Is this the end for print catalogues?

Print catalogues are at threat after Ikea and Argos - both synonymous with catalogues of high production value - recently scrapped theirs after decades of publishing them. Retail Gazette looks at whether the catalogues will ever make a comeback, or if digital has replaced them for good.

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Is ecommerce winning against print catalogues?

Some of the high street’s biggest retailers, including Argos and Next, have built significant businesses on the backs of their print catalogues. Argos itself, along with Ikea, have even become synonymous with them. But in the age of ecommerce, print catalogues can seem like a relic from the past.

Retail catalogues first emerged in the 19th century, opening the door for mail order and/or home shopping in the UK. This followed the establishment of reliable postal services, supported by a burgeoning railway network for speedy distribution.

Arguably, sending heavy catalogues through the post is no longer the most efficient way to transmit product information. Customer interactions with print catalogues may also be much harder to measure and analyse compared withe the user engagement data that comes with online advertising and ecommerce operations.

There’s a reason why people automatically envisage the physical book when they think about the Argos or Ikea catalogue. Print is what these retailers are known for. Consumers may have adapted over the years but they still automatically expect to receive a print catalogue rather than a digital one.

Yet today’s shoppers have many shopping channels – bricks-and-mortar, online, and social media. Catalogues can encourage consumers to buy through other channels by creating awareness and introducing new ideas. So it begs the question, why are some retailers scrapping print catalogues?

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In July 2020, Argos scrapped its catalogue division after 47 years.

While the Ikea print catalogue has helped encourage sales of home furnishings and became a core part of the Swedish furniture giant’s global marketing strategy, its print run recently came to an end after 70 years.

Ikea made the decision after it collected insights from customers and shops and found that its catalogue was being used less due to changing customer behaviour and media consumption. The decision also formed part of an ongoing ambition to become a more digital and accessible business.

Meanwhile in July last year, Argos scrapped its catalogue division after 47 years. It found that more customers used the Argos website either to order products for home delivery or collect in-store. In recent years, it had been publishing its catalogue just twice each year as online shopping became preferable to print.

Argos chief marketing officer Mark Given said the decision to scrap the catalogue “weighed heavily” on him, but the team had been contemplating it for “some time”. He added that over the past decade, the number of catalogues printed dropped from 10 million to three million.

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Ikea scrapped its catalogue after a print run that lasted 70 years.

Undoubtedly, digital catalogues are usually more current in terms of culture, and deliver customers a constant stream of content. This is especially true in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw a dramatic acceleration in the rising trend of online shopping.

Digital catalogues can also offer videos and social media links for a more interactive experience that print catalogues cannot offer, allowing customers to head to the retailers’ website right away to purchase a product and creating deeper engagement.

Jacey Bunker, retail business director at marketing agency BWP, said sustainability was more of a contributing factor than digitisation when it came to Ikea’s decision to ditch its print catalogue. She added that this was inevitable.

“Ikea and Argos will have carried out a testing phase to ensure that there were no adverse effects to the removal of the annual catalogue,” Bunker told Retail Gazette.

“One would the imagine the cash saved from producing, printing and mailing the catalogue far outweighed any perceived loss in sales.

“The catalogue was the way to deliver on brand promise and showcase ranges, but retailers can now interact with consumers in real time via sophisticated and personalised digital CRM models that deepen emotional connection and increase conversion to buy.

“It is certainly something that other retailers should – and will – be considering.”

However, Bunker said there was probably a greater chance that a consumer will have a flick through something physical in their hand – as nostalgia and novelty comes into play.

“There are some consumers for whom digital will never be an option,” she said.

“Each brand will need to ensure they understand their specific customers’ wants and needs and to act accordingly.”

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The ability to provide 360-degree images, or to zoom into an image cannot be replicated in print

Catherine Shuttleworth, founder of retail agency Savvy, said the biggest downsides of catalogues was that they quickly go out of date as soon as they are printed. Products may have also sold out before the catalogue hits the shopper’s door mat and any mistakes such as pricing errors can’t be easily corrected.

“Creating catalogues is a timely and expensive process with little flexibility – there’s no way of updating them with news whereas digital versions can be continually altered and customer communication as a result becomes richer and more targeted,” Shuttleworth said.

“Then there’s the cost of print and in a time where we question waste of paper and resources the printed catalogue suddenly seems less attractive versus digital alternatives that can be much more easily measured in terms of sales per page and ROI.”

However, she said there were certain times of the year where catalogues can really work. For example, many retailers have slimmer versions during for the crucial Christmas trading period.

“Food retailers including Marks & Spencer successfully use magazines to showcase Christmas ranges and drive pre-buying and booking behaviours,” Shuttleworth added.

“The use of catalogues for online brands like Sosander and Hush have been a good way to get a greater degree of customer engagement with emerging brands.

“Catalogues, magalogues, brand books and mini mags used to be the only way of sharing product and brand stories – famously Mothercare had a catalogue that was printed every season and the Next catalogue was a whole new way of shopping for many people in the 1980s with the catalogue taking on a new art form.”

“The new digital approach to catalogues can be more exciting and has infinite possibilities”

Other retailers that have held on to their print catalogues include online retailer Studio and US homewares retailer Wayfair.

Studio chief executive Paul Kendrick said that despite many retailers such as H&M and Argos scrapping their print catalogues, Studio’s regular printing and distribution of them was reinstated after the first lockdown restrictions were lifted last spring. Kendrick told Retail Gazette this was done to “build our customer base”.

Studio’s catalogue system has been transformed in that it is now much more targeted. Kendrick said the smaller and more frequent publications would utilise data to personalise offerings for customers.

“Our catalogue offering is cheaper and easier than using a mailing system or advertising on Google,” he explained.

“It also gives people a nudge to say they can go online and continue browsing.”

Meanwhile, Wayfair took the opposite approach to shifting its catalogue online. The retailer still sends catalogues to customers, and its Europe boss Martin Reiter believes it is a way to reach more customers.

“When we send out catalogues, we’re thinking about our consumer groups and we consider which regions would be most interested in a print catalogues rather than online,” he told Retail Gazette.

Retail expert Nelson Blackley said the basic function played by most retail catalogues over decades – a clear, ordered, and comprehensive listing, together with some limited product and price details, can now be provided online.

He also highlighted that retailers were now adhering to consumers’ interests. The ability of a retailer’s website, or a specific app, to provide 360-degree images, or to zoom into an image as well as linking to other similar products are additions that are most welcomed in a modernised world.

“Recommendations from other customers, product ratings plus immediate amendments to any of the content, not least the price, can never be reproduced in a printed catalogue,” Blackley said.

“The collection of huge amounts of product information and the ability to quickly search and locate any specific data, as well as completing a purchasing transition quickly and securely, is exactly what many consumers now expect from online shopping.”

Shuttleworth agreed. She said the rise of the internet and more importantly the quality of smartphones meant it wa much more effective to converse directly with shoppers digitally.

“The new digital approach to catalogues can be more exciting and has infinite possibilities,” she said.

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