CoffeeTable Aims to Reinvent Catalog Shopping for the iPad Era

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Choi himself. Once it became clear that the prototype version of the CoffeeTable app could actually generate business, Friedland asked Choi to take the CEO post, and Choi decided the opportunity was too big to pass up.

At the moment, CoffeeTable is providing digital facsimiles of paper catalogs, in the same way that companies like Zinio provide PDF-style facsimiles of magazines. The content is the same, except that in some cases, CoffeeTable strips out the original catalogs’ text and captions to reduce clutter.

Every purchasable item on a CoffeeTable catalog page has a little black button hovering over it. Tap the button, and an info-pane slides out with product details and prices for that item. (Much of CoffeeTable’s actual labor, according to Choi, goes into placing these buttons and formatting the product details for easy tablet browsing. But in this area, the company has one key advantage: its main outside investor is Chicago-based RR Donnelley, the nation’s largest printer and distributor of retail catalogs. That means CoffeeTable clients who print their catalogues using RR Donnelley can submit their PDF or InDesign files just once.)

The Lands' End catalog on CoffeeTable features two-tap checkout.

Purchases on CoffeeTable happen in two ways. If the merchant has provided the startup with access to its own e-commerce backend, then the whole transaction can happen within the app. Users simply tap the “Add to Cart” button on the product pane to put the item in their shopping cart. Then when they’re done shopping, they head to a checkout page, where they tap once more to pay, using whatever credit card number and shipping address they’ve previously provided to CoffeeTable. “We market it as two-tap shopping,” Choi says.

If a merchant hasn’t yet connected CoffeeTable to its backend systems, then the app shows a “Buy on Website” button. This leads to the merchant’s traditional e-commerce site, where customers can go through a typical Web-based transaction. Choi says Web-based purchases require 15 taps on average, not to mention a lot of typing, which is why the startup is working hard to get more merchants to switch over to the two-tap checkout system. It’s not just that this option is faster; the conversion rate is twice as high, meaning products available through express checkout are twice as likely to be purchased. (Conversion rates matter greatly to CoffeeTable, since the startup earns money by keeping a small percentage of each completed transaction.)

But how revolutionary, really, is a tablet-based catalog? When I visited CoffeeTable, I was blunt with Choi about my low opinion of digital magazine apps that are really just static facsimiles of their print cousins. If tapping on price tags winds up being the only new form of interaction open to users of iPad catalogs, I argued, then CoffeeTable and its competitors, including Google Catalogs, haven’t advanced the state of the art very far.

I pointed to Houzz, the home design and redecorating site, as an example of a company taking a somewhat more innovative approach to e-commerce on the iPad. If you’re a design maven and you haven’t seen Houzz’s iPad app, you should check it out. It’s an “ideabook” where users can curate their own collections of home improvement ideas as they peruse full-screen photos of house interiors. Just as with the catalog apps, items available for purchase have digital price tags hanging on them, leading to pop-up windows with product information. It’s like an augmented-reality version of Architectural Digest. And Houzz isn’t alone—there are plenty of other companies, such as Boston-based digital publishing firm Zmags, working to made digital shopping more interactive on mobile devices.

Choi agreed that Houzz has done a “great job” of combining original content and e-commerce, and he says he hopes that CoffeeTable can, over time, work with retailers to bring a similar freshness to their catalogs. He says it could start with personalization—or what’s known in the advertising business as behavioral targeting. “Today retailers ship a million copies of their paper catalogs with 10 covers, one for each major region of the country,” Choi says. “Tomorrow, on CoffeeTable, there could be a million different versions of their catalogs, with pictures targeted based on how much time you spend with them, who you have shared the catalog with, and most importantly what you have purchased.”

Beyond that, CoffeeTable could introduce its own curation and sharing features. CoffeeTable already includes a “wish list” feature that lets a user save an item to a personal list rather than purchasing it on the spot. There’s not much difference, Choi points out, between a wish list and a pinboard on a social curation site like Pinterest. “A wish list is actually a stream of things that express you, and that could become the basis for something more social,” he says. People browsing CoffeeTable catalogs for inspiration might be interested in sharing what they’ve selected, or seeing what their friends have wish-listed. In that way of thinking about e-commerce, he says, “a purchase is maybe a side effect of expressing yourself.”

But even if CoffeeTable never goes this route, there’s another potentially lucrative business open to it: retail analytics. Because most catalogs are on paper, retailers have very little information about how people actually use them. CoffeeTable could fix that, since it’s got data on every action a user takes within the app. And it’s already learning some interesting things. “We asked retailers early on to tell us how people flip through catalogs,” says Choi. “They said catalogs are 60 pages long because that is a reader’s maximum attention span, and that roughly half of the audience gets to page 30, and it drops off from there. It turns out they are just wrong. We find across the board that if a consumer gets to page 30, they have a high likelihood of getting all the way to the end.”

Insights like that could change the way retailers design catalogs, or even allow them to do A/B testing using a digital catalog before they print millions of paper copies. “We have our eye on becoming the Omniture of the catalog industry,” Choi says, referring to the Web audience measurement firm purchased by Adobe in 2009 for $1.8 billion.

Will CoffeeTable be the next Instagram? Not unless it can turn tablet catalog browsing into an act of Ebola-like virality, the way Instagram did with faux-vintage smartphone photography. But with the iPad revolution showing no signs of slowing, the startup definitely has big opportunities ahead of it. And if it can figure out how to make the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog a little more interactive, I might even start shopping again.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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