Web Sales Start at Home: Expanding Your eCommerce through Catalogs
By Tia Bianchini, Barnes Foundation Merchandise Manager; and Julie Steiner, Barnes Foundation Senior Director of Admissions and Retail Operations
In this extended blog post, Tia Bianchini and Julie Steiner present an excellent guide for the creation and foundation of a print catalog to build your online and in-store business. Enjoy their very thorough planning and advice!
Why make a catalog when you already have an online store?
Print catalogs remain a vexed area for museum stores, largely because it’s assumed they take a lot of time and money to produce and there’s mystery around their potential for results. For small to mid-sized institutions, at least, it’s easy to decide “it just won’t be worth it”. But the pandemic challenged all our business assumptions and forced us to get creative about how we approach our audiences, and how our customers can find our products when they can’t physically visit our organizations. In our store, one of those creative reassessments was around the idea of a catalog, both in print and digital. This started at the beginning of lockdown in March 2020, when, stuck at home with little contact with the outside world, many of us found ourselves looking forward to each day’s postal delivery with an enthusiasm we hadn’t felt about mail since childhood. Suddenly, in the era of working from home and nonstop video calls, our mailboxes became a rare physical connection to the outside world. We also spent more time with the mail that arrived, looking longer at fliers and mailers and the print catalogs that came through the door. And so many catalogs come from retail companies who clearly had remained committed to print media all along, and still were running robust online businesses in a pandemic. These promotional efforts were aided at least in some part by those print pieces, in spite of the postage costs and the conventional wisdom that “catalogs are dying.” Clearly, catalogs were alive and well, and we wanted a piece of that business for our museum store.
The difference between the catalog and the online store is like the difference between shopping in a warehouse vs. shopping in a showroom or on a retail sales floor. Online stores are essentially databases: digital warehouses full of products to be sifted and sorted, and arranged in pragmatic but not always attractive ways, presented all the same size and with standard information. On the other hand, a catalog (print or digital) is like a showroom: the products are arranged visually and sequentially, making them far easier to shop. Here’s where we can create a deliberate customer journey through our products, helping shoppers sift through the vast amount of information in a way that makes the products look desirable, accessible, and meaningful. The catalog gives the products context that lets us imagine these items in our own life. It offers a chance for storytelling. It’s also easier to thumb through the pages of a booklet than it is to click through multiple layers of web pages and search one individual item listing at a time, especially for a customer who’s not deliberately seeking one specific item. The “just browsing” customer we know so well in our physical stores gets lost on our websites, not sure where to click next to find what they’re not really even looking for, although they’re perfectly willing to buy it once they see it.
So, who gets a catalog?
Before we could think about the design and layout, we had to determine our audience. Rather than focus on members or casual visitors, we decided to send catalogs to customers that had already made a purchase in our online shop. This set of shoppers was both familiar with our brand and comfortable shopping online. It was also easy to export our customer list from our ecommerce platform, making this the ideal way to approach our first attempt at a retail-focused mailing. Think about the audience that you consider your best customer and keep them in mind when curating the printed shopping experience for your store.
We had a sense of our favorite items, or things that we must include in the catalog, and decided to use each spread as an opportunity for a unique narrative. In our physical store we merchandise similarly, using vignettes to connect merchandise, but the layout allowed us to expand this possibility by featuring items side by side that may be difficult to display together on the sales floor. One favorite example of this is seen in the page below, where we presented an architecture story:
The playful jewelry connects with the mosaic tile pattern seen on the tote, but it would be an unlikely pairing in the store due to display constraints. The catalog format allowed us to invigorate these items with a fresh context, while also presenting them to an audience that may not have discovered them otherwise.
After planning our spreads, we reviewed existing product photos to evaluate which items needed better representation. Since the bulk of our product images are created with our online store in mind, most feature pure white backgrounds with little shadow or sense of environment. While it suits our website, this felt sterile on the printed page, and we opted to present most objects with a soft grey backdrop, which provided more weight and helped to unify the spreads. We partnered with a local photographer and offered sample images to express the look that we felt best suited the catalog.
