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The importance (or otherwise) of catalogues in the garden industry

Jo Lidgerwood and Noelle Weatherley investigate

In a more genteel era before technology and the `information super highway' swamped us, catalogues were considered vital by manufacturers, growers, wholesalers and distributors as the prime resource for their customers. After all, without catalogues, how would anyone know what you're trying to sell?

It's not all that long ago that most of the well established, large production and retail nurseries around the country produced annual or seasonal catalogues that included all the usual general lines, as well as `new introductions' and `exclusives'.

Wholesale catalogues were either hand-delivered by travelling salesmen or posted to retail customers, while those produced by retailers were posted to regular customers or handed out at the cash register. Today, while the printed catalogue is still considered one of the most important marketing tools, the rapid spread of electronic methods of communication, including the internet, has seen some changes in attitudes although perhaps these are not as widespread as first thought!

For retailers selling garden tools and equipment, spare parts, dry goods (fertilisers, chemicals, etc) and hard goods (pots, garden hardware, irrigation equipment, garden ornaments, and the like), printed or `hard copy' catalogues from their suppliers are as important as ever.

There's nothing quite like being able to whip out the latest catalogues from under the counter to show customers what's available, to determine if the spare part they're after can be sourced or to pass on other vital pieces of information on products, direct from the supplier. It's certainly easier than having to disappear into the back office, start up the computer and get on the internet.

To determine current views on catalogues generally, Greenworld surveyed a representative sample of garden industry businesses.

We asked them if they have printed or online catalogues (or both), how much of their marketing budgets do catalogues account for, problems associated with using catalogues as marketing tools, expenses in producing catalogues, distribution issues, how they see the future of catalogues and any other comments they would like to contribute on the subject. Here's what they had to say.

Highsun Express - Simon Leonard
"We have both printed and online catalogues. We are able to gauge how effective the online version is by regularly checking the `hits' on these pages. At present online ordering is not possible and it's not something we're looking at in the immediate future. We spend about 7% of our marketing budget on our catalogue - this would increase significantly if we were to include online ordering."

Simon added that Highsun Express considers its catalogue important as a dictionary of products and an excellent promotional tool, with lots of pictures so customers can see what they're ordering. The printed version is updated regularly in-house. New catalogues are mailed to all customers and used as a selling tool for prospective customers.

"Our industry is generally slow to take on new technology. Online will eventually grow - chain stores and other large customers will force changes in the way we do things, but for the time being, printed catalogues with quality photographs will remain our principal resource."

Multicrop - Milton Dyer
"Currently we don't produce a catalogue. We have printed price lists and our sales team and distributors carry printed presentation folders that include an A4 page on each product. We do have a website on which all our products are listed but that is mostly for the public and is not used as a sales tool.

"Down the track we will have to consider an online catalogue and we are discussing the possibility of online ordering for retailers. I think it will come, but some will only get involved when they have to."

Ramm Botanicals - Annette Marsh
"Ramm has both online and hard copy catalogues and online ordering is on our `wish list. About a quarter of our marketing budget is taken up with our catalogue and we see this as being money well spent. The catalogue is important not just for growers but also for retailers and is a great asset for our sales people.

"There is serious expenditure involved in creating a good looking catalogue but it's all worthwhile. We distribute our printed catalogue through insertions into various trade magazines, via post to trade and media mailing lists and at expos and trade shows.

"I believe we will still need to produce both online and printed versions for at least the next two years. Not everyone has embraced change - we still have customers who don't even have fax machines!

"We produce a high quality annual catalogue that gives us a good image and provides a lot of information for our customers and our online catalogue is updated as the product range changes. We are noticing that our website is becoming more popular as internet uptake increases in our industry."

Richgro Garden Products
Richgro produces a printed catalogue and sees it as an important part of promoting its products to retailers. All clients have a copy and it is seen as a positive aspect of the business. The company will also produce a promotional booklet this year that will have special offers and gifts to encourage retailers to place spring orders early.

In looking to the future, Richgro sees an ongoing role for its printed catalogue in addition to a web version as the industry moves to adopting online ordering.

Larkman Nurseries - Clive Larkman
"Catalogues are critical to our business. We have an annual online catalogue, and a 14 page monthly version that is both online and printed. We send out printed copies monthly and are increasing the numbers sent by email, although there are problems associated with bulk emailing.

"Our experience indicates some disadvantages with using catalogues as a marketing tool, as our customers tend to wait for the monthly versions before placing orders. If we didn't distribute these, customers would be more likely to forward order from our annual list.

"About 40% of our marketing budget is allocated to catalogues. Going back about 10 years, someone at a conference said `Give me your catalogue, and I'll increase your sales by 50%'. All true! We upgraded our catalogue, included stories, glossy pics, lots of plant information and always correct nomenclature, and our sales increased proportionally. Our industry simply doesn't allocate a big enough percentage of turnover to advertising!"

Fleming's Nurseries - Ian Ritchie
Fleming's has been a regular producer of excellent catalogues for many years, including two currently available both as hard copies and online.

"In their present formats, catalogues are important to our business, but they are not crucial. We have our own graphics in-house, but we outsource printing. We have plans for expanded hard copy catalogues, as well as online, but things change quickly in this industry. Until recently our customers didn't want to know about online versions, but now many think they are great!

"However, as we see it, we will always have a need for hard copy catalogues and have no intention of restricting them to online only. My advice to others is not to try doing it themselves. Find a decent printer and ask a lot of questions."

AT Searle - Jason Searle
Searle's has both online and printed versions of its catalogue and is able to gauge the usefulness of its online activities by the orders placed through its website, a lot of which come from the giftware side of the business.

"Our online and printed catalogues don't consume a substantial amount of our marketing budget, however, they are an important reference source for our customers. The expediency of change to our online version is probably its biggest asset. Unlike print media, it can be changed regularly to reflect stock and range changes, new lines, etc. Currently printed catalogues are distributed by mail to existing customers and via reps to potential customers. Most new business is generated by reps."

Looking to the future, Jason has no doubt that it lies online. "While the garden industry is still in the age of hard copy, the giftware side of Searle's doesn't reply on traditional personal contact via reps and catalogue drop-off. These two sides of the industry are like chalk and cheese. I believe the nursery industry will change markedly over the next decade as modern communication methods become more widespread."

So there you have it. Individual opinions within our industry may vary on the best method of communicating with our customers, but it seems all agree that we're not yet done with hard copy catalogues, despite this country having one of the world's highest uptakes of internet connectivity per head of population. Looks like we'll be browsing the printed page for some time to come!

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