The power of print – Toy catalogues reposition for life in an electronic world

Remember the current of excitement that used to run through the house on the day the Sears catalogue arrived in the mail? How whole families used to spend hours poring over its glossy pages, with kids dog-earing the toy section to death in hopes of giving Santa some mail-order guidance for the holiday season?
August 1, 2007

Remember the current of excitement that used to run through the house on the day the Sears catalogue arrived in the mail? How whole families used to spend hours poring over its glossy pages, with kids dog-earing the toy section to death in hopes of giving Santa some mail-order guidance for the holiday season?

Well, times have changed pretty drastically for this retailing medium in recent years. Today’s catalogues have surrendered much of the at-home shopping spotlight to online storefronts, which have the advantage of infinite space for product imagery (including video) and description. Major toy retailers such as Toy ‘R’ Us, Target and Wal-Mart host their own online sales services and compete with exclusive online merchandise portals, and even eBay.

And the holiday quarter, the bread-and-butter season for catalogues, has also been transformed by e-tailing. According to a report from comScore Networks, online spending increased by about 26% in holiday 2006, with users going up by 17% and dollars spent growing by 7% per buyer.

Athough the electronic age has dwarfed their market share and threatened them into antiquity, catalogues are quietly carving out a supporting role in toy marketing. Amidst the glut of online listings and e-commerce hubs, the authority of the printed page and an old-fashioned sense of anticipation still give catalogues a fair bit of street cred with manufacturers.

‘We still see value in catalogues because they glamorize our product a little bit to the consumer,’ says Chris Beardall, VP of marketing at Toronto, Canada-based Spin Master. And even though his company will see 10 times more sales volume from the online market, he estimates that catalogue sales make up about 1% to 2% of overall retail toy business, and maintains that they’re a growing part of the mix.

One of the biggest players in the catalogue biz is TRU’s Big Toy Book. Now in its 14th year of printing, the annual circulates in papers across the country at the end of October, containing more than 70 pages of toys and offering exclusive Toys ‘R’ Us deals for the month of November. Because of its timing, toy focus and more casual saddle-stitched format, Big Toy Book is hotly anticipated as a seasonal call to action to visit a Toys ‘R’ Us location. In fact, a quick online search of several consumer forums revealed that a considerable amount of chatter bubbled up around the countdown to the catalogue’s release last fall.

Target also competes in this catalogue/flyer race for holiday toy traffic, and industry scuttlebutt has it that Wal-Mart is getting into the game with a book of its own due out this fall.

‘These types of catalogues are not just advertising like a regular flyer,’ says Spin Master’s Beardall. ‘They’re replicating that old-school catalogue format, where kids sit down and leaf through a hundred pages of toys, circle all the ones they want, and then write lists for Santa.’

FAO Schwarz has an undisputed legacy in the space. Its core catalogue is one of the oldest in the US and has been in print since the 1870s. CEO Ed Schmults says the business stream has expanded over time to encompass a series of catalogues that are mailed throughout the calendar year. But its marquee book is still the holiday edition, which is the company’s biggest fiscal marketing spend. ‘The return from our catalogue is really high in terms of attracting customers, and maintaining the emotional connection existing customers have with our brand,’ says Schmults.

The FAO catalogues work hand-in-hand with the company’s online storefront, which Schmults says experiences a dramatic sales spike every time a new book mails out. The catalogues repeatedly reference FAO’s online sales service, which he says is more economical to maintain than a call center and tends to catch approximately 80% of orders.

Colorado-based online toy retailer eToys Direct relies solely on internet purchasing, but also considers its hard-copy catalogue vital to its growth and success. Without an actual bricks-and-mortar outlet, eToys’ 124-page, 1,200-item catalogue is essentially a pseudo retail store that gives the business a physical market presence and drives customers online. It’s such a crucial part of the business that VP of marketing Gary Lindsey credits increasing the catalogue’s circulation by 75% with the 95% sales growth the company has experienced over the last two years.

In addition to selling its own line of toys, the company transparently operates and fulfills orders for, and It also has a hand in producing the Sears Wishbook print catalogue for Sears credit card holders, giving it a varied perspective on the merits of both online and print marketing.

The development of eToy’s own branded catalogue has been a carefully planned initiative. The company does extensive field testing, surveys and focus groups to gauge the success of its printed pages. ‘We measure how much the catalogue helps our current customers, and how much more volume we get off customers when they’re prospected with catalogues versus just the online component,’ says Lindsey. The company divides customers into performance segments and withholds catalogues from sample groups to measure its success rate with each different customer base.

It also measures how each toy performs on each page of every book. ‘We do square-inch analysis to determine whether we allocated enough space to each product, and to identify types of products that should get more space in the next year’s catalogue,’ says Lindsey. Incidentally, he lists preschool toys, learning toys, dolls and boys toys like radio-controlled cars as products that benefit most from catalogue exposure.

Like other toy retailers, eToys targets consumers in the months leading into the holiday season. Three different cover versions are dropped strategically in September, October and November, and the company tests different time periods each year to make sure it’s getting it just right. Lindsey explains it’s a delicate balance between catering to a trend that sees consumers waiting longer each year to make their holiday purchases, and catching their eye before another retailer does. ‘After 9/11 there was so much leftover product and discounting everywhere, that retailers trained consumers to wait until the very end to get bargains,’ says Lindsey.

eToys also sends its fall catalogues out for testing with an online panel of 400 moms, who evaluate and judge different cover options to select the most appealing, attention-grabbing image. Each year, the company puts together a brand-new mom panel and sends out a battery of surveys and questionnaires. One of the things eToys is interested in is how families use their catalogues. ‘We hear from moms frequently that their kids will look at our catalogue for up to eight hours in a sitting,’ says Lindsey. He adds that the circled items and bent pages then provide the foundation for mom’s to-buy list.

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