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CoffeeTable reimagines catalogs for the tablet generation

CoffeeTable reimagines catalogs for the tablet generation

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Most shoppers visit e-commerce sites to search, not browse. That's the role of catalogs, and it's why more than 150 retailers rely on this startup to take their paper versions digital.

Many in the start-up game are seeking to change the way people shop, and for good reason. The Internet has transformed the process, but the sheer volume of stores you can visit and the overwhelming way items are displayed can leave customers clicking through endless pages of apparel - or whatever other sort of product they are researching.

If this is what shopping has become, are the good old days of catalog browsing totally behind us?

According to San Francisco digital catalog startup CoffeeTable, the future of this leisurely pastime is on your tablet computer. And apparently plenty of people agree: Its software is the No. 1 rated app in its category for the Apple iPad and is making ground on the iPhone.

In a world where impulse online shopping is the new norm, why take catalogs digital? “It’s an experience focused around discovery,” says Ben Choi, co-founder and CEO, speaking CoffeeTable’s SoMa offices, not far from where he grew up. “If you don’t know what you want, you’re looking to window-shop, there’s no fun in Google. It’s where you get your errands done.”

Rethinking a leisurely past-time

CoffeeTable is not meant to be a place where you get errands done, or where you have to actively search for something. It’s where you shop for enjoyment.

Retailers have spent decades researching customer shopping habits, trying to get a handle on what they want, what compels them to buy, and what inspires them to buy more than they expected. The creation of the catalog was the end result of those findings, and now retailers spend $15 billion annually on marketing, printing and shipping them -- to people who may or may not even open them.

CoffeeTable asks, why not bring the right brand to the right customer at the right time, using mobile devices as the medium?

The app's user experience is built around the swipe-ability of the iPad and iPhone. The more you interact with catalogs that interest you, the more the app learns about your habits and preferences. It does contain a search feature that lets users look for something specific, but the primary point of the app is to let people browse around and find something they recognize or even something entirely new. If someone wants to make a purchase, he or she is directed to the company’s Web site.

“The test for me was, I showed this to my mom when we launched a year and a half ago and she'd never used an iPad before,” Choi says. “She opened it up, tapped it and moved through it, and I didn’t have to tell her what to do. That was the first test in usability.”

Getting content into CoffeeTable is relatively straightforward. The retailer gives the developer a PDF and product information, CoffeeTable does all the formatting, mapping and data cleansing to make it part of its catalog. There are now more than 150 brands represented across including catalog powerhouses like Eddie Bauer, Crate & Barrel, Coldwater Creek, Harry & David, Kohl's, Land's End, Macy's, Neiman Marcus and Signals.

A free analytics dashboard lets retailers follow what their customers are browsing in real time. It answers questions such as: "How many pages did most customers get through?" or "Which spots on the page did they click on most? This is data that many retailers never had before.

“Our vision is to become a pandora for shopping,” Choi said. “You want some familiar stuff, you also want some new stuff mixed in.”

A natural progression

Choi and his business partner Chris Friedland are veterans of the Silicon Valley tech scene. Choi’s background is in mobile startups and venture capital, most notably as part of Howard Shultz’s Maveron. Friedland started Build.com, the No. 2 two e-commerce site in home improvement after Home Depot.

The idea actually came from Friedland. Build.com’s base in Chico, California, is very far from major retail centers, so his wife became a catalog shopper. Friedland took note, and two and a half years ago after throwing the catalogs away, he came up with the idea for CoffeeTable.

The two met while Friedland was looking for funding. Choi thought CoffeeTable was such a smart idea that he suggested Friedland quit his day job and see it through. A few beers, Choi was the one quitting his job, and Coffeetable was born.

The founders have already built and rebuilt the application three times. One big insight they uncovered is that Website shopping is on demand, and if you’ve shopped on a desktop computer before, you’re programmed to interact with sites that way. The catalog experience is designed for an altogether different purpose, it’s not a place for impulse-buying.

So instead of trying to take a revenue share on a transaction that happened on the spot inside the catalog, CoffeeTable learned that it must focus on marketing value.

With that in mind, CoffeeTable retailers pay per catalog open, along the same budget lines they have for their print copies. For this investment, retailers get to see how shoppers are engaging and even when browsers stop skimming the pages. That's a world of data that never existed before, and it represents CoffeeTable's core value proposition.

“It’s one of those rare businesses where the advertisement is the content,” Choi says. “Like a movie trailer. It’s entertainment that leads to a purchase.”

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure