No one can argue that technology has not had a positive impact on the ability for jan/san distributors to communicate with current and potential clients. However, given the nature of who they are dealing with — professionals who are not typically sitting in front of a computer screen eight hours a day — distributors say that building service contractors and in-house service professionals are slow to get on the information superhighway.

This is evident in the fact that many distributors — some of whom have Web sites that allow clients to order and pay for items — still compile, print and send out hard copy product catalogs to their clients.

“Obviously it has changed, but there is still a need for the hard copy,” says Rick Link, marketing director at Pur-O-Zone Inc., Lawrence, Kan. “What we want to do is play to the strengths of the customer. We don’t want to frustrate them by trying to get them to use a mode that they do not normally use.”

Although there are some in the industry who still like to receive a hard copy catalog in the mail on a regular basis, distributors are looking to their Web sites to market and sell their products. The key, they say, is to make it as easy as possible for the user to find and buy what they are looking for.

“If you want the current version of our catalog, we make it a one-click process on the Web site,” Link says. “We are in the process of online ordering but it’s not for general consumption yet. It is in the beta-testing stage. We are not trying to get the customer to adapt to us, we are trying to do what the customer needs and in the format that they need it.”

Catering To The Customer

One of the main advantages to a catalog is the fact that it is portable, referable and easy to take notes on for those that may not necessarily have access to a computer and the Internet at all times.

“Everyone is different and there are people that are ‘old time’ in our industry that want to flip through a catalog and I respect that. I am also very much that way,” says Jim Clayton, president of Clayton Paper & Distribution Inc., St. Joseph, Mo. “I’m also very visual in that sense. I like to look at it. It’s easier in some ways to go back and forth and I think that is the big motivation there. The younger generation is more savvy in regards to being able to find things online and better at navigating through the Internet.”

Clayton has noticed a decrease in the number of current and potential clients who request his company’s printed catalog over the last two to three years.

“People are more willing to go to the Internet site, look up products and order products online,” he says. “Of course we love that because it’s a little more streamlined since it just goes right into our system, right out the door and gets to them.”

Clayton has begun using flyers and promotional pieces rather than fully relying on a full catalog. Clayton Paper prints runs of about 20 to 25 catalogs at a time because as the company’s product offering is constantly growing, the item numbers are also constantly changing.

“To print a large amount that literally, the minute that they are printed, is probably going to be out of date, so to speak, probably does not make a lot of sense,” Clayton says. “I really like doing targeted marketing pieces like if a sales rep wants to make a push into churches or schools or into restaurants it can customize that way and it’s not a waste since it is the items that they would be more interested in.”

The relationship between the hard copy catalog and Web site is strong where as the software Clayton uses allows the company to streamline updates to its production line both online and in printed material.

“From a logistics standpoint, whenever we update our catalog, it updates our Web site,” Clayton says. “It’s literally tied together by the software company that we use and that is really nice. We try to update it every week or so with our prices and these days you can’t do that enough to stay ahead of the game. Next time we print a catalog, it is going to have the new pricing or new item number and same thing, next time you go to the Web site it should be updated.”

A catalog can also act as a piece of advertising for a distributor, with the name of the company, its logo, contact information, including the company’s Web site address prominently displayed on the cover.

Without a catalog sitting on a desk or a bookshelf, it is out of sight, out of mind. Most custodial clients will not have a distributor’s Web site as their homepage or even on the favorites on their office computer even if they have access to the Internet.

“There are certain people that need our information and the closest computer that they use is in another building,” Link says. “So when you are working with custodial clients, you have to realize that they need something that they can reference on site and get down off a bookshelf.”

In the past, Pur-O-Zone hired a printer to handle the printing of its catalogs. Now the company creates custom catalogs in-house that are linked to its accounting and invoicing software. The company customizes its catalogs so that they are inline with specific clients, their size and the products that they purchase or may potentially purchase in the future.

“For example, if we wanted to just have their products that people can order from five branches, then we can put together a catalog specific to that need,” says Link, whose company’s full catalog typically has about 110 pages and is also available through a PDF on the company’s Web site. “So when we have those printed and bound, we are doing them in small quantities so that they are more up to date rather than a big batch from a printer.”

Products Fit To Print

A distributor’s printed catalog has inherited drawbacks compared to a catalog feature on a Web site. First, it is dated the moment it is printed. So, it may not be the most current pricing and product information. Second, it is more costly to create, print and mail a catalog compared to updating a Web site.

Some distributors like Maintex Inc., City of Industry, Calif., are publishing a high quality catalog so it becomes a reference piece for customers.

“We still find that people want to touch it, feel it, open it, resource it and grab it off the shelf, mark pages and make notes; things that you would not do just by going to the Web,” says Linda Silverman, vice president of sales and marketing for Maintex, whose company’s entire catalog is also online as a downloadable item. “It depends on who you are sending it to. If you are sending it to a young person, they probably like getting everything electronically and going to a Web site. If you are sending it to someone who is a little older and a little more traditional, they probably like having their books on a bookcase to pull down and look at.”

Maintex recently printed 10,000 catalogs, the first catalog edition in a couple of years for the company. They print an abundance of catalogs because the company receives a price break as the size of the run increases, says Silverman.

The printed catalog serves as a tool for the company’s sales staff and customer service team.

“Our catalog is very high quality, it’s very nice,” says Silverman. “I think your printed catalog makes an impression about your company. If I didn’t have the hard copy, I know my sales staff would be (saying) ‘We got to have it in a hard copy.’”

The catalog that Maintex publishes is not just a list of products and prices, but a resource with many pages of information and tips about how to use the products offered in the catalog.

“There is a section that shows paper consumption, how much toilet paper somebody uses,” Silverman says.

The company also has the ability to print or e-mail sections of its catalog to a client that are specific to their needs.

“There is a green section and if they are into that, I can just e-mail them the green section,” Silverman says. “We have the whole catalog in a PDF and I have it in individual sections. So, if they want just individual sections, then I can send it to them.”

Importance Of Online

Although distribution of a catalog is an important facet to marketing throughout the industry, distributors are becoming more adept to online commerce. It is becoming the norm for distributors to develop Web sites where clients can order and pay for products with a couple of clicks. The typical distributor site, that is taking the place somewhat of hard copy catalogs, contains information and descriptions of each item on the distributor’s product line.

Distributor sites are also extending to the e-commerce realm of business transitions and allows users to log in with a user name and password and glean information about their account with the distributor. There they can see previous purchases, make new orders and track products that are en-route to their location.

Maintex is in the process of redesigning its Web site to be more robust. It has set up its catalog to work in tandem with its Web site by having order numbers on product pages and online ordering functionality for its clients. Other distributors are encouraged to follow the online catalog route nowadays, as the more product exposure a company receives outside of the traditional printed catalog, the better off they will fair.

Brendan O’Brien is a freelance writer based in Greenfield, Wis.