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Insights / Business

Hurray, the new catalog is here!

August 28, 2015
About the author Alain VeuveAlain Veuve
Managing Director, AOE Switzerland

A few days ago I found myself traveling through beautiful Switzerland. I had the privilege of speaking about “Digital Transformation: Where to begin?” at Topsoft15. During the trip I noticed the Pfister* billboard above. I had seen it before, but at that time thought, oh well, such witty persiflage, such refined self-irony. Very cool. But, my return to Basel from Zürich revealed quite a different picture: Switzerland is literally plastered with this image, the people at Pfister are apparently serious about the placard. Oh boy. A few thoughts. (*Pfister is a furniture store of the upper middle class in Switzerland.)

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I think that contemplating and separating retail into online- and offline channels to be pretty much be nonsense. Nonsense which, especially in retail, encourages a separation of activities, an against-each-other (that is, offline store vs. online). It is precisely this, though, that the customer doesn’t want – something that we learn every day. The customer is active both on- and offline, partially due to the specific use case, partially due to simple whims. I, for one, will therefore not proclaim that there is no use anymore for a catalog. 

The catalog is dead #not

On the contrary, as I recently learned during a peer group workshop for E-Commerce strategy. The retail customers do want printed, physical product information. To provide impulses, as an entry point, as inspiration. Do they wait for it? Is it a highlight? No, not really. But retail can’t quite do without catalogs, either.

“Cool, now they're selling catalogs too!”

Nevertheless, I find it pretty silly to use this for advertising purposes, to place it at the center of the company’s promotion efforts. And apparently I’m not the only one who thinks this way. The universal reaction after returning to the office was a broad grin, accompanied by “No one buys there, anyway.” Perhaps my exclusively female colleagues aren't necessarily the defined target audience of Pfister. However, they do have the necessary money and affinity to higher quality products.

So why produce the new catalog now?

So what does Pfister really want to tell us with this ad? I think they want to say: Look, we’ve renewed our product portfolio and included a lot of terrific products. And we’ve lowered our prices too. It’s worth your time to stop by and take a look; after all, the colder days are rapidly approaching, so “winterize” your nest. Something along these lines.

For me this association is logical, since I am still familiar with the process of leafing through the catalog and seeing what the store had to offer. And yes, one went to the store if new things were in stock. Back in the day with my parents. At a time when unleaded gasoline was unknown.

Today, things are different. Today, the message degenerates to that which can be seen on the poster in black and white: Friends, we’ve printed a new catalog. And the reaction of today’s customers? They find it amusing in a way – simply because in modern times it’s absurd.

What is it that the customers really want?

I assert they want what Ikea is doing. Let me state right away that I’m a complete Ikea fan. Not of the products (which, for the most part I consider to be totally over-priced junk – at least from the point of view of price-performance ratios), but of the company itself.

For the company is topnotch. Customer-friendly, courteous online and offline as well. Domestically, there is almost no retailer (perhaps Hornbach DIY, but that company is in Germany) who has such a handle on its product data as Ikea. And the portfolio is updated both intermittently and on a continuous basis.

I know a lot of people who shop at Ikea simply because it’s easy. Look at the products at home, check availability, reserve the large, tedious portion of the purchase pre-visit. When picking up the goods, odds and ends are checked out as if the customer is in a bazaar. Delivery time is usually zero.

Ikea also has a catalog

Yes, Ikea has a catalog too. But the company would never even consider advertising the fact so crudely. They use a certain amount and type of humor. And it works. Ikea is able to create a comprehensive customer experience, which makes it easy for customers to shop and get enthusiastic about the products. Online as well as offline and overarching.

Pfister has a lot to offer

Pfister has a lot of really good products, and I’ve also had some very good experiences there regarding customer advice. And, the price-performance ratio isn’t really all that bad, either (unless, of course, one isn’t capable of recognizing quality). They don’t do everything wrong, quite the contrary.

But instead of wasting vast sums of money for such billboard campaigns and catalogs, they should rather work at creating as pleasant, comprehensive and overarching customer experience as possible, both on- and offline. That’s something they’re not known for. It’s also possible they simply don't consider this to be “part of our concept”. You can probably feel my frustration regarding this issue, for, as a customer, I simply don’t care about the concept.

Slipping from the pole position at the start to the middle of the field

It’s sad and typical at once that especially the medium-sized business, which were actually well-positioned in the market, are incapable of transposing this advantage into the digital age.

Maybe it’s the long-term success that, as a sweet poison, paralyzes this “repeatedly re-inventing oneself” at any given time. It is in this manner that Pfister appears to be stuck in the old times to a certain extent, despite E-commerce platform and other digital measures. And all because of a billboard.