While a growing number of businesses and consumers rely on the Internet and their mobile devices for everything from reading the latest bestseller to ordering products, there will always be a need for printed media. In fact, jan/san distributors say there is no substitute for flipping through the pages of a glossy product catalog, or having access to a hard copy on their bookshelf. But online product catalogs have emerged as a popular tool that allow distributors to supply up-to-the-minute information about their product offerings to customers.

Often, printed catalogs and online catalogs serve different needs — and therefore presentation and content should be adapted accordingly.

Still Fit To Print

Despite the fact that printed catalogs are outdated almost as soon as they're printed, distributors say they still serve a large purpose.

For example, printed catalogs often serve as a medium for introducing prospective customers to a distributor's business. Once that person has a better idea of what the distributor offers, he or she is more likely to make a purchase, distributors say.

"Surprisingly, people still want to pick something up and look through it — and our salespeople still want a catalog to hand out," says Linda Silverman, vice president of sales and marketing for Maintex Inc., City Of Industry, Calif. "We try to make it a very professional, attractive, colorful catalog that's easy to navigate. When you hand customers a professional-looking book, it speaks to what the company's about."

Ryan Banks, vice president of sales and marketing at Las Vegas-based Brady Industries, agrees that the printed catalog is a useful presentation tool — usually better than what most distributors are able to offer online.

"You're somewhat limited online as far as using graphical elements, like charts," he says. "For example, we carry 50 different trash liners. In a printed catalog we can display the different sizes in a graph or chart, whereas in most cases you would have to display them individually online."

Distributors say when designing printed catalogs they should contain more than product descriptions, photos and product prices. Catalogs should also give customers basic information like the product's SKU, but go a bit further by including detailed product specs and chemical content. In fact, distributors often see print catalogs as a resource to provide customers with tips about how to use the products as well as facts and studies done by manufacturers. For example, Maintex complements its product offerings with statistics. So when a customer flips to the paper section, they will see statistics on paper consumption that help decide what product might be the best fit for a particular facility and budget.

Printed catalogs should also be limited to products that are in stock, say distributors, because customers assume that if it's in print, it's available. Items that aren't in stock can easily be listed online where distributors are able to keep customers updated on a product's availability.

Distributors say they also use their printed catalogs to promote their online offerings.

"We've outlined the online ordering feature in our printed catalog, and we promote 24/7 online ordering, so the two go hand- in-hand," says Silverman.

Online Catalog Perks

While printed and online catalogs often share the same images and descriptions, e-commerce systems enable additional features on the Internet, giving customers greater flexibility and helping them make purchasing decisions without having to pick up the phone.

"Both our online and print catalogs use the same descriptions," says Matt Johnston, director of technology for Knoxville, Tenn.-based Kelsan Inc. "But one advantage of the online catalog is the ability to recommend products and cross-functioning products. For example, if you purchase a five-gallon bucket of floor wax, the online system will also recommend accessories such as mops and finishing pads."

Another perk of online catalogs is the ability to create shopping lists.

"Whether it's a list of parts ordered for a particular piece of equipment, regular supplies used in a specific building, or items in a floor care program, customers have the ability to organize themselves better with supplies that they use on a regular basis," says Banks.

In addition to helping customers set up and manage lists, online catalogs can supply them with tools to manage their accounts and simplify the ordering process.

"The online version has lots of benefits in the ordering process vs. ordering from a printed catalog," says Banks. "For instance, you have the ability to put budgetary controls in place and administration hierarchy for approvals."

Distributors are also taking advantage of their online catalog's potential to include more detailed information. For example, most distributors' online catalogs include MSDS sheets — content that would be too massive to run in printed catalogs that are already hundreds of pages long. Kelsan's website contains a tab for all MSDS sheets as well as a link to the corresponding MSDS sheet in the product's details section. And Maintex provides additional educational material online that doesn't fit in its printed catalog about specific product categories that can help make an informed purchasing decision.

One of the obvious benefits of an online catalog vs. a printed catalog is the ability to keep it current. With the proliferation of green offerings and other product innovations, distributors can quickly update their online catalogs between printings as well as remove discontinued items or change pricing information instantly.

To provide customers information about these changes in a physical format, distributors often print addendum sheets and brochures to highlight new products, says Silverman.

While some customers turn to print catalogs and others favor the online version, there are those that prefer to use both. Giving customers both options to choose from, grants the flexibility to use what medium they feel comfortable with. The more options, the better chance there is to make a sale, too.

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

Custom Catalogs

Some distributors, instead of printing large runs of catalogs, are focusing their efforts on printing custom catalogs for customers. Knoxville, Tenn.-based Kelsan Inc., for example, used to produce a standard catalog that increased business — but unfortunately not for the company.

"We printed a 1,000-page catalog, gave it to our sales reps to hand to everyone around town, and hoped they'd get a sales call back," says Matt Johnston, the company's director of technology. "We stopped doing that because we found people were using them to order from our competitors, or they'd enjoy the pretty pictures and descriptions and call their existing vendor and say, ÔCan you get this for me?'"

Now, Kelsan focuses on building relationships with customers first and gaining their business before printing a custom catalog that addresses their specific needs.

Similarly, Kelsan's customers can create custom catalogs online using the same vendor-generated descriptions as the printed catalogs.

"If you don't want to see all 10,000 items in the catalog, and you only want to see the 300 items that you'd buy, you can create a custom catalog online," says Johnston. "That's one way we align our printed and online catalogs."