, and 27 percent who will produce a flyer or something else instead. A comparable October poll among distributors showed that 42 percent prefer print catalogs, 26 percent want print catalogs but only on request and 26 percent prefer a digital option instead. Six percent said they didn’t want either type of catalog.

Although this data is anecdotal, it supports the conclusion that there’s no single, overwhelming trend in catalog preference; what works for some companies doesn’t work for others. And even among those distributors who prefer print catalogs, many only want them if they ask for them.

“Personally, I don’t want a print catalog that is unsolicited or from every supplier. I feel guilty throwing them away or recycling them when I know they’ve gone to the expense, but I don’t have space to store them or time to go through every one,” says Amanda Hueneke, CAS, owner/manager of distributor Hello Imprint, LLC, in Frisco, Texas. “What I doappreciate is when suppliers send me quarterly specials or fliers in hardcopy that I can forward to my clients along with a quarterly self-promo.” She emphasizes that quarterly flyers that showcase sale items are her preference with one exception: apparel. “The catalogs I keep on hand are predominantly apparel, trade-show booth items and signage, and those that contain swatches and paper samples. I think that makes apparel shopping less overwhelming for a buyer than trying to maneuver through a digital platform when they’re not sure what they want.”

She also prints a limited number of branded SAGE generic catalogs to include in new customer or prospect packages to showcase her broad scope of products.

Distributors say that print catalogs have the advantage of being easier to browse for ideas and find pricing and production details. “They are much easier to see all those pesky details that can cost you a fortune if missed, such as PMS, production time, art requirements, etc.,” says Jani Jason with Associated Premium Corporation in Las Vegas, Nevada. “Until suppliers get much better about including all info on all items or at the very least where it is all more easily found, I need a paper catalog.” She’s also fine with receiving unsolicited catalogs. “Sometimes, we get in a rut with our ‘go-to’ suppliers and miss new and different ideas.”

Kelly Nussbaum, account manager at distributor Viking Trophies in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, likes receiving print catalogs from her key suppliers because they help her brainstorm ideas when she has an open-ended project, and she also likes taking a break from her computer screen. However, she rarely shares those catalogs with clients. To improve that possibility, she suggests suppliers rethink product categories, noting that the “old standbys” of leisure and personal care may no longer be applicable. “It can be difficult to figure out where to find items; a lot of the newer pieces don’t fit the old categories. For example: would a straw be in kitchen, personal care or eco-conscious? Often, I am looking for a type of product, such as eco-friendly, under $2, etc.” For online catalogs, she recommends an unbranded, end-user-friendly piece.

That suggestion is underscored by Denise Bromberger, MAS, owner of Image Marketing Specialists in Bailey, Colorado. “Suppliers should have an end-user-safe version of their flip/online catalog,” she says. “I put them directly onto my website. The URL should not reference the supplier name and the catalog should have no contact information or reference to the supplier’s line or name.”

Robert Nolan, MAS, director of awesome ideas and solutions at Wall 2 Wall Promotions in Hollywood, Florida, prefers print catalogs over online because they are better at jump-starting ideas. “After 15 years of keeping catalogs organized, I can go right to an idea or item that I was thinking of, even if I forgot the supplier’s name. Also, when we meet with clients in our showroom, I like to have catalogs to back-up the samples we are showing.” While he likes getting catalogs from all suppliers, he knows not all distributors do, and he suggests suppliers ask before they mail a catalog.  

For distributors who prefer them, print catalogs say something else about a supplier. “To me, because catalogs cost money to create and mail, it shows me their commitment to the industry and I will gladly take a look at it,” says Philip Wilkinson, owner of P.W. Enterprises in Reading, Pennsylvania. However, he is sensitive to the cost and says he’d be equally satisfied with a high-quality printed brochure showcasing suppliers’ best sellers or sales items, instead.

Producing a print catalog is a good way for suppliers to establish and promote themselves. Jennifer Katus, owner of Promomento in Avon, Connecticut, likes receiving print catalogs, especially from suppliers new to the industry. “Without it, there’s a good chance I'll never find them,” she says. But what she finds even more helpful are websites with amazing product photos. “Great digital product photos, shot from different angles, are quickly becoming an absolute requirement for remote selling,” she adds.  

Kim Roy, owner of Sutherland Printing in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, is also a fan of print and dedicates a section of her workspace to file them. “I reference these daily for different projects. I also use websites to look at things, but still like to refer back to catalogs. We also have customers that prefer hardcopy catalogs. We actually get some customers that will order from a catalog they received from us years back. You can't do that with online websites or e-catalogs. Having something in front of them at their desk, we find is still the best return.”