Plan ahead for the perfect photoshoot
To make the most of our half-day photo shoot, we organized a list that detailed each item by category, along with the necessary shots for each item. Having this detailed wish list sets a rhythm for the shoot and ensures that you will have a trove of useful options for the graphic designer, while not forgetting to capture key images. Your list will also eliminate the need for constant readjusting of the camera setup. For example, if you have a collection of jewelry to shoot, focus on taking those photographs one after the other, and expand your set-up for larger items as you work through the list. This is a consideration that will make the shoot easier for the photographer and give them the space to focus on shooting, while you can work to assist with product organization and styling.
Focus on taking quality images that will reduce the time needed for editing. If you work with a photographer that will also complete the photo-editing, this may not be a concern. However, if you are managing your shoot, and creating print-ready images from these files, you will appreciate the extra attention on properly lighting and framing the items when you are back at the computer making edits. Much of our product photography happens in our office with the use of a lightbox, so we typically create our images in-house from start to finish. Even though we will continue this practice, it felt worthwhile to work with a professional for the catalog, given that our images usually appear online but not in print.
Think of this photoshoot as an investment beyond the catalog—one that will prove useful for your online store, social media, and as a resource for the marketing team. It’s always easier to pitch a social media post, or email-blast idea when you have professional photos at the ready to make the offer even more relevant and exciting.
Storytelling through copy
Some catalogs have no text, while others accompany product images with long blocks of copy. Knowing where to fall on this spectrum is dependent on your products and mission. For items relating to our art collection, we felt that a focus on playful narrative aided in the imaginative possibilities for the shopper: describing where you would wear the scarf, and fewer functional details like how you would care for the scarf. We focused on placing housewares in homes, accessories on the wearer, and artwork on the shopper’s walls.
Thinking about your customer and how much information they expect is key. In our shop we present artist names, location, and a brief biography on signage displayed with their line. We wanted to maintain this level of care and context for the catalog browser, ultimately landing around 30 and 50 words per description. Take advantage of longer descriptions when talking about custom items and how they connect to your mission. This will also give weight to the selection and help highlight your museum store as a crucial shopping destination full of items that are not available in other stores.
Designing for success and staying “on brand”
So, now you have your list of collections, you’ve photographed all the items, and you’ve drafted the perfect copy. Next you need to organize your materials in one place and hand them over to a graphic designer that you trust. Building a relationship with a graphic designer can come in handy beyond catalog design. Once you’ve worked together on a print project, it’s helpful to have their talent at your disposal when considering the design needed to complete product development, packaging, and so many of the other facets of nonprofit retail. The best way to encourage this collaboration is by accurately representing your institution’s brand and identity. Think about the standards set by your institution and provide any applicable branding guides or outlines. Even printed materials from other departments (membership, education, etc.) may help the designer understand the branding standards in place. Effectively communicating the desired look and feel of the final print piece will reduce the guesswork. Markup other catalogs (not just from museums) and touch on what you like and dislike. Examples will also provide direction for the designer and start the conversation in your comfort zone.
There are many moving parts to a catalog—from photos, to product descriptions, to prices, and it’s best to present all this information in one organized place. We found Google Sheets extremely valuable as it allows for simultaneous editing and eliminates the need to email updated documents back and forth. Once you’ve mapped out and titled your spreads, it becomes easier to plug in the supporting information for each item. Here’s the format that we used for our spreadsheet:
Each spread has a dedicated section and the items are listed with the full name that we want to show in print. This is followed by the price, product description, and the name of the corresponding photo file. You can also use this space to give design comments, or to call out the most important item within that collection; whatever information that will communicate your expectation for the layout, or notes on the merchandising. You may need more columns than shown above to capture all the details, so use this sample as a starting point when tackling your own asset organization.
