E-Commerce Sites Cant Replicate Catalog Experience

Opinion: The paper catalog's portability and flexibility set it apart.

Im weak. Weak, weak, weak. Im a sucker whos been played like a fiddle by savvy advertising types.

Sure, I like to think that Im this über-savvy technologist who is immune to the tactics that can make people run out and buy things that they wouldnt have if they had never been exposed to the advertisement. But it turns out that Im just as susceptible to advertising tactics as the next guy.

So what was this clever and nefarious scheme that got me to open up my wallet and fire up my credit cards? Was it some new TV-like commercial on a Web site? A cool Flash-based game? Did it use subliminal advertising hidden in a Web site?

Nope, it was none of these things. For the most part, I dont even see advertisements on Web sites, unless Im looking for a way to close them.

The advertisement that brought me down and turned me into a rabid shopaholic was one of the oldest advertisements in the game—the simple paper catalog.

If youve read this column for a while, youve probably seen me make reference to being a musician in the past. Well, in the last year or so, Ive once again started playing with some of my old bandmates, and this return to more frequent playing necessitated some updating of my rock-and-roll gear.

After buying some basic equipment online and at stores, I ended up on a few mailing lists and began receiving a few catalogs. And while Ive been immune to the charms of computer equipment catalogs, I was more than happy to sit back on the couch and dig voraciously through a catalog full of nice, shiny guitars and big booming amplifiers.

And thats where my downfall began. Effects pedals I never knew existed I suddenly just had to have. A cool, little gadget that lets me use a slide while still having all my fingers free for chords and scales was quickly purchased. And so on. While Ive been able to resist the lure of that big-bucks Gibson SG, Ive bought lots of smaller items that I probably never would have considered if that catalog hadnt ended up in my hands.

Of course, Im not alone in my susceptibility to catalogs. My wife regularly pores through the different clothing catalogs she receives, circling items she wants. Just the fact that catalogs are still so common is a testament to their effectiveness. Sending out millions of paper catalogs through the mail is not cheap and certainly costs much more than running a Web store. But it works.

So heres the main question: Is there any way to recreate the catalog experience online?

Certainly, standard Web ads dont do the same thing. In my own case, I notice them about as much as I notice ads on the top of cabs screaming by as I walk down the street.

What about the many collaborative filtering and past purchase-based suggestions that many e-commerce sites provide? These can work to a certain degree, but certainly not as well as a catalog. And often, once these have been wrong a few times (as they inevitably will be), consumers tend to tune them out even more than regular ads.

Sites could try to follow a long tail-based model and regularly have high-profile places on their site where they promote practically everything they sell. But this might not make economical sense. That music store would have to sell a lot of those slide gadgets to equal one guitar purchase.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read an interview with Chris Anderson, author of "The Long Tail."

The most typical option many sites take is to offer a downloadable PDF of their regular paper catalog. This helps, but it just doesnt share the paper catalogs ability to be browsable in any situation or room in a house.

So whats the solution for e-commerce sites that want to replicate the experience of a paper catalog online? As someone who believes in good Web design, I hate to say it but, right now, there isnt a solution.

As is the case with books versus e-books or newspapers versus Web sites, until we have a Web interface display that is as portable and flexible as paper, standard catalogs through the mail are here to stay.

Now if youll excuse me, I have to go. Theres this sweet Crybaby wah pedal I just gotta have.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.

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