How Old-School Catalogs Help Drive Up Online Sales


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I recently received an email from Internet Retailer promoting a piece of research which suggests that online shoppers that received a catalog in the mail spent on average 163 percent more than those that didn’t.

One hundred sixty-three percent? That’s a big difference.

This prompted me to go back to the research SeeWhy did into the Lessons Learned from the Top 10 Converting Websites, which revealed that 9 out of 10 of the top converting websites in the U.S. also have catalogs. These companies have visitor–to-sale conversion rates averaging 23 percent, compared with an industry average of 2-3 percent. However, this cannot be attributed solely to having a catalog.

Most online marketers strive to maximize their website conversion rates. When setting out on this path, the usual starting point for conversion rate optimization is data. Now, I’m a data-driven guy who lives in the analytics world, but it’s important to remember that conversion rate optimization is about getting more sales online.

It’s not about data, web analytics reports, conversion funnels, website tuning or anything else. These are all tools at your disposal to help you optimize your conversion rate, and it is important not to become overly fixated on the tools, but to focus on the goal: drive more online revenues. It’s not about whether the checkout button should be in green or on the right hand side.

So take a step back for a moment, and look afresh at your website. Think about your buyers—who they are, what they are like, and in a moment of escapism, become one. Visualize how they arrive at your site, where they come from, who influences them, and what makes them visit you online.

Sooner or later, we all realize that the quality of traffic to a website is absolutely critical when it comes to conversion rate optimization. One hundred thousand visitors per day that never buy may make your high-level visitor stats look good, but they throw off the rest of your metrics and do nothing for sales. An extra 1,000 visitors per day that convert will make all the difference. This doesn’t mean that high traffic volumes are bad, but the higher the quality of traffic arriving at your site, the greater your chances of converting visitors to sales.

The mainstay in driving quality traffic to websites for many years has been email, and increasingly for many ecommerce sites, traffic referred from their other website on Facebook. But catalogs? How very 1980’s.

Yet all the evidence suggests that customers love to browse offline and purchase online. In fact, research conducted by the USPS and Comscore (see below) found that catalogs doubled sales and increased website traffic for both existing and new customers.


This is one of the primary reasons why the big direct marketing companies consistently have high converting websites. Visitors that arrive at their websites are not cautious and in need of convincing because they have probably already been warmed up by an old-fashioned direct mail campaign and a catalog that arrived in their mailbox. They also have a very strong repeat purchase culture. While many marketers are fixated about new visitors, many of the top converting websites are focused on getting the second, third and fourth sale.

The purpose of this blog was to get you to step back from your website conversion problem for a moment and look holistically at your business, your customers and how to reach them. Hopefully it’s helped.

Many ecommerce companies could benefit not only from catalogs, but by thinking more holistically about their market and integrating communications across the full spectrum of channels in order to drive better quality traffic. And therein, their conversion rate will climb.

Without changing their checkout button to green or moving it two inches to the right.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Charles Nicholls
Charles Nicholls is a social commerce expert and board advisor to several e-commerce startups. He founded SeeWhy, a real-time personalization and machine learning platform, which was sold to SAP. Serving as SVP of product, he built SAP Upscale Commerce, an e-commerce platform for direct-to-consumer brands and the mid-market. Today, Charles serves as chief strategy officer for SimplicityDX, a commerce experience company. He has worked on strategy and projects for leading ecommerce companies worldwide, including Amazon, eBay, Google and many others.


  1. Good read, but I feel if you drove those 100k visitors at the same cost as 1k visitors (say via organic search), a 2% conv rate on 100k, is more deired than 1k visitors that convert at 20%. The goal of converting traffic that is already on your site, seems more efficient than trying to gain 99k visitors. If they’re already there, they’ve began down the purchase funnel. Users who haven’t made it to the site yet, aren’t yet in that funnel.

  2. There are many traditional catalogers who continue to grow their online businesses with catalog mailings to customers and prospects. The catalog argument becomes even more compelling…and profitable…when the positive impact on Store traffic and sales is added to the equation. Follow the Williams-Sonoma business model and results in their SEC filings. Follow many other multi-channel marketers like Neiman-Marcus, Talbots, Chico’s, Coldwater Creek and many others. Catalogs enhance the total brand image, complement the top of mind awareness in the home and drive business in ALL channels.

  3. Hi Nick

    Good point

    You are absolutely right that getting more traffic, and getting the conversion rate up is a primary goal. With this article I was trying to make the point that there is a direct link between the quality of the traffic and the conversion rate. It’s not surprising when you consider this, but it tends to get forgotten when we focus solely on conversion type metrics. That doesn’t meant that ecommerce teams should not strive for improvements in their conversion rates or neglect SEO or other means of driving traffic, heck no, just that offline marketing can be very effective in driving sales, and these techniques shouldn’t be forgotten.



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