SEMA News - March 2010

BEST PRACTICES

Whether Consumer or Trade, Print or Electronic, Selling Is the Key

By Steve Campbell

  SEMA NEWS-MARCH 2010-BUSINESS-BEST PRACTICES
 

An effective consumer catalog should show customers not just what to buy but also why. Everything should be an enticement to purchase the product that brought the customer to the catalog—and to sell related products. Catalogs can upsell almost as effectively as top employees.

A properly executed catalog is more than just a list of products accompanied by pretty pictures. An effective consumer catalog, such as an effective salesperson, should show customers not just what to buy but also why they should buy. Everything should be an enticement to purchase the product that brought the customer to the catalog—and to sell related products. Catalogs can upsell almost as effectively as top employees.

A trade catalog, on the other hand, should provide the salesperson using it with enough information to make him or her an expert in the customer’s eyes. It should provide easy-to-find product information without being overwhelming, and it should be supplied in a format that allows a counterperson or phone salesman to incorporate it into a rack with other product catalogs.

Electronic cataloging has grown exponentially over the past decade. In most cases, a reduced-resolution version of a print catalog in portable document format (PDF) resides on the company website to facilitate online shopping. As technology and know-how have progressed, however, database electronic cataloging is hitting its stride. In these versions, the information is tailored specifically for online use and can be far more robust than a repurposed print catalog.

In General

Building a catalog—print or electronic, consumer or trade—should draw upon the talents and knowledge of everyone in the company. The sales team will know which products are hot and which need the most explanation. Salesmen will also know the most frequently asked questions—and the answers.

If a previous version of a catalog already exists, edit it for readability and appearance while deleting the discontinued products and adding new ones. Collect product details and specifications from the engineering department, but make sure that the copy doesn’t include jargon or techno-babble that might exceed the user’s understanding. And ensure that every component and every photograph has a reason to be included.

“Ask yourself why,” said Jim Wirth, president of Wirth & Wirth Advertising. “Some people turn their catalogs into their personal paintings. Including unnecessary photos—the brand-new company building, for instance—becomes an ego-driven decision rather than a business decision. Perhaps there is a good reason, even an image reason. But if you’re not trying to achieve a specific objective with a photo, don’t include it!”

  SEMA NEWS-MARCH 2010-BUSINESS-BEST PRACTICES
 

Trade catalogs differ from their consumer counterparts mainly in the way and by whom they are used. The purpose of the consumer books is to help customers make a buying decision; a trade catalog is used to help salespeople assist with a purchase.

Building a catalog can be a daunting task, and some companies immediately seek outside consultants for their technical expertise. That can be necessary if there are no personnel within the company who are qualified to put the package together, but developing that internal expertise has definite advantages.

“I’ve always done our catalogs in-house,” said Lisa Chissus, president of Flex-a-lite. “I tried using outside sources, but I found that people outside of our industry don’t necessarily get it. If I were going to use an outside agency, I would hire one that knows our market—how our products are used. I prefer in-house design because we’re so familiar with selling our products every day, and I’ve found that we’re the best resource for that.”

Even so, said Dan Beaulaurier, national sales manager for Roll-N-Lock Corp., a catalog is too important to be left to a novice on the basis of cost. “It can be tempting to hire a recent graduate from art school, show him last year’s catalog and tell him to get to work on the next edition,” he said. “He may be cheap, creative and know how to use graphic software, but you must ask yourself if he has experience in producing catalogs that cause customers to buy your products instead of your competitor’s.

If not, find an outside professional within this industry to do it for you.”

To find a designer who understands graphics and the industry, seek referrals from executives you trust at other companies, Chissus advised. Ask whether the designer got the job done by the requested deadline and how the catalog turned out. She also recommended looking locally for printing companies, utilizing lists that are available through the Chamber of Commerce to check on press sizes that suit the number of catalogs you’re producing. Chissus said that she had even used a printer in Canada at a time when the dollar was weak, and Brian Horowitz, founder and CEO of On the Edge Marketing, went even further.

