It's Time for Manfucturers to Rethink the Product Catalog

5 reasons to change the way you speak to customers

Jan 18, 2012 | Skip to comments » | Share | |

Ahh, the product catalog.  Hundreds of pages of beautiful pictures, product descriptions and SKUs.  It has been the Gold Standard for manufacturing marketing forever, and will still play a role long into the future. We hear all the time from clients that many of their customers are not technologically savvy, and the only way they will purchase is if they have the catalog.  This certainly holds merit, and is a reason we don't believe you take a good marketing piece out of their hands right away. 

So, before we break down the reasons to invest in a digital solution to potentially augment/replace the catalog, it's important to define what some of those solutions could be and what they can do, in order of complexity. For the purposes of this blog, we will be talking about web applications specifically.

API - A source code based specification intended to be used as an interface by software components to communicate with each other (per Wikipedia). In layman's terms, it would allow a manufacturer's and distributor's software systems to talk to each other.

Web Application - Web applications commonly include customer portals that allow distributors and dealers to login, view new products and product specs, check stock, place orders, etc...  These can also be easily accessed on mobile devices via the device's browser.

Mobile Application - A step above a standard web application, mobile apps are downloaded directly to a mobile device. Mobile apps often display information faster and will have more flexibility in presentation and overall better user experience. (For more on Native Mobile Apps vs. Web Applications, read our previous post on the topic.)

Now that we have that definitions out of the way, here are the five reasons developing a new web application (web app) this year is a no-brainer.

1. Ease of Use

The ability for a distributor/dealer to fulfill an order while at an appointment with the end client is nothing new.  Now it can happen in two clicks.  Web apps give the end user the ability to filter through products, or simply search by name, product type or even SKU.

Below, a Merge developed web app for a manufacturing client.  Products can be found easily through filters or search. No flipping through pages and sections, the user is where they need to be in seconds.










Once the products are found....


2. Real Time Product Info and Purchasing Capabilities

There is a reason product catalogs often don't list prices.  The supplies and materials needed to create the product can fluctuate dramatically.  Locking a price into a catalog that you are not going to print again for 12 months could have an incredibly detrimental effect on profitability. 

Below, through a simply designed user interface (UI), customers can see available products, colors, available accessories and even price.







Below, enhancements can be added to the UI, allowing customers to scroll over products and see enhanced detail without jumping to a new page.






In addition to simple product display, web apps can be integrated directly into your ERP system.  Therefore, the minute you update your ERP, your web app is updated in real time, and messages can be sent to your customers to update them of the changes.  The next time your customer logs in to the web app, they'll have the actual price and, depending on the level of complexity you give it, can order it right on the spot.  To top it off, the web app can talk back to the ERP, updating inventory automatically to reflect the purchase, scheduling the logistics and shipping the products. 

If you think about the typical catalog purchase, how many emails, phone calls or general points of interaction need to transpire in order for the purchase to be made? This may not be factored into overall profitability, but we all know it counts.


3. Tracking

What if you knew that your customer was looking at page 7 of your catalog, particularly at 3 different sizes of the widgets on the page.  What would/could your sales force do with that data?  Would it give you a reason to touch base and see if he/she may need to replenish stock?  If this seems like information overload, settings within the web app can be managed to send alerts at the preferred interval (daily, weekly, monthly), only key customers can be flagged to deliver alerts, etc...

Tracking who is on the web app can be segmented in an infinite amount of ways.  Who visits the most, who purchases the most, what are the most popular products, the possibilities are somewhat endless.  Having that data at your grasp allows you to make better informed decisions regarding which products to push, which to pull, how products are organized and even the overall design and user interface of the app to better optimize it for more sales.

4. Mobile Devices

Is it easier to carry 10 product catalogs or an iPad?  Companies are investing in tablets for their work force daily. In fact, per Apple (via readwriteweb), 92% percent of Fortune 500 companies are testing and deploying the iPad. But it's not all about the giants.  73% of companies under 1,000 employees intend to invest in tablets in 2012, according to survey conducted by the NPD Group.

Even if the investment hasn't been made into tablets, 43% of Americans have smartphones, per Nielsen.  While that number seems low, those in the workforce age groups, particularly 25-44, have a much higher adoption rate, up to 62%.












We bring this up to highlight the fact that web apps and portals are easily accessible via the mobile web, and will continue to gain traction as consumers look to gain more efficiencies in the buying process. Also, given these growth trends in smartphones and tablets, it's time to start thinking about the step beyond a web app, and begin building your strategy for a true mobile app. 

5. Cost Effectiveness

Product catalogs can easily cost a manufacturer six figures and up when you factor in photography, design/layout, printing and the number of catalogs needed.  While building a web app can easily reach the six figure level, the yearly investment is not nearly as significant.  Also, additional features and functionality can be updated in the months subsequent to launch, which can also ease the investment up front.

Certainly, a web app will need to be supported monthly, so it would be wise to budget for a monthly support and hosting retainer.  While this is a fee you would not incur with a traditional catalog, the benefit in this approach lies in the ability to upgrade the web app based on the suggestions and needs of your customers.  Releasing enhancements also gives you a great opportunity to contact your customers with value added features.  


What's it All Mean

The influx of mobile devices is enabling manufacturers to create new communications channels online.  Not only are web applications easy to use for both company and customer, they are streamlining processes, cutting lead times and creating efficiencies that are getting products to consumers faster than a product catalog could ever dream.





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