Things are not always as they appear.

Printed catalogs make more sense than ever.

We love catalogs.Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that J.C. Penney is bringing back printed catalogs after a five year absence. It was nice to see that they actually did a little research to find out motivated buyers, regardless of where they actually made their transaction. I think that before they were acting out of fear, and hoping to drop a huge cost.

Besides incorrectly attributing the cause of a sale, I think J.C. Penney had incorrectly allocated the costs of their operations.

While printing and mailing costs are a chunk of change, much of the cost of the content of the catalog was shared with advertisements and the webstore. The website was probably getting a free ride because they were using photography that had for years been needed for existing media. That made the website look cheaper than it was. In fact, I would bet that the website has more photography demands than print. Webstores tend to show more variations of products than print catalogs or ads.

What is really happening is not the death of printed catalogs, or the death of TV ads, or even the death of local newspapers. Instead, new media channels are shoving their way into the mix.  Surely catalogs, TV and newspaper ads are changing, but smart businesses are realizing they are still relevant to some customers. Just as relevant as Facebook is for some other customers. That becomes the challenge.

How does a company wage business on so many fronts?

Multi Channel Retailing

This is not actually just a retailing problem, the catalog pictured above is the latest edition of one we produce for a company selling school furniture. They share many of the same problems as consumer retailers. People have only so much attention and time, and today that is spread out over more and more channels. And more frustrating to retailers, customers seem to randomly combine media channels. (How dare they!)

It was sort of nice when everyone read the newspaper and listened to the radio. Adding television was not actually much of a challenge. Cable was easy. The Internet was a bit of a challenge, but social media and mobile apps are starting to overwhelm retailers.

Our culture is very much a "winner take all mindset" and it makes it hard for us to think plurally. In fact, the Facebook fanatic tends to think Facebook is more prominent that it actually is. But a retailer cannot take that attitude without understanding the choice being made.

Most general retailers need to address their customer where ever they are. Wrangling all these media channels at once can be a huge problem. You also need the business back-end to support all these channels. Yikes! But we just have to get used to it.

Tools exist to help execute across many media channels... and more are coming. It will never be as easy as choosing which newspaper to place advertisements.

The biggest challenge may be developing the overarching concept for how a company executes each channel at its best while keeping the message connected across channels. Remember that people usually use more than one channel - don't confuse them.

Confronting Channel Dilution

Even though new media channels arise, they do not necessarily eliminate old channels - they dilute them. (This was the mistake J.C. Penney made when dumping catalogs. No channel today will ever have the impact of radio in the 1920s and 1930s, or of network television in the 1960s. That is probably a good thing. But it certainly makes it harder to do business today.

Below is a video about the Wall Street Journal article... for those of you not wanting to engage in the text based article at WSJ.com. (;-)

By the way, in the video the commentator mistakenly mentions that "it's cheap to throw up a webpage." I would imagine anyone paying the bills for a website like JCP.com would beg to differ. This folklore of the Web being cheap (or free) is why so many small companies have under performing websites.