Online Marketing Tips for Catalog Retailers

At a recent catalog conference, I was stunned to see the large number of catalog retailers embracing the Internet as a viable sales channel. Over the past couple years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of catalog retailers who realize the necessity of offering their products online. Although there’s been some improvement in their online presence and how they offer products, most still lag far behind when compared to the well-established online retailers.

Catalog retailers’ online presence has matured several ways. Initially, the retailers simply had a Web page so customers could order catalogs. This was, of course, a good way to capture email addresses, but that’s about the only real bonus from this marketing method.

Next, catalogers put their entire catalogs online, enhancing the customer experience with extras. Then came email marketing campaigns, followed by a recent attempt to build true e-commerce Web sites.

Consumers have been spoiled by outstanding service at a number of online retailers. They now have high expectations when it comes to shopping online. People really don’t care whether they’re dealing with new or old online entrants. They simply want best-in-class service.

Many catalog retailers attempting to build Web presences are concerned about developing a cost-efficient, meaningful online presence. Should they invest in fancy online catalog technologies? Or remain fairly basic in their approaches?

A number of things can be done to quickly build a decent and respectable online presence. If you’re trying to quickly close the gap with leading catalog retailers and boost your online sales, here are some of the best techniques these players are using:

  • Tailor landing pages based on traffic sources. Do customers come from ad banners, affiliate programs, or search engines? Based on the traffic source, preeminently display the relevant site sections or products the visitor is likely to purchase and tailor the welcome message.

  • Build a large online email database. Develop both on- and offline email sign-up programs with compelling offers to entice people to join. Collect email addresses as early as possible in the online cart process. Finally, ask a few additional questions after the email sign-up to better identify the subscriber’s interests, needs, and segment.
  • Customize the online experience. Base the user experience on all the information you’ve collected on the particular prospect or customer. For example, when a prospect is returning to the site, feature the products she looked at in the past but didn’t purchase. Show those products on the home page and the cart checkout pages. If you’re dealing with existing customers whose preferences are clear, based on their past purchases, visibly promote the products most relevant to them.
  • Survey customers. It’s mind-boggling to see so few companies that are building an online presence use surveys. Surveys are critical for improving the overall customer experience, optimizing site usability, understanding the role of the online channel in the buying process, and understanding the reasons why people aren’t completing their online orders.
  • Leverage segmentation rules. It’s nice to see the levels of sophistication catalog retailers have in offline customer segmentation. Problem is, most catalog retailers utilize a one-size-fits-all approach online. Lots could easily be done to improve segments and adapt messaging and offers to fit those segments. Online segmentation may differ slightly from its offline counterpart, but working with segmentation rules to offer customers an optimum online experience will always translate into higher sales.
  • Reengage abandoned online orders. Most shopping carts will be abandoned before completion. It’s important to gather the prospect’s contact information, then use a tailored online offer, timely email, or a phone call from a sales rep to recoup those lost sales.
  • Improve site usability. Use customer surveys, focus groups, and benchmarks from well-known online retailers to improve the online shopping cart process as much as possible. This will help ensure a seamless and intuitive online user experience.
  • Bridge the gap between on- and offline. Few of your offline buyers will automatically conduct all their transactions online. In the short term, they’ll go back and forth between channels, using each for different purposes. Understand how customers use your online channels, and offer them the opportunity to either speak with a sales rep or receive a specific offline catalog.
  • Test and refine. Track customer paths from referral sources up to the point where purchases are made. Define how each component affected sales.

All these tips must be extensively tested. Only then can you transform your online presence into a viable sales channel that will complement offline activities and provide the best experience for customers.

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