Print catalogs remain key marketing materials in the business-to-business world

It may be a digital world, but there still is a place for the good ol' print catalog in business-to-business sales. Just ask CJ Milo, a sales consultant at Today's Business Products, a distributor of office furniture and supplies on Snow Road in Middleburg Heights.

When he first started at Today's, Mr. Milo accompanied an experienced salesman on calls. At a routine appointment at Notre Dame College in Euclid, the pair felt the wrath of disgruntled secretaries, who heckled the empty-handed salesmen and demanded the newest edition of Today's catalog.

Fortunately, the veteran salesman kept four cases of catalogs in the trunk at all times so that he could hand out the books at a moment's notice.

That experience taught a valuable lesson to Mr. Milo, who said print catalogs continue to help him in his career.

Despite detailed information customers can find online about their products, distributors and other business-to-business sellers agree the physical presence and permanence of a print catalog remains a powerful marketing tool — and an expense worth the cost, even for a 1,040-page monster like the catalog Applied Industrial Technologies released this month.

“Our catalog sits on someone's desk or shelf like a salesperson holding a sign; "Looking for something? Call Applied,'” said Jennifer Belt, catalog marketing manager for Applied, a seller of bearings and industrial parts headquartered in Cleveland.

“It's a passive prompt to our customers indicating that this is a partnership, and we're here to help,” Ms. Belt said.

Pete Santee, Applied account manager in the Akron region, uses the catalog every day. In his first year with Applied, Mr. Santee handed out between 400 and 500 catalogs to current and prospective customers.

Mr. Santee uses the catalogs as an introduction to new clients in his territory. The big print catalog showcases nearly 30,000 products of the 2.5 million parts offered by Applied. The front of the book has a timeline of the history of Applied, which helps acquaint customers with the company, Mr. Santee said.

“When making cold calls, I would be lost without catalogs,” he said.

The presence of a catalog also is an influential instrument for returning customers.

One of Mr. Santee's large national accounts keeps a supply of catalogs on the shop floor within arm's reach of the maintenance workers. The workers use them as a reference tool to find the correct parts for repairs on the machinery throughout the day, he said.

Print doesn't go offline

Kim Loyed, office administrator at Citizens Academy at 10118 Hampden Ave. in Cleveland, said using her catalog to call Today's Business Products has gotten her out of many a bind.

“I was trying to think of a specific situation,” Ms. Loyed said. “But it happens so often.”

At least two times last year, the charter school experienced service interruptions with its Internet providers. But because of Today's print catalog, Ms. Loyed still could call and order the products she needed and get them the next day.

“Electronics will break, the Internet will go down, so I think catalogs are the best cushion,” Ms. Loyed said.

She actually prefers to use the print catalog for day-to-day orders, in part because it helps her pinpoint staff needs. Not all the teachers have access to computers, but the catalog can be passed around easily, marked with the tabs included in the book and returned to Ms. Loyed to put together an order.

The catalog helps Ms. Loyed to order quickly and efficiently because she feels it is much easier to navigate than the website.

“It's faster to find what I'm looking for because everything is color- coordinated,” she said. She also appreciates the tips on subjects such as choosing the right keyboard platform, the benefits of privacy filters and desktop ergonomics.


Positive customer experiences like these are why Jean Gianfagna, founder and president of Gianfagna Strategic Marketing, recommends print catalogs to her clients.

One client Ms. Gianfagna wouldn't identify stopped producing its print catalog three years ago to cut costs; however, this year, the client is on the fast track to bringing the catalog back due to high sales force demand.

“The catalogs are a great leave- behind for salespeople,” she said.

They also are appreciated by many customers.

According to Jeffrey Dross, corporate director of education and industry trends at Kichler Lighting, a lighting manufacturer on East Pleasant Valley Road in Independence, most lighting retailers only display 1% to 10% of the large product lines available on the market. There may be five to six variations of a light fixture that the retailer simply has no room to display.

Printed catalogs provide an accurate rendering of those variations that are not displayed in the showroom.

“The product comes off a lot better on a printed page than it does on a monitor or a screen or a phone,” Mr. Dross said.

Viewing the image on a screen can lead to color inaccuracies or unclear images, and ultimately a disappointed customer, he said.

Paperless? No way

Although print catalogs guarantee an accurate portrayal of the product, business-to-business sellers recognize online catalogs have some features and advantages that print does not.

Applied Industrial implemented many of these features in this year's debut of its digital catalog. The catalog includes videos, CAD drawings and additional images. With the digital catalog Applied also can track customer usage, which gives it valuable analytics, and it's environmentally friendly.

But while online multimedia content can add to the presentation of products, it is harder to implement than many sellers realize, Ms. Gianfagna said.

“Lots of business-to-business companies don't have the resources to create rich content and media,” she said.

Though a print catalog may seem like it would be more expensive than an online version because of paper and printing costs, much of the production expense is the same for online and print, Ms. Gianfagna said.

At a time when many business owners are re-evaluating costs, a print catalog often can fall victim to penny pinching.

About 20 years ago, Kichler Lighting scaled down its catalog by 60%. This mini catalog helped cut print costs without cutting down the catalog altogether. All 3,000 products still were represented, just in smaller type with shorter product descriptions. However, sales force distribution of the mini catalog is down 50% these days.

Not all companies are experiencing the same print decline as Kichler.

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