Cut and Print
For our first catalog, we sourced a combined printer/mailing house. Their facility is in California, which, in hindsight, may have been the wrong choice considering that the bulk of our mailing list is on the East coast. The printer’s location and the nationwide mail delay around the holidays meant that catalogs landed in homes later than we expected. This was out of our hands -- but keeping location in mind when doing your research will affect the timeliness of the mailing. There are countless printers online, so spend some time reading reviews and request samples when possible. You will be surprised at how quickly you become opinionated over paper weight and binding methods, but this will only make your catalog even more polished.
Taking to digital
Once the print catalog was designed, adding a digital version was straightforward. We looked at a variety of competitive platforms (ISSUU, Flipsnack, and Publitas) and chose one that worked well for our needs. From there, we simply uploaded the full PDF (all the pages at once, as already designed) and then added a direct link to our web store for each product. We also created a “custom collection” within our web platform that imitated, on our e-commerce site, the item-by-item order of the catalog, so that once someone navigated to our site, they could browse just that assortment, in the same order as the catalog, without any sub-menus. (Here: https://shop.barnesfoundation.org/collections/catalogue) Then, we shared that Publitas catalog link with our membership and marketing departments. It was simple enough to include in emails and to share on social media: a one-link preview of our entire store that felt “special” and exclusive.
How did it all turn out?
Well, for the print catalog, we had added an app to our website so that we could provide each catalog recipient with their own unique code for “Free Shipping.” (This was included on the cover, printed from the mail house along with the customer’s address.) We anticipated that free shipping would be a strong sales driver, and that we would be able to look at those redemptions to quantify the sales that resulted from the catalog. However, our busiest online holiday season was rolling along and we weren’t seeing very many redemptions of those free shipping codes. But, we could see that the products featured in the catalog were selling well. We knew the sales were coming from the catalog, even though the customers weren’t taking advantage of the offer. So in the end, the “Free Shipping” code (and offer) weren’t necessary. We simply cross-referenced the e-commerce orders back to our original mailing list to look for correlation, and what we found was revelatory. We discovered that over 4% of the catalogs had resulted in sales. (This seems in line with commercial retail catalog conversion rates.) But more than that, the average purchase of a customer who was mailed a print catalog was 3.5 times more than the purchases of online customers during the same period, who had not received a catalog. It’s clear that being given a chance to browse our paper “showroom” before logging on to our website greatly increased the value and number of items that our customers selected. We also saw that the digital catalog drove traffic to our ecommerce site, but because our digital analytics can be somewhat limiting, we did not have as detailed feedback about the specific sales resulting from that piece of the project.
This was a great result. Even with the small mailing list we had used to test the waters, we had recouped our modest expenses (photographer, designer, printing, and postage) several times over. We anticipate adding a catalog to our marketing efforts annually, expanding to even more of our members and shoppers. In addition, thinking about the catalog and merchandising stories we will feature is already influencing the way we plan our merchandise and product development from the beginning of the year. We want to make sure we have a robust assortment of new items to highlight -- in the next catalog!
Although this may seem a daunting amount of work at first, the building of your online business (through whatever method) will become a vital part of the success of your whole business! You may enjoy even modest success just by giving it a try!!
Tia Bianchini is the Merchandise Manager at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. She graduated with a BFA from Tyler School of Art with a focus on textiles, printmaking, and art history. Her support of handmade, ethical, and sustainable production allows the Barnes Shop to serve as a platform for amplifying a diverse set of makers and their stories. She is currently serving as co-chair of the Museum Store Sunday committee and has been a member of the Museum Store Association since 2016.
Julie Steiner is the Senior Director of Admissions and Retail Operations at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Her work focuses on how museum operations can make art accessible to wider audiences, support the educational missions of museums, and to create meaningful personal connections to fine art and history. Julie was the 2017-18 President of the Museum Store Association, and the recipient of the 2019 “M Award for Excellence” from the Museum Store Association. She is the author of “A Short Biography of Paul Cezanne” and “Birds in the Barnes Foundation.”