No, the company had not mistakenly sent me "Animal House" instead of "Sesame Street 1-2-3," the video I planned to give my daughter for Christmas. But as I dug through the Web retailer's packaging, out fell a catalog.
The colorful, 48-page booklet hawked all manner of holiday gifts, from Teletubbies talking toys to Sting's CD "Brand New Day," from "Star Wars" action figures to a biography of Pope John Paul II.
For a moment, I was surprised to see a Web company experimenting with a traditional paper catalog. But I shouldn't have been, for the reality is that the borders of the neat little boxes in which we've tended to classify retailers-traditional direct marketer, Web-based vendor, brick-and-mortar retailer-are rapidly disintegrating.
All manner of companies are extending themselves into new channels. By doing so, they're changing both how we think of them and the way we shop.
Take J. Crew Group, for example. When I envision J. Crew, I picture the store in my local shopping center and the catalog that shows up in my mailbox about once a quarter.
The company has made Web sales an integral part of its business. So in February as I hunted for a navy pea coat off-season (the catalogs were already touting spring ware), I figured I'd start with J. Crew's Web site. I hadn't shopped online with J. Crew before, so I was pleased to find a coat I wanted quickly. But when I couldn't decide between large and extra large, I opted to stop by the shopping center on the way home from work to try on the coat in person.
Like the catalogs, the stores had long left winter clothing behind. So the next morning, I called the toll-free number listed on the Web site to get the sizing information I wanted. It was at that moment of completing the order that I realized the extent to which J. Crew is making use of multiple channels.
Whereas J. Crew has expanded from catalogs and physical stores to the Web, Gateway has headed the opposite direction.
The company has its roots in direct marketing and moved to the Web early on. The big surprise to many, however, was when Gateway launched a network of physical stores called Gateway Country. These stores have been popping up all over, now numbering more than 300 retail outlets. I did a double take as I drove by one for the first time. I just wasn't used to seeing the brand in that environment.
There are also companies born on the Web that have opted to branch out this way.
Gazoontite.com, for example, is an online retailer of products for consumers who suffer from asthma and allergies. It sells humidifiers, hypoallergenic pillows, air purifiers and the like. The company has opened stores in New York, San Francisco and Orange County, Calif., with more on the way.
Extensive multichannel selling soon will be the rule, not the exception. So if you work for or with a retailer, think hard about which untapped channels you should pursue. For you'll want to help drive this change rather than be forced to react to it.M
Mr. Carpenter is director of corporate marketing at Critical Path, a San Francisco company that provides Web-based messaging and collaboration services. He is author of "eBrands: Building an Internet Business at Breakneck Speed," which will be published in May by Harvard Business School Press.