I had my catalog printed in China this year,” he said. “I saved about 40% over the domestic cost and recommend either China or India. The quality of the printing is better, and the pricing was much cheaper.”

For the most part, catalog budgeting is based on the size of the package and the number of units required. “I look first at how many catalogs we send out in a typical year, and I make sure that we have enough to pass out at the trade shows we attend,” said Bill Reminder, president and CEO of THI, which includes Extang, TruXedo and BedRug. “But the biggest impact will be the number of new products I have coming out and to what extent I’m revamping the catalog. If I’m doing a complete revamp, I’ll probably do considerably more so that I can send everybody possible a new one to replace the old one.”

Consumer Print Catalogs

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A catalog cover should attract attention but also provide a snapshot of the type of products contained inside. That applies to both the front and the back covers. And once the book is open, the pages should intrigue, entice and help the customer decide on a purchase.

 
A catalog cover aimed at consumers should primarily attract attention but also provide a snapshot of the type of product contained inside. That applies to both the front and the back covers. And once the book is open, the pages should intrigue, entice and help the customer decide on a purchase.

“A good catalog should balance graphic presentation with functional layout,” said Tim Martin, vice president of K&N Engineering Inc. “The user must be able to find an item if he knows what he is looking for, but it’s also important to help people shop a little and learn about products when they don’t know what they want. I’ve seen catalogs work well with a lot of text and small images, so I don’t think every page needs to look like a magazine ad. Vehicle-specific products might not require any images at all. The best approach depends on the type of product and how it is sold.”

While a trade catalog must match industry-standard size formats (see “Trade Print Catalogs” section), consumer catalogs can be physically smaller. “That way, they’re less expensive to produce and mail,” Chissus said, “and they can be given out free without the company worrying about the expense.”

Wirth suggested strict observance of the 80/20 rule in determining which products to feature in a consumer catalog. In nearly any business, he said, 20% of the products generate 80% of the revenue, and it’s critical for a company to determine which products are the superstars.

“I ask my clients to rank their products based on profitability, availability, competitive status, labor intensity and ease of shipping and handling,” he said. “You have to identify which are your very best products and make sure you focus your consumers’ interest on them. Have sidebars scattered throughout the catalog about those superstar products telling how they work and calling out their benefits. Don’t give equal coverage to every product. That is always wrong, yet it’s commonly done.”

Martin also suggested different treatments for different products. “Some catalogs have only a few items per page, which is good for introducing new product lines or new technologies,” he said. “K&N uses a mixed approach, with some pages designed using only a few products and others that include large sections of application guides with as many items per page as possible.”

The frequency of printing new catalogs is mainly a function of new-product introductions. For most companies, once a year is standard; in some cases, it’s every 18 months to two years.

“Generally speaking, your customers will read through a new catalog every time you send one out,” Beaulaurier said. “But make sure your catalog seems fresh and new each time, or customers won’t open the next one. Make sure that you have several new and interesting items prominently displayed where your customers are sure to notice them.”

Trade Print Catalogs

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With standardized data, a person can search not only by product but also by vehicle or by company. He or she is now seeing what fits across several product lines, giving the retailer a chance to upsell.

Trade catalogs differ from their consumer counterparts mainly in the way and by whom they are used. The purpose of the consumer books is to help customers make a buying decision; a trade catalog is used to help salespeople assist with a purchase.

A trade catalog is more of a reference manual,” Chissus said. “Typically, the people who use the trade catalog may have gone through it and read it when they initially got it, but it’s only a reference from then on and they use it in 10-second increments. If they can’t figure something out in 10 seconds, they’re going to move on.”

