Product catalogs can be one of the best resources a distributor has for disseminating information about his or her company’s product offerings; however, not all are created equal. From deciding what to include in a catalog to what technology is used to produce it, developing product catalogs can give distributors a lot to think about.

Most distributors would agree that a catalog provides an efficient and easy one-stop method for end users to browse product offerings and that it can also help set companies apart from one another.

Jim Clayton, president of Clayton Paper and Distribution Inc., St. Joseph, Mo., says end users often regard companies that offer product catalogs as more proactive businesses than companies that don’t.

“It is an image thing,” he says. “That catalog might have [end users] thinking, ‘Well, I think I’ll buy from them [because] they seem a bit more professional, while that other company doesn’t seem to be quite with it because they don’t have a catalog.’”

A company can use a product catalog in many ways, says Mark Elzea, president of PUR-O-ZONE, a distributor in Lawrence, Kan., but one of the most useful functions it serves is as a tool for advertising the availability of products to both new and established customers.

“[A product catalog] goes a long way to show customers that there’s a lot of breadth to the things that we do,” explains Elzea. “Even though perhaps they’re only looking for one or two things, or maybe they’ve only bought a small selection of items from us, but it shows them that we have much more available to them than they may realize.”

Elzea sees two main purposes of product catalogs: they serve as an avenue to promote a company’s marketing message as well as a functional reference tool for salespeople and customers. However, making sure a product catalog generates business is crucial.

“The image is nice to have and it’s good to know that a buyer has your catalog on his shelf, but he may have other catalogs on there as well, so hopefully you are the [company] that he calls,” Elzea says.

By creating a professional, easy-to-follow, accurate and attractive catalog, companies can help ensure their product offerings are not overlooked.

Making Sure It Matters
If your product catalog is winding up at the bottom of a stack of other catalogs, it is obviously not working for you. So what are some of the essential elements of a catalog that will have customers turning to it for their ordering needs and not just flipping through it before tossing it aside?

Distributors can capture customers’ interest by highlighting new items and demonstrating the breadth of products offered, says Elzea.

“You should be making customers aware of the things that you have that might save them time or money and might allow them to do things that they’ve been doing in a different way,” he explains.

Linda Silverman, vice president of sales and marketing for Maintex, City of Industry, Calif., and Ronnie Robinson, art director for Maintex, work closely in producing the company’s catalogs. They have pinpointed several elements of a successful catalog.

Ease of use for customers is one of the biggest aspects Silverman focuses on. “You should have a good index so that it is easy for people to find what they’re looking for,” Silverman points out. “I think that it’s good to have nice pictures that can help a salesperson explain a product as well.”

Robinson agrees that photographs appeal to most customers and are useful to salespeople. Over the years, he has also learned from salespeople that having a catalog with a lot of white space can be beneficial.

“Some of the salespeople use it as their bible,” Robinson says. “By the end of the year, it looks so different because they write all over it. They also want it straight to the point and without a lot of copy because they want customers to call them to find out more about it.”

Elzea and Silverman agree that the catalog can help make the company seem more approachable.

“Maybe they only see a sales representative or a delivery driver in a truck, but a catalog can show them there’s more to [your company] than what they might see and that there’s a lot of people here waiting to help them,” Elzea says.

Putting It Together
Knowing what elements will make your catalog draw orders from customers is important, but figuring out the best way for your company to produce a catalog raises its own set of questions: should you produce it in house, use outside help or use a catalog from a buying group? Every company needs to answer this question before setting on a specific course of action.

Clayton’s company has been producing its catalog in house for the past 18 months with the help of their software company and a catalog solutions company that provides the jan/san industry with tools such as database creation and an image library.

“They partnered to help us create all the item numbers, graphics and stuff,” Clayton says. “It works pretty well.”

The current production method works well when updates are necessary, he adds, because items can be dropped in or taken out fairly quickly.

The company is using its second edition of the catalog now; before beginning production of its own catalog, it used wholesaler catalogs. The company still uses those catalogs from time to time, but Clayton says the company made the move to its own catalog because it wanted its own name in front of customers with its own products listed.

Like most new ventures, developing a catalog was a lot of work for the company. Clayton enlisted the help of two part-time college students who took about two months to complete the project.

Maintex has been producing its own full catalog for some time now — about 15 years, says Silverman. Prior to creating the full catalog, the company offered a simple two-page flyer.

The company is able to produce the catalog in house because it has in-house graphic artists on staff that handle other creative aspects for the brand explains Silverman.

As art director for Maintex, Robinson says the company uses QuarkXPress, a design program, to create the catalog. “It’s known everywhere and it works really well as far as working with Photoshop,” said Robinson. “Most people [in art departments] have Quark and most artists use Quark.”

The company does use photos and graphics available from manufacturers, but also has the capability to use its own equipment to take photos when needed.

Maintex produces three or four different catalogs for the company’s product lines and each is updated every other year. It takes about three months to update a catalog and give it a new look. “We try to change it while also keeping our same overall look so when people see it, they know is it done by Maintex,” says Robinson.

Many companies, such as PUR-O-ZONE, are members of buying groups that develop catalogs. Distributors have the option of inserting pages outlining some of their product offerings into the buying groups’ catalogs.

“We’ve probably used the [buying group’s] catalog for about five years now,” said Elzea. “Prior to that we would do a catalog but it would be very few and far between and we would only update it every several years.”

Using the buying group’s catalog is most beneficial to his company, Elzea says, because the buying group has a strong identity and all of the distributors who carry the buying group’s products are able to share the cost of the catalog.

PUR-O-ZONE usually includes a four-page insert that provides customers information on the products the company blends. “We try to focus on those products that are going to appeal to the widest market or on something that is new or unique that we want to make sure everyone is aware of,” Elzea explains.

Trial And Error
Making the right decisions on how to utilize technological advances can help your company create a catalog you can truly be proud of. Clayton remembers when producing a catalog was unattainable — it was too expensive and too complicated. The company has about 30 employees and expects to do about $7 million to $8 million in business this year.

With today’s technology, companies have more leeway in deciding what will work best for them. “Technology has changed an awful lot over the past five years to make development of catalogs more accessible to a lot more distributors my size,” Clayton believes.


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