eBay Taps Catalogs for Holiday Push

EBay has emerged as one of the brightest gems of the new economy, but, ironically, the Web auction site is angling to appeal to holiday shoppers using an age-old channel: print catalogs.

This Sunday, eight-page, full-color free-standing inserts featuring the San Jose, Calif.-based site will land on doorstops in 44 different markets, in 55 major newspapers, reaching 23 million people. Spending was not disclosed.

The effort aims to set eBay alongside retailers like Macy’s, Toys ‘R’ Us, and Sears, which have successfully used the free-standing insert catalog format for years. And with the approaching holidays, the Web auctioneer is looking to present itself as being like the others– a source for gifts rather than, say, merely a used goods exchange.

“We really felt that we needed to have an offline presence this holiday season, to be part of the considerations about where people shop for the holidays,” said Annette Goodwine, senior director of brand marketing at eBay. “We have a tremendous online presence … and our opportunity is in the offline space. What we’re doing is creating an environment that’s very familiar to holiday shoppers that makes it easier to embrace eBay as a source for holiday gift-giving.”

The effort, designed by Publicis’ Frankel unit, also includes an online version of the catalog, which, like the print design, highlights major items that eBay believes will be highly sought-after during the season. For instance, the company’s listings managers identified hot holiday gifts like Brio’s Bob the Builder; the catalog shows pictures of the product and tells consumers how to find it on the site, for instance, by typing ‘Bob the Builder’ into eBay’s search engine.

“It’s about matching the offline experience to the online,” Goodwine said. “It focuses on what we believe are the key categories for the holidays, the breadth and depths of those categories … [and] how to find those products — creating an environment for holiday shoppers by calling out key items and showing you how to get there on eBay.”

The effort marks eBay’s first foray into the world of print catalogs, a route followed in previous years by other e-commerce players, like Amazon.com and Alloy. As an auction site, however, eBay faces some unique challenges that its fixed-price competition doesn’t. For instance, eBay bidders must wait for an auction to close before the item is shipped, which could take more than a week — unlike the near-immediate shipping of rival sites. (In an effort to deal with this, eBay has recently instituted a “buy it now” feature, which allows people to bypass the bidding process by agreeing to pay a certain price set by the seller.)

Of course, an aspiring eBay holiday shopper also must actually win the item, complicating the shopping process if others outbid them at the last minute.

But the catalog push is designed to circumvent most of these concerns, Goodwine said.

“It’s a familiar medium, and it makes eBay a more desirable and appealing destination for holiday shopping,” she said.

Still, while eBay is betting big on a payoff from its catalog effort, the site is hedging its bets, somewhat, with a co-op television campaign on AOL Time Warner cable and network outlets. Like the catalog, those spots — which will run through Dec. 19 — promote the site as the source for holiday gift-giving.

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