July 08, 2007

Incremental Online Sales: Nordstrom

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Earlier, we reviewed financial results at Williams Sonoma. The data clearly indicated how important catalog is to the growth of the direct channel.

Nordstrom is a highly profitable multichannel retailer, one that took a very different approach to catalog.

In 2005, the brand decided to eliminate $36,000,000 of ad-spend on a targeted direct-to-consumer catalog business that featured merchandise for a niche of women's apparel consumers. (FYI, data in the table above are freely available via Nordstrom 10-K annual reports).

Had this happened at a company like Williams Sonoma, where catalog items ARE the brand, a catastrophe would have occurred.

But at Nordstrom, where the catalog items were a subset of all items offered in stores and on the website, something different happened.

The catalog strategy was discontinued on June 30, 2005. Notice that catalog + internet sales in 2005 only grew by one percent. Yet, in 2006, even though half the year was comped against a prior year that had a significant catalog investment, catalog + internet sales grew dramatically. Nordstrom Direct management figured out how to leverage the marketing tools and merchandise assortment available to them to grow the business, in spite of the dramatic loss of catalog advertising.

Furthermore, we are all aware that Nordstrom retail comps were spectacular during this time period, opposite of what industry experts might suggest would happen if $36,000,000 of catalog advertising were removed from the multichannel ecosystem.

This leads me to my point. At Williams Sonoma, catalogs ARE the store, the website, the brand. Catalog marketing is critical to the success of this multi-brand organization.

At Nordstrom, however, traditional catalog marketing was discontinued. After a brief blip, business came roaring back.

This is why I advocate that catalog marketers have an "open mind". You may desperately need catalog advertising to grow your online business. Or, like Nordstrom, you may not need catalog advertising to grow your online business, you may be able to cross the digital divide, and utilize online and multichannel retail marketing to fuel your online business.

Listening to pundits leads you to the conclusion that you have no choice but to maximize your catalog advertising efforts. Instead, listen to your own business instinct, and the needs of your customer base, and chart a course of your own. Industry experts are only experts to the extent that they have seen various business models succeed. The Nordstrom example runs counter to what most industry experts are used to seeing.