Marketers should recreate product discovery online

February 21, 2022
Rebecca Wine profile picture
Matt Whitby


  • Interview with Bill LaPierre, VP of Business Intelligence at Datamann
  • Bill talks about the key challenges for catalog marketers
  • The biggest opportunity for marketers is how to recreate the product discovery experience from catalogs online

Bill LaPierre is the VP of Business Intelligence at Datamann, one of the US’s oldest agencies serving the direct marketing industry. Bill's expertise from 25+ years in the catalog industry, and Datamann’s recognition as a catalog marketing expert, enables him to offer in-depth catalog and ecommerce consulting.

In this interview:

Bill says digital transformation can sum up many of the challenges facing catalog marketers and retailers. One of the most important challenges is how to recreate the experience of product discovery from the catalog in an online environment.

The challenge of marketing commodities

Bill explains that, due to the development of the internet and ecommerce, searching for products is easier but shoppers use fewer channels. So if they see an advertisement in print or TV, they go to Google or Amazon to search for that product.

Supporting this statement are the results of the Behavior of Online Shoppers Survey 2021. Many shoppers (51%) stated that Amazon was the market leader for online inspiration. Amazon was also a preferred destination for product search and purchases.

“If you get somebody's catalog in the mail and you're interested in a product that you see there, you also might go online and search for that particular product. Rather than going to that company's website. So, the problem becomes, merchandise is so much more accessible these days because of the internet because of Google and Amazon and all these different ways you can search.

So any company that is selling commodity products isn't going to do well in the continuing environment.

"Whether they use a catalog or not. Because it's so easy for the consumer to find alternative places to buy that product. As shoppers shift from analog to digital channels, the biggest opportunity now for catalogers is creating the right kind of physical marketing material that will be exciting enough to get the shopper to open it. Then entice them to go online and check out what that company sells.” 

“The catalog gives you the opportunity to explain to shoppers what makes your products unique and why they should buy it from you.”

Recreating product discovery online 

Bill explains that because Amazon sells mostly commodity products, shoppers usually know what they want to buy. 

Shoppers don't go to Amazon to browse. They go to Amazon to buy a new pair of headphones they want."

"They don't go to Walmart to browse, they go to Walmart to buy coffee. But there's still a need out there to browse cool stuff.” 

According to Bill, because companies will want to continue to grow, they're going to have to do more online activity. One potential opportunity for marketers is figuring out how to blend what businesses are doing online with the traditional catalog experience of product discovery.

“I used to work for a gift catalog called Potpourri here in the US. One of our top-selling products was a ceramic box that you put over a box of tissues that looked like somebody who was sneezing. It wasn't the kind of thing that you would say, I'm going to find that myself. But it might make a great gift for Aunt Sally. And we sold a ton of them.” 

“How do you sell something like that? No one's thinking, ‘Oh, I wonder if anybody makes a box of tissues that looks like somebody's sneezing’. It's the kind of thing you have to see first and then say, ‘Oh, that's quite cool. I like that, maybe I'll buy that’.” 

That whole sense of product discovery is one thing marketers are doing a lousy job of online, and I don't have the solution to it."

"But if you can develop that sense of discovery online. By helping shoppers find products they aren’t searching for. That's the million-dollar question. If you can solve that, then you've got a good business model.” 

Websites are functional, not inspirational

Bill explains that 30 years ago, in the United States, there were roughly 10,000 catalog companies. Along with retail stores and malls, these were the primary places for shoppers to buy products. But now each individual company has developed a website. 

“There are hundreds of thousands of websites out there, but you don't have many good marketers. So, you end up with numerous websites that are efficient from an IT standpoint, but they're not very consumer friendly, and they certainly don't know anything about driving a sale.” 

“Many websites are weak at enticing the shopper to come in and to buy. Many companies still have great catalogs that are very inspirational. Some websites can be inspirational, but most catalogers websites are terrible.”

How can digital catalogs succeed?

Bill is skeptical about the viability of digital catalogs, but does offer some perspectives on the basic functionality needed to recreate the experience of browsing a printed catalog format in an online environment.

“One of the technologies that I've previously seen is that as you're flipping the pages on an online catalog, you can drill down on a particular page to get additional information on the product. You can drill down to see a video on the product and then you can even order directly and then you can back out to the original page.” 

“That level of interactive play is what I would say is the base level that you have. If you can just flip pages but can't either order products or drill down into the catalog, then it's of little use to shoppers.” 

Bill says the main benefit of digital catalogs should be to provide additional context and content to shoppers. 

“Great content is something that you sell a product next to. Let's say that you've got a baking catalog and you could put recipes online in a sort of book format where you had desserts where people could flip through.

Maybe what it's going to come down to is you're going to have to do it with more partners. It won't be just a catalog alone."

"You'll have to bring in other players to help you tell a story. So for example, if you sell outdoor camping equipment, possibly you could work with a local nonprofit organization which is involved with protecting the environment. Here you could work together to encourage shoppers to get outside.

Thanks to Bill LaPierre for participating in this interview. Stay tuned to this channel for more in-depth interviews from leaders in inspirational retail. Take a look at iPaper Insights to learn more.

But how can you recreate product discovery online with promotions?

We got some secrets right here.

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