While Harry Parrish, owner of Harry A. Parrish & Associates in Kerrville, Texas, prefers print, he has a message for suppliers: “Lighten up! Don't waste so much of your money printing 600-, 700- or 900-page catalogs. Who really uses those huge things?” Most of his clients are out of town. He will mail a 200-page catalog but says “those monster catalogs” weigh too much. Instead, he suggests printing an “essentials’ version” that highlights what really sells along with a few new items. “Let us go online for the rest, or we'll call your customer service department for help.”  

Many of the distributors who contributed to this article think there’s a place in the industry for both print and online catalogs. Rodney Beebe, sales rep at Millstone Company in Salisbury, Maryland, says for most needs, a digital catalog works fine but from time to time he needs new ideas, and in that situation a print catalog is his go-to. However, he only uses print catalogs internally to look up details and get ideas. He rarely ever gives a catalog to a client. “I find some suppliers’ SAGE and online descriptions lack the full details that are sometimes needed, like item size or repeat costs. These suppliers’ print catalogs have much better information.” However, he’s not a fan of getting unsolicited catalogs, suggesting that suppliers instead send a flyer or email spotlighting their top sellers.

Isa Cocallas, owner of 3Koi in Kihei, Hawaii, also prefers not to automatically receive print catalogs from a supplier, explaining that a catalog is not going to be a factor in whether or not she chooses that supplier for a project. She says she hasn’t paged through an unsolicited catalog in years and most of her clients are located far away so she would have to mail the catalog—something she’s not likely to do. “It seems like a waste of investment for suppliers, and I’d rather they spent that money updating information or upgrading their website,” she says, adding that electronic catalogs offers the ability to search, copy/paste and even link to a supplier site.

Among those who specifically prefer online catalogs, many say suppliers’ efforts in that media could be vastly improved. “I believe there is room, in this day and age, for tremendous improvements in the way electronic catalogues are developed and presented,” says Graham Murray, owner of RKM Awards in Cottam, Ontario. “The PDF flipbook is already quite dated in my opinion, and in many cases not as nice as a paper copy in hand. I hope there are developers out there building the next great platform for catalogs. Electronic copy has the opportunity to bring product in catalogs to life (video, etc.) and they could be far more effective as selling tools.”

Jennifer Reissaus, MAS, chief operating officer at Advertising Specialties Alliance/Kaeser & Blair in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, also specifically prefers online catalogs to print. “[Print] is a waste of their resources and mine,” she says. “We are very much paperless, and I prefer a good supplier website, and accurate information and catalog scans in SAGE.”

Michelle Hartz, owner of Gebo Promo in Austin, Texas, used to have a wall of file cabinets that held nothing but catalogs, but no more. “Filing them was a chore, and as supplier websites got better, I stopped using [print catalogs],” she says. “I prefer to use a supplier’s website because it’s easier to search. Often the information I need is on that page, or a click away (like artwork specifications, standard imprint colors, etc.). I find it quicker and easier than a catalog.” If a customer needs a print catalog, she’ll request it, but unsolicited catalogs go directly into her recycling bin.

Jeryn Freeman, president of LogoPro in Clemmons, North Carolina, says her biggest office issue right now is the pounds and pounds of catalogs that need to be hauled out. It's a huge, ongoing issue, she says. Print used to be her go-to source but in the age of Amazon and COVID-19, plus sustainability issues, paper catalogs make little sense to her. However, it took Freeman a few years to make the transition to all digital, but she hopes the evolution of digital catalogs will continue. “Investing in better websites would enhance all our efforts,” she says. “Perhaps it’s just me, but I find online flip catalogs hard to navigate. So I hope that isn’t the industry’s solution."

Kathleen Stanfill, CAS, owner of Congratulations! in Jacksonville, Texas, says, “Catalogs are dinosaurs, really. There has to be a better way.” If she wants to find a product, she says the most expedient, efficient route is to search in SAGE. In place of catalogs, she wishes suppliers would send out more samples. “I love samples. I'm touchy-feely. Suppliers would be better served if they spent the money printing catalogs on market/client research and sent out targeted samples. Heck, put catalogs on USB sticks to send to distributors; at least maybe a search function could be integrated?” She adds, “In defense of catalogs, though, I will say this: I have several 'end user' catalogs in our showroom and they are always needing to be replenished.”

