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Digital or print in retail

What Happens When You Abandon Print Without Asking Your Customers?

If you thought printed communications in retail were on the way out, think again.

As my colleague Alex Coates recently explained, the digital transition has already happened – for consumers. What that means in the retail world is that brands and retailers need to catch-up.

That doesn’t mean just “catch-up” arbitrarily, nor does it mean purely in a digital sense. Rather, it means becoming more aligned to consumers’ habits. That means nothing should be off the table (provided consumers still want it) - including print.

Here’s why.

As we’ve heard before, people are creatures - and consumers - of habit, but that tends to be forgotten as we discuss all things digital. The knock-on effect is that some brands and retailers tend to ignore traditional channels, going on the assumption that their consumers are also ignoring it.

Take a look around and you’ll be hard-pushed to see a wealth of “thought leadership” on print – because everything is digital, apparently.

Everything except consumers’ needs, that is.  

Research commissioned by RR Donnelley has revealed that only 30% of retailers have replaced print with digital, or have plans to do so. In fact many who have done so have experienced a downturn in sales.

30% of retailers have replaced print with digital


Given that retail survives on being aligned to consumers’ day-to-day needs and wants, what are the chances there might be a good reason behind that statistic?

One of the most startling findings in our research was that 40% of retailers revealed that they see themselves as digitally “behind the curve”. That’s perhaps a symptom of the attention given to the transition to digital - perhaps a case of retailer FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), but that would only give an incomplete story.

The view from retailers is that print in retail still exists for good reasons. Our research found that when integrated with digital channels, retailers said that printed communications prove highly effective at signposting customers elsewhere, as and when required. Cut print out altogether and this vital link is lost.

There’s a third, perhaps more telling implication here concerning the role of print, an implication which smartphones and tablets, quite literally, cannot touch.  ‘Touch’.

The psychological aspect of print, its tactility, is a curious phenomenon which digital displays have yet to compete with.  You may remember Ikea playfully pointing out the power of print in their “BookBook” video as if to remind people what they already know; print is still relevant for many consumers.

Case in point? Only last year, Argos shelved its plans to cut production of its catalogue due to consumer demand. Rewind the clock a further three years, and many were heralding the end of the good book Argos “because digital.”

Argos fancy dressSo what happened there? Shock horror, the customers’ expectations - to have print in the format they’re know and like in order to part with their money – weren’t met, which made the retailer take decisive, corrective action.

Put another way, the customer’s needs won out over the popular, seldom-challenged idea that “everything is digital so customers must want it that way.” Not so, apparently.

Granted, not needing or wanting print might even happen, eventually, but not having print which is so integral to the way consumers habitually access and engage simply doesn’t make sense.

For now, the Argos catalogue and other print formats remain part of the furniture. So much so, why wouldn’t you send your kids off to school on World Book Day dressed as the Argos catalogue?! I digress.

But was Argos’ aborted plan driven by their customers behind the curve, clinging to ‘ye-olde-worlde’ of shopping? And in embracing the fact that their customers just happen to love something printed, did Argos confirm that it rejects the modern world of joined-up, multi-channel retail?

Not a bit of it. Being one of the UK biggest retailers, one who’s online presence and credentials stand alongside that of John Lewis, Next and the like, Argos is a fully paid-up “Elite” retailer in the IRUK Top 500. Hardly old-world and, if anything, the company is a walking, talking case study in how to stay relevant.

So what this, along with other cases like it, tells us is that print isn’t dead. It never was (unless you’re selling digital-only expertise and/or advertising) - and its place in multichannel retail is as strong as ever.

Until shoppers say otherwise, that is.

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