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Direct Mail and Catalogs: Why Catalog Order Forms are Still Vital

First off, in this era of e-commerce, I'd like to argue that catalogs are still relevant, that they contribute in a material way to direct mail success and hence to overall sales and profits.

I recently read an article in the May/June 2013 issue of GD USA magazine that echos this belief. “Bridging the Gap Between the Tangible and Digital Worlds” by Gerry Bonetto cites studies and provocative facts and figures in its defense of print media.

  1. comScore Case Study: The U.S. Postal Service (USPS), 2009: According to GD USA, “a United States Postal Service study found a $21 million boost in sales, per million of online shoppers, between those who received a catalog and those who didn't.”
  2. Exact Target, Channel Preference Study, 2009: To quote from the GD USA article, “Exact Target found that 76% of Internet users surveyed were directly influenced to purchase a product or service thanks to a direct mail piece.”

If we assume this to be true, it can be argued that catalog order forms are also still relevant in direct mail sales.

In defense of this theory, RetailOnlineIntegration.com, recently included a blog entitled “Don't Give Up Your Order Form Just Yet,” by Stephen Lett (7/23/13). The article references a study by Lett Direct, noting that 71.5 percent of the catalogs they reviewed included an order form while 28.5 percent did not. Stephen Lett posits that catalog order forms are still important because even those buyers who do not mail in the order form with a check still use it to list and organize their purchases before finalizing them over the phone or on the Internet.

I'd like to echo Stephen Lett's point and expand upon it. Here are a few ideas of my own, based on the premise that catalogs sell a company's brand values, interest the prospective client in the product or service, and then drive the prospect to the phone or Internet to complete the purchase. Therefore, bringing all the details of marketing and advertising to bear upon catalog design, and facilitating the purchase with an order form that helps the prospect organize his/her thoughts and project costs, is just good business sense.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Everything a business sends out is essentially an ad for the company's brand, whether it be a sheet of letterhead, a business card, or a catalog. Every piece of physical mail (and every virtual piece of correspondence, as well, from an email to a website) says something about the originating company: its values, its attention to detail, its awareness of style and design. Everything is an ad.

2. Over the last thirty-seven years of my career in publications, I have studied, designed, and/or purchased printing services for countless catalogs. I have always believed that the company's identity and contact information should be instantly visible to the reader—on every page spread. You shouldn't need to look for the phone number or web page information. Going back to item #1, this is an essential part of the promotion of the company's brand.

3. Catalogs clearly influence buyers choices. In fact, you could say that exposure to a catalog usually precedes a buyer's decision to go online or pick up the phone. The GD USA article noted above cites studies proving this. Therefore, I would say that attention to detail in catalog design is a business strategy essential for the financial success of a retail firm.

4. An order form in a catalog brings together a number of important items. It includes the company's branding (its logo and the qualities and values the logo represents), telephone and Internet information for contacting the company, and a formalized structure for buyers to list their wants and needs (as well as compute the total cost) in order to make a final decision whether or not to proceed with a purchase. This is true even if the buyer never mails in the catalog order form. He or she can read from it when ordering over the phone or refer to it when ordering over the Internet.

5. Based on Stephen Lett's research, it looks like 28.5 percent of the catalogs he surveyed may have missed an opportunity to increase their revenue by not paying attention to the human need to organize information, as well as the marketing value of the vendor's contact information and branding reflected in a catalog order form.

6. And there are still people who prefer to write a check and mail in a form to purchase something. Not many, granted. But for some, old habits die hard.

Printing Pizzas for Astronauts

I read an interesting article by Peter Murray of SingularityHUB entitled “NASA Puts Up Cash to Create Pizza-Making 3D Printer” (6/14/13).

(One can argue that printing a pizza is not really printing, not like ink on paper. I'd beg to differ. After all, ink on paper is just a medium. What print designers really design--ideally--is a virtual world: a stimulus for a visceral and imaginative experience. You read an ad, for instance, and you think or feel something. So when you're printing a pizza, you're really just creating a different kind of experience—an olfactory and gustatory one.)

According to the article, NASA has contracted with Anjan Contractor in Austin, Texas, to build a 3D printing device that would take powdered components and oils (essentially proteins and carbohydrates) to replicate actual “foodstuffs that have similar structure, taste, smell, and nutrition as the real thing.”

Why is this significant?

In space (perhaps during a future trip to Mars), shelf life of food is an issue. If you can store powders and oils for years, and then combine them into edible foods using the layering technique of 3D printing, you can avoid food spoilage while feeding hungry astronauts.

To quote Anjan Contractor, “all the carbs, proteins, and macro and micro nutrients are in powder form. We take moisture out, and in that form it will last maybe 30 years.”


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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