Because of that, Chissus recommended that the trade catalog be set-up as a strictly functional tool. “We list our products in sequence by part number in the trade catalog,” she explained. “If I’m looking for part number 185 and I’m on the page for part number 116, I know to go deeper in the catalog. And we have all of the part numbers—every single one—listed in the back of the catalog so that if a counterperson can’t find the right part for some reason, he or she can go to the back and use the part number to find the right page.”

Chissus also pointed out that the industry-standard dimension for trade catalogs is 8½x11 inches, with a three-hole or a five-hole punch near the spine to allow it to be racked with other catalogs. If a trade catalog doesn’t fit the rack, she said, it won’t be put in and probably won’t be used.

“Some jobbers don’t want to get rid of their old catalogs because they’ve written notes in them.” she continued, “We added a note page so that they could transfer that information into the new catalog. We also listed all of the new products that weren’t included in the previous catalog so that the jobbers realize the extent of the information their losing if they don’t put the new catalog in their rack, and we send out individual pages in the years when we introduce new products but don’t produce a new catalog.”

A trade catalog needn’t include detailed descriptions for every product, especially if a range of products are similar. Flex-a-lite, for instance, provides a technical description at the beginning of each section. These section leads may describe why to sell a pusher fan versus a puller fan versus a reversible fan. “We don’t tell them why to sell one versus another on every single product,” said Chissus, “but we do say whether each is a puller or a pusher, and every product lists dimensional information, amp draw, cfm rating and so on.”

Electronic Catalogs

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Many of the big-box chains keep their catalogs electronically. Sending retailers standardized data that can be fed directly into their system creates sales, visibility and a lot more interest in a product line.

“Production and distribution are the two biggest differences between electronic and paper catalogs,” said Mark Toebben, president of DCi. “With a paper catalog, the company must decide on page count based on cost, and production must be timed according to when the greatest number of new products come online. Neither of those issues exists with electronic catalogs. In addition, electronic catalogs are immediately available to the users of the electronic system once the catalog is implemented. In a single month, we distribute electronic catalogs that reach more than 30,000 businesses and tens of millions of consumers. The catalog can be updated on a daily basis, so the latest product information is always available. There’s no concern about what to eliminate because you’re not dealing with a finite number of printed pages.”

The two most common types of online catalogs are PDF-based reproductions of print catalogs and standardized electronic cataloged data. Of the two, the most effective is standardized electronic cataloged data, said Gigi Ho, founder of Digital Performance Inc.

“You can deliver standardized data to your distributors, retailers and customers that they can easily make searchable in their systems,” she said. “With that kind of data, a person can search not only by product but also by vehicle or by company. If the manufacturer produces several different products under one line—transmissions, for instance, that include clutches, flywheels and shifters—the consumer might be presented with all of the parts that fit the vehicle he searched for. He’s now seeing what fits across several product lines, giving you a chance to upsell if someone was looking for a clutch plate and there was also a kit that included not only the plate but the rest of the clutch assembly.”

If a company doesn’t yet have the expertise to develop standardized electronic data and uses a PDF version of its print catalog on a website, a searchable table of contents (TOC) is a must. Use active links that bring the user from the TOC or index to the product-specific PDF page. But if the company’s designers are using software to build even a PDF catalog in-house, they can upload a new version as soon as they have it laid out. They don’t have to go to print first.

Electronic trade catalogs are also becoming increasingly common, Ho said. AutoZone, Pep Boys and many of the other big-box chains keep their catalogs electronically. “Some retailers have told their vendors that they will only use electronic data and won’t carry a line that doesn’t have it,” she said. “Sending them something that can be fed directly into their system creates sales, visibility and a lot more interest in your product line.”

Making It Pay

Every phase of business must provide a return on investment—even if that return is an intangible like brand recognition. With a catalog, the recognition is backed by actual sales.

Whether you’re producing a paper catalog or an electronic catalog, the key to success is the quality of what you produce and the distribution of the information” said Toebben. “Those businesses that look at cataloging as a sales tool enjoy benefits that other manufacturers don’t. In this environment, no one can ignore that opportunity.”

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