How Print Became an Experience Gateway for Big Box Retailers

As retailers look ahead to a post-pandemic consumer world, where does print appear on their radar? For some insights, let’s look at how print was being integrated into both brick-and-mortar and online retailers. 

“The rapid rise of online shopping and e‐commerce has completely up‐ended conventional retail,” writes Dr. John Zarwan, author of “The Evolution of U.S. Retail in an Increasingly Digital World,” published by The Association for Print Technologies and PRIMIR Research. “It is growing nine times faster than traditional in‐store sales. Online channels have driven essentially all the inflation‐adjusted gains in retailer revenue.” 

(Written in 2018, this report doesn’t take account for the e-commerce surge created by the lockdowns of 2020 — so we can assume the trend toward more online shopping has been greatly accelerated since then.)

At the same time, online retailers are recognizing the importance of a physical experience in the customer journey. Amazon launched physical bookstores, Apple has some 500 stores worldwide, and retail popups were trending strongly before the pandemic.

“They are recognizing, for certain things you can’t digitize and replicate online all the experience one has in a store,” said Randy Burt, a partner at A.T. Kearney who is quoted in the report. “The ability to create experiences is going to be critical for them to continue to get share.”

Experience — this is the key to consumer engagement, and it’s one reason why big-name retailers (physical and online) look to print. The physical nature of a catalog, direct mail piece, even a simple flyer or grocery store coupon guarantees deeper engagement than an email or digital ad. 

Given this, it makes absolute sense that the ROI on print marketing is consistently higher when used as part of a multi-channel strategy … even if we are browsing and buying online.

According to the report, Dollar General noted that print is their “number 1 medium for reaching [their] core customer.” Many retailers report their sales increase when circulars are printed, and they are especially aware when a circular “goes dark” or doesn’t print in a particular week. 

The challenge is finding the balance — how much to invest in print, digital and other media to strike the right mix. It’s important for retailers to understand the role of print marketing has changed, quite dramatically.

Up until the early 2000s, print circulars and catalogs were the main way consumers explored product lines. Now, print tells a more refined story. Springtime? Roll out the “10 Things to Get Now for Your Lawn” mini-catalog. Thanksgiving? Try a “Made from Scratch this Thanksgiving” recipe circular, with all ingredients handy in the store.

The customer journey often begins in print, and ends online, with a mix of brand touches along the way. According to the report, direct mail is particularly important for local businesses like restaurants, auto dealers and clothing stores — although big brands are rediscovering how important printed programs can be, too.

“One of the main drivers in the renewed interest in direct mail by larger retailers is the increasing importance of loyalty programs,” the report notes, “which use both electronic communication and direct mail. It is imperative for retailers to segment their customers and communicate relevant offers in the manner the customer chooses.”

Cost-conscious retailers are understandably looking for ways to replace print in their marketing budgets — and haven’t yet been able to. Consider the hard lumps Nordstrom took when they cut direct mail from their loyalty program.

“Retailers would like to reduce their reliance on circulars and catalogs,” the report continues. “They have been unable to do so because the link with sales is clear and measurable.”

If you operate a retail business — online, physical or a hybrid — the full report gives a deep dive in the pros, cons, facts and figures about print in the marketing mix. For more information, get the full report at the Association for Print Technologies. It may be well worth the investment to the future of your business.