Stanfill is not alone in her partiality to choose sample products over catalogs. Jennifer Katus feels the same way. “If a supplier gave me the choice between receiving either a printed catalog or one free sample of my choice under $10 with free ground shipping, I’d pick the sample.”

Suppliers are picking up on these cues from their customers, with apparel suppliers Storm Creek and Edwards Garment among the many companies rethinking their 2021 catalogs. Derek Walters, director of brand experience at Storm Creek, says the supplier is not mass mailing its catalog this year but instead emailed customers a link and is mailing print copies on request. “This ensured they got delivered to correct addresses; with so many people working remotely, we didn’t want to send out catalogs to offices that may be closed,” he says. “Also, in an effort to be more environmentally friendly, we printed nearly half of what we printed in previous years.”

The upcoming year’s catalog also has a new feature, Manufacturers’ Suggested Retail Price (MSRP). “We have such a wide variety of audiences seeing our catalog, including consumers, end users, distributors and retail buyers alike, we wanted to keep the pricing simple and drive customers to log onto our website to view their specific pricing,” Walters explains. “This allows distributors much more flexibility in setting their prices. They can offer pricing below MSRP and still achieve better margins—and end users will be delighted with a lower price. It’s a win-win. This is the ultimate client-safe publication.”

At Edwards Garment, Taraynn Lloyd, vice president of marketing, says the company is moving more into the digital catalog world, but will continue to print its fall catalog. “We moved away from printing so much over the past 12 months, including our price lists, our spring catalog and most marketing materials. Digital has been a great tool for us and I’m glad we made the decision to conserve on traditional print.” She explains that digital allows the company to create mini-market catalogs without the expense of print and mail fulfillment. It also provides versatility when they market to distributors based on their desires to receive specific content. “We do feel that printing one catalog annually will be our best choice moving forward while supplementing various marketing promotions with digital assets.” 


A Distributor Speaks Out: Best Practices For Online And Print Catalogs

Isa Cocallas, owner of distributor 3Koi in Kihei, Hawaii, shares these suggestions for suppliers looking to improve their online catalogs to create more relevance with distributors.

General Appearance And Functionality
When electronic catalogs first debuted, many suppliers just took their print version and made it electronic. As we evolve, we should use more of the features that make electronic more powerful and use fewer of those features that just get in the way.

  • Flip: While flip catalogs are nifty, I personally find the whole animated page-turning a waste of time. We don't need to see and hear the page turn and it loses any novelty fast.  Yes, click to go to next or previous page, but skip the animation.
  • Jump: Being able to jump to a page, section or link is vital. Link your Table of Contents (beginning) and Index (end) to the section or page. Put in a Jump To mechanism that allows me to go to any page number (because that might be referenced elsewhere) or to any general information section. 
  • Copy/Paste: We love to take your information to put into our emails and presentations so consider how you word the product descriptions.
  • Links: I can't emphasize it enough—link to other related information that’s either in the catalog or to the supplier site. Also, offer a version without external links (client-safe). Yes, the links take time to build when you are making the catalog but think of the time it will save everyone from calling customer service, searching sites or correcting orders.

File Type And Size

  • While Excel or Word might be the way suppliers keep their information or how they download it from their servers, please don't distribute your product line in an app. This is OK if you are providing current inventory on a list of products but putting your catalog into Excel means I have to load that app to view your products and there will be no good formatting. I love data but catalogs should be in a more universal presentation form.
  • PDFs are universal and can be read from nearly any device. Most operating systems have a way to print to PDF and there are third-party apps that can provide this feature when creating the electronic catalog.  Also PDFs can be edited to create links.
  • Be aware of file size. There are ways to make PDFs smaller in file size without sacrificing picture clarity or the ability to search. If the PDF is going to be emailed or downloaded to share, file size is a consideration.

Features And Advantages Of Electronic Catalogs
Search: The ability to search an electronic catalog (or anything electronic like websites and industry databases) is one of the highest priorities. We should be able to search for "tumbler" or "bag" and jump to the next instance of that word. Because we all use this, when you are constructing anything electronic, remember to use words that we are most likely to use in our searches. 

  • For example, while the color "pine" might describe your pen color, we won't find it when we search for "green." You could call it "pine green" and then we all benefit. 
  • Figure out which terms are more likely. Is this pen click, plunge, push or retractable?  Bag or tote? Why not put both? Tote bag, duffle bag, drawstring bag—you are covered.

Details: Please include the details distributors need to make decisions. Yes, send us to your website for some information, if your website is kept current, but don't expect us to know what we need to seek out.   Remember that distributors work with many suppliers and policies & charges differ. 

