First Rolands


A printed catalogue places Uline in the hands of prospective customers in an unassuming way

BY : Nick Howard, C.E.A., President, Howard Graphic Equipment Ltd.

Online purchasing is no longer novel: almost everyone surfs the net to buy or sell goods and services. Online sales have grown exponentially year over year with no signs of slowing. Last year, our office needed a new colour printer, something thousands do each week.

Our daughter was put in charge, and since she knew the desired make and model, it didn’t take long, to scour the internet and locate one. But, from far-off Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When I queried the Lewis & Clark distance, she nonchalantly muttered, in that why are you are even asking tone, “They had it in stock.”

As with today’s young people, Sarah doesn’t bat an eye over where she orders from. She finds the most accessible source. Saskatoon! Really? Sarah is also a talented baker, and she has endless stacks of, mostly case-bound, recipe tomes scattered around the house. Sarah enjoys books and doesn’t consider a printed page any less intriguing than the more instantly expansive online experience. Traditional print and the internet often serve the same master.

While the printer incident was still fresh news, in walked another order from ULINE, the massive privately-owned supplier of everything from trash bags to bakery boxes. A walloping 800-page catalogue sat forlornly at the bottom of the large box, looking as if it weighed as much as the product itself. These catalogue appearances are nothing new since Sarah regularly purchases from ULINE. Orders often emanate from a mailed [ULINE] catalogue seemingly affixed to her desk.


This time I became intrigued and wanted to know why ULINE, a savvy and successful business, would embrace what seemed a bygone era: the printed catalogue. Surely it couldn’t be absent-minded management ignoring trends or a rogue purchasing agent not wanting to say adios to their holiday perks. Does business retention often demand that vendors provide “incentives” to retain sales? ULINE’s reasoning had to be much more profound and less understood.

ULINE is not alone. W.W. Grainger Inc., another well-known industrial supplier, has the largest “mailed” catalogue I’ve ever received. Coming in at over 3,200 pages, it would be understated to call it “massive.” Several other distributors have continued swimming against the online current to distribute meaty volumes, which is why I wanted to find out why ULINE uses print. These companies (and many more) can’t be that slow or lack intelligence. Wasn’t print dying? Didn’t they get the memo?

Brian Shenker is ULINE’s Vice-president of Direct Marketing & Advertising and is based in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. Mr. Shenker was generous with his time and the right person to talk to about their use of print. I asked Shenker about various aspects of ULINE’s marketing (print editions, mailers, and cards vs. social media and direct email).

I noted that not only was he well aware of the demise of the printed catalogue, but he understood much more than I did when it came to sticking with a medium most of us gave up for dead. Shenker stated that ULINE wishes to control the complete advertising cycle and print plays an important role in making the company more noticeable to prospective customers. There is a direct connection between buyer and seller.

He went on to say that a printed catalogue can place ULINE products directly into the hands of a warehouse employee who requested his or her company order a product but wasn’t the actual name on the purchase order. The catalogue has a way of cutting through rigid company structures only to show up in a shipping office or company cafeteria: perhaps even taken home. The catalogue lingers, often well past its expiry date. Have you ever visited a hairdresser or barber who still displays 3-year-old issues of Sports Illustrated on a magazine rack?

Since there is considerably less catalogue direct-mail today, ULINE grabs more of the spotlight.

Shenker acknowledged that current paper shortages constitute a significant concern, and ULINE must be highly flexible in choosing what paper and weight they run. As with all large concerns, ULINE purchases its own paper. Regardless of the current paper crisis, Shenker believes that a printed catalogue does an excellent job of circumventing the traditional purchasing agent while reaching a wider body of potential buyers at the same location. When the goods arrive - with a requisite free-ride catalogue in tow- the ultimate user often discovers other useful items he or she didn’t know ULINE sold. Large expenditures to keep mailing lists up-to-date are necessary, and Shenker believes the expense and time are well worth the trouble. Ironically the mailing list serves both print and online activities. Various printed catalogues can reach specific users, such as restaurants, offices, or warehouses.

When I questioned Shenker about how his customers perceive the print version, he didn’t miss a beat, telling me that ULINE consistently gets positive reviews. Further elaborating, he believes that since there is considerably less catalogue direct-mail today, ULINE grabs more of the spotlight and gets noticed even more! Shenker was adamant in suggesting that he feels some of his competitors exited print too early, and many regret their haste.

The dramatic decline in commercial web plants (large enough to handle his work), growing materials shortages, and rising prices keep Mr. Shenker alert that environments change quickly.

Shenker believes in the value of print to increase ULINE’s sales but worries about the printing industry and the declining amount of web printers who can serve his needs. The dramatic decline in commercial web plants (large enough to handle his work), growing materials shortages, and rising prices keep him alert that environments change quickly. Recently in the UK, YM Group’s massive implosion is just the latest in a trail of web firms that ran out of road.

Surprisingly Shenker had nothing but praise for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), referring to them as “still a bargain.” He had fewer plaudits for Canada Post, who (he says) are more expensive. Catalogue distribution is not specific to the mail either. ULINE takes full advantage of the thousands of packages leaving their warehouses each week to insert printed materials or special editions for specific users. Hence the hefty book in our received order.

Sarah, a child of the internet, embraces print and sees it as a symbiotic medium. She has a ULINE catalogue on her desk next to her iPhone!