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Thoughts & musings.

This Just In: Consumers Aren’t Sheep

The retail world is buzzing over the recent J.C. Penney announcement that they'll start printing their famous catalog again after a 5-year hiatus. The company admits they grossly misjudged the market when they assumed their customers would naturally migrate to their website when the print experience wasn't available anymore. Turns out the 120-page book was, even though they didn't realize it, one of their most important branding vehicles. 

In one sense it's hard to blame them for the mistake. Who wouldn't want to quit an expensive print habit, especially at a time when the entire retail world was moving online and Amazon was eating everyone's middle-to-low-cost retail lunch? Add in statistics showing that most consumers want fewer catalogs and the decision was probably easy. Yet what J.C. Penney failed to see — or more accurately find out — was that the catalog was the preferred mode of interaction for a big chunk of their customers. 

Because it turns out consumers are much less sheep-like than some retailers assume. They interact with different brands through different channels, often using a combination of print pieces, websites and stores to find and acquire the products they're looking for. Some rely on catalogs exclusively. Others (about a third according to retail consultants Kurt Salmon) start with a catalog then head online or to a store to buy. Still others ditch the catalog altogether and head to a store to see a product before buying it online (so-called “show rooming”), or do the reverse and browse online before buying in a store (“web rooming”). 

Confusing? Yes, but more evidence to show that sales channels never really die, they just fade from the headlines. You know how shopping malls are "dead"? Turns out they aren't so long as they've got solid anchor stores. How about those trade shows that "nobody goes to anymore"? Attendance has been rising steadily since 2010.

The lesson here? You can't write a marketing plan based on which channels are trending in Forbes. Your customers have their own ideas about how, when and where they want to use you. Find out what those ideas are and match your marketing to them, even if it means printing a catalog.

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