  • Always include the usual suspects that apply to each item: item number and name, pricing and quantity thresholds, colors, materials, size, decoration method / size / locations, production time, default packaging, etc.
  • Some information may apply to many or all items on a page and could be noted on that page with a link to the relevant information in your General Info section. You could make informative icons that note which items may incur other charges. 
  • Additional charges: List which additional charges may apply. For example, Setup and Run charges are commonplace. But for other charges which are not generally the same from supplier to supplier, list those, such as Color Matching, Proof, Exact Quantity, Drop Ship, Less Than Minimum, FOB, Production Time, etc.
  • Hot and worth noting:
    • Made in USA, Union Made: Please don't list it as a Union product if it is made in a non-union shop and just decorated and shipped by a union shop
    • Rush Available: We all need it sometime so let us know
    • Full Color: Worth noting
    • Personalization: It’s extra important these days when we aren't sharing our things at work or schoo
    • Colors: Please list the closest PMS color for products if possible
  • General info – This includes valuable details, such as Standard Colors, Stock Art and Fonts, and Policies. Again, if any order is likely to incur additional charges, note it on the item and link to the information.  


Robert Nolan, Wall 2 Wall Promotions, offers fellow distributors these tested methods that he’s found helpful when using and organizing print catalogs.

  • When we meet with clients, I have the items already bookmarked in the catalog(s) as well as a presentation printout that clients can take with them. It is not unusual for a client, when shown an item in the catalog, to see other items they are interested in or chose an upgraded item that may be pictured near the item I’ve presented.
  • When a new catalog comes in, I go through it and see what’s new and if I can use anything for a current project. I don’t pretend to remember all the items we carry, so this helps with recall for items as well as which supplier sells the product. Then I pull the old catalog out for recycling and place the new one in that supplier’s folder.
  • In the hanging folders, I also keep all of the coupons/specials that come in the mail, contact information, supplier-specific marketing material and samples, if they are flat and not already in our showroom. Everything I need is in one folder, but I still use the supplier website as well as SAGE for resources. It’s nice to pull a folder and see coupons/discounts that can apply to the order.
  • Not all of the catalogs are up to date and that’s ok. We replace them frequently with what the suppliers send us and with what we pick up at shows. If we need an up-to-date catalog for a specific project, we request it. Also, if we don’t plan to use a supplier for one reason or another, we ask them not to send us more catalogs.
  • We also loan out catalogs to a few distributor friends in the area.

I’m old-school and this is what has worked best for me. I did try, for a short time, to use only online catalogs from third parties and supplier resources, but I found my system to be more productive and creative for me. I also supplement print catalogs by accessing online catalogs on my phone and tablet.


Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.

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Comments (2)
Ev Brown
November 30, 2020
The debate goes will never please everyone. Print catalogs do hang around and are easily researched. Online catalogs - are often out of sight = out of mind. I think suppliers who do online only lose out, as most distributors only remember a handful of supplier websites - locking out many suppliers they cannot remember or don't know because they have not researched them before. Only sharp distributors can easily direct clients to online catalogs. Uniformity of online offerings varies. There is a supplier I do a lot of business with - who has a disastrous website with their phone number on every page - not cool. Need to come up with something better to make online work at 100% to spread business equally - even for smaller suppliers. Online is not an even playing field. These giant 1 to 2 inch mega catalogs are over the top. Just because a supplier buys a pad printer - they think they can offer every product they can stamp a name on. They should focus on what they do best and keep their offerings manageable. These mega suppliers are buying all sorts of companies to add to their offerings. Soon we will have 12 mega suppliers in the industry. Bigger is not always better!
Bryony Zasman
November 20, 2020
We (ZOOMcatalog) just did a big industry marketing survey (will be released January) and it is true that now more than ever, digital catalogs are proving to be an invaluable tool for both distributors abs suppliers. However it is time for suppliers to think beyond the standard full-line catalog. More than just a reference guide, those that we surveyed are looking for more targeted, niche catalogs, filled with photography and other interactive elements such as video, hyperlinks, and more. Over 70% of distributors surveyed also said they customize (add their logo and info) supplier catalogs before sharing. From both the supplier and distributor perspective, digital catalogs are the way to go. They can be used in robust marketing campaigns, as an addition to a website, for social media posts, to generate ideas, in a sales pitch, and so on. And for fun, you can already see many supplier 2021 catalogs on ZOOMcatalog here-
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