To coax customers online, a cyber catalog must offer something better -- lower prices, more information, or easier ways to find products.
That extra work is well worth it, though: In addition to reducing printing costs, a well-designed online catalog can help a company expand into new markets inexpensively or cross-sell products.
IDENTIFY BUSINESS OBJECTIVES
Like any marketing project, an online catalog begins with identifying the business objectives -- Is it meant to transact business, service current customers quicker, provide additional technical information?
The two biggest factors in start-up costs are how much of the content is already in a digital format and the number of photos the catalog will include.
A catalog with a Web site and full-ordering capabilities could start for as little as $3,000, says Philip Pulver, president of Catalogs Online, design firm in Richland, Wash. Like most things in cyberspace, though, prices vary widely.
START ONLINE CATALOG SLOWLY
Plenty of out-of-the box software solutions are popping up. ICat, a Seattle firm, produces software that allows a commerce-enabled Web site to be designed for less than $20,000.
An online catalog should start slowly. Alan Cohen, managing director for electronic commerce at IBM's Internet division in Somers, N.Y., suggests first testing a small number of items.
Keep in mind, an online catalog may affect many parts of a business, such as inventory control. "This is an ultra competitive environment and people have expectations that if they order something it will be there tomorrow," says Mr. Cohen.
Boxer-Northwest Co., a supplier of food service equipment in Portland, Ore., shows how an online catalog can be launched cheaply. Tom Slick, the firm's controller, designed the Web site for the catalog himself, despite having no experience.
He simply downloaded a free piece of software from the Net; designing the site, he says, was no more difficult than using a word processor.
Boxer's catalog data was already in electronic form. The biggest task was adding more description to the some 6,000 items that went up online. Mr. Slick hired a local computer analyst who wrote the program to convert the data onto the online format. Total cost: A few thousand dollars.
It only costs $25 per month to put the site on a local company's server and a local programmer charges about $50 a month to update data or add new items. This is somewhat bare-bones, though; adding digitized photos for all 6,000 products would have cost an extra $20,000.
Bottom line: Boxer is already getting orders from the East Coast and other areas where it was not cost-effective for it to market before.
CATEGORIZE DATA PROPERLY
A catalog's design must be carefully thought out. "An online catalog has to be easier to wade through than a traditional catalog," says Mr. Pulver.
Because many people go online with 14.4 or 28.8 modems, the best catalogs give customers the ability to access graphics and other information only as they need it rather than making them wait for images to come up.
Another common mistake: not having data categorized properly.
Siemens Components, a Cupertino, Calif., electronic component company, solved that problem. Siemens' online catalog uses powerful search engines designed by Aspect Development Inc. in Mountain View, Calif..
FOCUS GROUPS USED
Focus groups were conducted with customers to see how they look for information. The catalog allows users to search for, compare and select products based on a wide range of attributes, such as product number, size or cost.
The catalog will soon have a mechanism that allows engineers to input the parameters of the products they need and compare four different products side-by-side to find the best fit.
How else is searching streamlined? Ads for products in magazines list special URL links within the catalog rather than forcing users to use search engines. Those capabilities don't come cheap: The catalog cost $100,000.
Poppe Tyson, New York, designed the catalog and a full-time Webmaster maintains it. Siemens' sales are complex and often run into six figures so the site is designed to provide information and generate leads.
By clicking on icons, engineers continually drill down to key information, such as 50-page technical documents or diagrams that show how to use components in specific projects.
"That's how the engineer thinks," says Tom Holt, Siemens' manager of marketing communications. "The catalog shows how the chips fit together." No wonder the average visitor to the site ends up downloading 20 to 25 pages of information.
Those kinds of extras are essential because going online is more difficult than flipping through pages.
One interesting example: To encourage online buying, Radnor, Pa.-based Airgas, the largest independent distributor of industrial gas and related equipment, offers special pricing on its Internet catalog.
The company still wins, though: The online catalog lowers its distribution costs.