They’ve been around as long as mass-market retail, but print catalogs have experienced a decline since the advent of e-commerce.
Sears stopped the presses on its doorstop tome in 1993, opting to occasionally print a slimmer version. And with increases in print and mailing costs, smaller companies have followed suit.
Last week, the parent company of Skymall—the oft-lampooned in-flight catalog of sundry goods such as pet products, travel accessories and curiosities akin to Bigfoot garden statues—announced that it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing availability of in-flight Wi-Fi as a factor in its demise.
Released from captivity, Skymall’s audience simply had too many other shopping options.
But with this fall, a seemingly contrasting trend has emerged in marketing: The number of catalogs mailed posted a slight uptick in 2013, according to the Direct Marketing Association, reversing several years of steady decline. 36% of retailers issue a print catalog today.
What’s more, many retailers are discovering that print can be a valuable tool in the omnichannel marketplace. Functioning as a paper and ink brand ambassador, print is again driving sales in brick-and-mortar stores and on the Web.
Paper and ink that builds brands
About 58% of online shoppers browse catalogs for ideas, and almost one-third (31%) have a print catalog nearby when making purchases online, according to a 2013 study from global management consulting firm Kurt Salmon.
Among the most diehard catalog fans, women 18 to 30, 45% say catalogs have stimulated their interest in products, while 86% reported having bought something after seeing it in a catalog.
Flipping through the pages of a glossy mailer is more engaging (and often less frustrating, even on the fastest websites) than searching for a product online, and can help structure a search before the customer reaches for the mouse. Few buyers are going to tear out an order form and mail it in with a check these days, but it turns out that they will log on or call a toll-free number to learn more.
Women 18 to 30 also told Kurt Salmon that catalogs enhance their impression of a retailer. Indeed, the cost of printing and distribution makes catalogs a prestige product, and many brands that stick with print are in higher-end niches, like apparel brands Patagonia and Anthropologie.
Catalogs are also popular among home stores such as Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, which regularly issue lookbooks to show consumers what they might see in-store—if they would put their tablets down for a second.
Longtime catalog champion Ikea is the exception that proves the omnichannel rule. A holdout on e-commerce sales, the Swedish furniture company recently released a television ad promoting the old-school functionality of its catalog, while at the same time amping up its e-commerce storefront in acknowledgement that it’s much easier to click, buy, and take delivery than it is to visit one of its megastores.
The catalog's gateway to purchase
Citing print’s ability to drive online sales, J.C. Penney announced last month that it is bringing back its catalog after a five year absence. Although much smaller than its traditional, 1,000-page "Big Book," the department store will issue a new, 120-page wish book to show off its home collection in March.
“Customers, particularly when it comes to looking at home merchandise, still like flipping through a traditional print piece, but then they go to jcp.com to order the item, or go into our store,” J.C. Penney spokesperson Kate Coultas told NPR in January. “This is part of our omnichannel efforts designed to drive traffic to J.C. Penney wherever our customer decides to shop—online, via mobile or tablet, or in-store.”
For J.C. Penney and other retailers, it’s a matter of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Lands' End, for example, terminated production of its catalog in 2000 in an effort to cut costs and saw a $100 million loss in sales, the Kurt Salmon study says. After the brand re-introduced its catalog, they added a feature to its website asking shoppers if they had viewed the catalog before going online. 75% of them answered "yes."
So while it’s no longer necessary—or worthwhile—for brands to issue a 500-page catalog of every item in the warehouse, a catalog can still be a valuable entry point on the omnichannel path to purchase.