Directors of a retailer’s marketing and advertising departments have the classic dilemma of too few resources and far too many ways to spend their budgets. As a result, they must multi-purpose every reasonable effort – preferably by tracking results and reaching their goals with greater precision. This is especially true when it comes to catalogs.

As our previous articles have made clear, the intrinsic value of printed catalogs to retail has risen, not fallen, in recent years. The Wall Street Journal, Retail Dive, and others have documented the resurgence in print catalog use. This rising value is driven in part by the tactile, engaging nature of print – plus the fact that consumers still spend an average of $850 on catalog purchases annually. But it’s not a zero-sum print vs. digital equation. On the contrary, both print and digital catalogs improve sales, especially if they are consistent with each other – and with the product data they reflect.

It’s not a zero-sum print vs. digital equation. Both print and digital catalogs improve sales, especially if they are consistent with each other and with the product data they reflect.

What IS a Digital Catalog?

It’s easy to describe a print catalog since they’ve been in existence since at least the days of Tiffany’s Blue Book in 1845. But describing its digital sibling is difficult, not just because it is relatively recent. First of all, the form of a digital catalog varies widely.

Early on, digital catalogs were digital facsimiles of their printed counterparts (think PDFs or fixed-format eBooks), with hyperlinks to purchase the items. On larger screen devices such as tablets, these can be a positive user experience, much as many digital magazines have become. But on smartphones, print facsimiles are less than ideal. For example, users typically do not enjoy pinch-zooming to see more details or to access a link.

A more effective solution for devices of all sizes is a fully responsive display of the retailer’s products and special offers. Each element dynamically assumes the size and proportions suitable to a device’s screen size and user navigation habits. This responsiveness is, of course, much easier said than done. Effective, responsive web design can be anything but “automatic” and is complicated by the retailer’s need to maintain brand and content design parity with a catalog’s printed counterpart.

Digital catalogs can extend customer reach, improve lead generation, and immediately connect users to e-commerce.

What also makes digital catalogs challenging to describe is their function. Like their print siblings, they are complex vehicles usually integrated with overall marketing campaigns designed to elevate sales of high-value, high-margin product lines. But, as recently outlined by retail consultancy MicroD, digital catalogs can extend customer reach, improve lead generation, and immediately connect users to e-commerce. They are also highly customizable – down to individuals and their shopping preferences. (It should be noted that print catalogs are also highly customizable, thanks to Comosoft’s advances in data-based versioning and the widespread use of high-speed digital printing.)

Data, Data Everywhere

As it turns out, the problem is not a lack of potential. Both print and digital catalogs can fulfill a retailer’s many needspotentially – and often in ways that complement one another. The problem is that it’s tough to manage each channel’s complex data and to do so with two parallel channels without incurring unacceptable labor costs for manual design and production.

It’s hard to manage the data for both print and digital catalogs without incurring unacceptable costs.

Catalogs are not just randomly-selected product images, prices, and descriptions. Instead, featured product information is stored in massive Product Information Management (PIM) systems, supplemented by SKU-specific (and frequently updated or modified) images and text descriptions stored in equally huge Digital Asset Management (DAM) systems. For fun, the data may also be supplemented by separate databases for product pricing, inventory, and regional availability. So much data, so little time (and money).

The challenge is to create a plan for well-designed print and digital catalog campaigns without spending the marketing equivalent of a lunar probe mission.

The challenge for retail marketing and advertising directors and their people is to select the right product(s), with all their associated data intact and current, and create an executable, trackable plan for well-designed print and digital catalog campaigns. This process must be done repeatedly, always maintaining the retailer’s brand image, and it must be done without spending the marketing equivalent of a lunar probe mission.

The Best of Both Worlds

Fortunately, there is a data-centric, design-friendly way to accomplish this and produce compelling digital catalogs without detracting from the proven benefits of print. Comosoft’s LAGO system is an effective bridge between PIM, DAM, and other data sources and the world of page design. It allows marketing, advertising, and product line managers to prioritize and plan the products to be featured, using whiteboarding and other visualization tools connected to the retailer’s many data sources.

From that decision process, a series of page templates are created for the designer, who is freed to focus on visual impact without being burdened with searching for bits of related SKU product data. (If the underlying data is altered or updated during the process – such as a new product image – the designer’s layout is automatically updated.

Once the page layout is created, multiple regional versions can also be generated, each customized to the retailer’s regional or demographic.

Digital catalogs of any kind can be generated automatically, using the campaign data exported from the final catalog layout(s).

But the benefits of a data-driven design workflow do not stop there. Digital catalogs of any kind can be generated automatically, using the campaign data exported from the final catalog layout(s). Each product in the catalog retains its connection to the related PIM and DAM data, allowing the campaign contents to be displayed in a digital catalog – from facsimiles of the printed page to responsive elements that can populate mobile shopping apps, emails, and website catalogs.

There is no question that properly managed and designed digital catalogs improve sales and simplify the process of discovering, selecting, and purchasing retail products. With LAGO, retailers can assure product and brand consistency between their print and digital channels—both of which are essential to survival in the multichannel world.