The way that the catalog generators I've worked with work is similar to InDesign's Data Merge function, so if you're familiar with that, it's likely what you would encounter (only on a much more comprehensive basis). The ones that do the most are more expensive, so I'm not sure you will find one in your price range if your needs are great. Essentially, you would have your data in a spreadsheet or database, export it as a text file, and have the software format the data according to a sample you would create. It can even pull images of the products from your images folder and scale/crop them into a format you choose. If new products are added at the last minute, you can re-run the process and not have to spend the time it would take to rework your document the way you would if you had manually built it.
I haven't had to do this for many years, so I can't recommend anything specific, but if you want to see what's possible with a product that's probably outside of your price range, look up Em Software. I worked for a company many years ago that used their Xdata plugin for Quark, but they also have InData for InDesign that's probably very similar. This isn't novice software, so expect a steep learning curve, but in the years since I've done this, there may be cheaper and easier ways to go.
Adobe InDesign is the "software product" that will do all the things you describe wanting. But buying/subscribing to the application is the easy bit, you will need to learn how to use it! Luckily if you are prepared to invest some time in undertaking this, then there are some great training possibilities. Personal training is maybe the best - and the most expensive, there are also some excellent guide books and Lynda.com have a range of online InDesign training videos. Also people on this forum will usually be able to offer solutions with particular issues.
This video will give you a quick overview of the application:
honestly: Pay a graphic designer to do it for you. If its done wrong it can cost you a LOT more money. You can supply the designer a exel document that he can datamerge. He/she can help you set up the exel doc up correctly too.
I do lots of different Catalogs in InDesign. I use, depending of the Datasource, two technologies. These two technologies are made to handle a lot of data.
The question is, where do you get your data from? How many so to speek records do you have to handle? In which form do you get the data?
After you have answered these three question you can think of a technology to handle the data.
I don't use Excel or Datamerge because they can't handle the mass of data I am speeking of. If your Datasource is an Excel you can try to do you job with InDesign and csv (Datamerge). With that, your possibilities to place the record on a InDesign page are limited.
If the datasource is a database then I use InDesign together with a third party plugin called «Easy Catalog» from 65bits.com. It doesn't cost a lot and you have full control over the layout. On top it is quite easy to learn how to use it. Easy Catalog can also handle a mass of cvs-data.
Well as I said it all depends in which form you get your data and how big is the mass of data you have to handle
Dani (from Switzerland)
2) It will allow me to create a catalog for retail merchandise in a relatively 'user friendly' manner.
honestly: Pay a graphic designer to do it for you. If its done wrong it can cost you a LOT more money.
You could make a PDF with InDesign that would satisfy all of your requirements but number 2. Grant is 100% correct on this one.
If you fill in more details, and the details instill confidence in your abilities in a forum full of print and documentation pros (e.g. "Our catalog will be made by hand, with no automation to link to Excel, because we only have twenty products, and have experience with making print brochures in PageMaker some years back") then maybe we might be able to give you some more pointers.
Dani's recco of EasyCatalog is a good one. I really liked my experience with InData from Em Software, but it wasn't easy. I never used EasyCatalog myself, but I helped out on a translation project and got to look over the the shoulder of a designer that used it, and it's well-named. If you're already the kind of person who is good at pushing data-driven publishing projects around, but dislike writing bits of code to duct-tape stuff together, then EasyCatalog is what you're looking for.
If you're not that person, then you want to hire the person that is.