Life goes on: The demise of print catalogues is long overdue

With the rise of e-commerce and a pandemic forcing Australian consumers online like never before, Colin Barnard explores the diminishing role of print catalogues.

The move towards digital catalogues is in response to an audience shifting away from print and retailers finally recognising and responding to this seismic shift.

With the explosion of ecommerce, and 77% of Australians likely to continue purchasing from online stores they have discovered over this period post COVID-19*, it’s unlikely our adoption of e-commerce will ever go back to the level it was prior to the pandemic.

This upward trend of e-commerce adoption, and with many brands pausing the delivery of paper catalogues during COVID-19, the use of digital catalogues has also accelerated.

Recently, Coles Group CEO Steven Cain claimed, “We’ve seen an increase of more than 50% in readership for our digital catalogue since March.”

So, we ought to applaud Kmart and Coles for making that first step in prioritising digital over print, adapting to how most Australians, young and old, live their lives.

If the rise of videoconferencing, messaging and online shopping during the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is how amazingly adaptable consumers are.

And assuming the majority of older Australians aren’t using mobiles, tablets and laptops, or shopping online is an outdated and kitsch view of modern Australia – with National Retail Association CEO Dominique Lamb recently reported as stating, “Some of the demographics that shifted from bricks and mortar to online include that older demographic and millennials, and anyone who received the stimulus — for example, those older people who received that $750 payment, we saw a really big spike and move to online.”

Print catalogues can be shared among households and with friends, with Roy Morgan CEO Michele Levine stating last year, “An added bonus for advertisers utilising the reach of catalogues is that over a third of catalogue readers share their catalogues with friends and families.”

But the question posed is: ‘Should we be distributing catalogues far and wide, with the hope of encouraging sharing, or personalising its offerings to individual consumers?’

Firstly, many geographical areas such as high-rise blocks with inaccessible mailboxes or remote communities are not covered by door drops.

Secondly, the catalogue concept should not be immune to personalisation. Print catalogues are unable to distinguish a pet owner from a non-pet owner, and there is no point marketing dog food to non-dog owners. Un-targeted offers, without the access to real-time data and analytics, can cause disinterest, disillusion, and rejection – and this goes for not only print catalogues but emails or any other medium.

Over time, digital catalogues will be hyper-personalised to individual customer shopping preferences, displaying products they are always in the market for, products they are sometimes in the market for, and products they didn’t even know they wanted.

And for customers that prefer more broad-based marketing to more contextual marketing, they can easily opt out of sharing their data and go anonymous. After all, users are in control, not the retailers.

Digital catalogues are clickable, shoppable, targeted and arguably better for the environment, with printing and distribution costs reinvested into better offers, better products, better shopping experiences and ultimately a better bottom line. It is about retailers using the technology at their disposal to speak to consumers about the things they care about and at a frequency that suits them.

Retailers can either choose to go all-in like Kmart or Coles on digital catalogues, take a hybrid-approach or stick to the old days and hope life goes on as normal. However, if the latter think they can win with paper catalogues against the digital giants, they will fall behind.

Many thought the world would end when cheques were phased out in favour of electronic payments. Yet life goes on. Digital catalogues will be no different, in time.

*Criteo data. Indexed Weekly Sales, May 2020 compared to average in Jan 1-28, 2019. Same set of retailers with stable sales tracking during the period of 2019 and 2020. 


Colin Barnard is the former head of retail and Google shopping at Google and now commercial director of Criteo, ANZ


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