I still remember the excitement when they would arrive; shiny, heavy and filled with new, beautiful things. My mum was a firm subscriber to the Next catalogue and we’d also dabble with Littlewoods, Freemans and La Redoute. I’d browse the pages and turn the corners over on the pages with the items I liked – sometimes out of hope more than reality – and, once Mum had vetted them (always a tough pitching process), we’d put an order in. I remember thinking how impressive it was that Mum could ring up and then, days later, our items would arrive..! That wonder at a now streamlined process seems quite quaint now, in a world where we expect items to be delivered immediately, usually for free and to a location of our choice. But as we make moves into this new decade and the technological advances that it brings, is shopping online really all that different to the catalogue shopping days of old?
From catalogue to online
For many years, catalogue shopping saw customers browsing hefty glossy brochures, reading the details and viewing the (limited) pictures of things they wanted, then phoning or writing in to place an order. Littlewoods rebranded as Very.com and, along with many other catalogue-reliant brands such as Next, Freemans and Argos, many embraced having a digital presence.
The same concept – look at photos, read a description, make a purchasing decision – seemed an obvious choice for these brands to move online. In many ways, this move from catalogues to online didn’t actually require too much of a change, with the business model largely remaining the same: present product photos and descriptions, ensure producers and suppliers are reliable and that they provide sufficient quality to meet customer expectations, and set the pricing of products competitively.
Of course, the big difference is that technology is used to bring the process up to date and create an improved customer experience with an emphasis on convenience. With this, amongst other things, comes easier returns.
How has online shopping developed since catalogue days?
Customer expectations have developed to mean that we all now expect to return items easily, via a method of our choosing, often for free. The ability of a retailer to handle returns has been improved by technology but this is out of necessity as much as development: quite simply, retailers who don’t efficiently handle returns, either by themselves or outsourced to a returns specialist, will suffer.
Alongside this, customers are also perhaps more likely to ‘over buy’, which has a knock-on effect for the delivery, returns and refund processes. For example, if a customer wanted a new dress for a party on Saturday, she could now shop from her desk at work on Friday afternoon, order 10 items, have them delivered the next morning to her home address, try them on at home and choose the dress she wants to keep, then return the other 9 items in-store, all before the party has even happened – and all over a 24 hour period. Whilst there’s the ease of this multichannel process, there’s also other payment options that are now easily available to consumers, such as Klarna, where payment isn’t taken until a later date, meaning the customers can order items in a range of options and sizes, keep what they need, return the surplus and then only pay for what they keep.
In what other ways has online developed the catalogue model?
Information and content have always been very important when it comes to customers looking at products in catalogues and online retail has successfully managed to expand on both of these things. IT software solutions to these common retail problems, such as a PIM (Product Information Management) solution, ensure information is accurate, up-to-date and synchronised in a multi-channel digital shopping environment. As well as this, videos and interactive visuals have created further sensory experiences for customers beyond simple 2D imagery.
For those that have both a digital and physical model, the integration of bricks-and-mortar stores with online shopping has also occurred and been effectively utilised; items can be returned to high street stores, items can be viewed then purchased online or vice versa, essentially blurring the lines between the two. Where once you might have shopped from a catalogue or you might have ventured ‘into town’ to visit the store, now we use either experience to inform the other.
Essentially, the main and obvious difference is that our smart phones, apps and laptops mean that these once-heavy tomes of a catalogue are now the same item as our telephone, our camera, our calendar, our train ticket etc. Everything is easily carried around and accessed, rather than having to keep a catalogue in once place, then either write out an order or phone it through: instead, a new item is literally a few clicks away. Because of this, customers can now act quickly on impulses, in a process that is streamlined and fits in with their demands and not the other way round: a process which shows no signs of slowing.