Is the Catalog Industry at Risk of Another Meltdown?

[responsive]Patagonia-book30yrsofcatalogphotography[/responsive]We all know the story by now. Catalog mailings peaked in 2007, and took several years to rebound after the recession. By 2013 catalog mailings had climbed back to pre-recession numbers, at $11.9 billion ( stats), and catalogs are new again.  Old-timers like J.C. Penney are getting back in the game, and new digital-commerce companies are onboard now.

The one-two punch of the recession plus the simultaneous surge in digital marketing seemed to many like the death blow of the catalog. Clearly, it wasn’t. Rather it served as a learning moment for marketers, helping them gain perspective on how and why catalogs are critical to the marketing process.

“The recent resurgence in the popularity of catalogs raises questions about their value and long-term viability.  Is the latest rebirth of the catalog merely a reflection of the Great Recession’s conclusion? Will they once again fall out of fashion at the first sign of softness in the market?” asks Denise Lee Yohn in Harvard Business Review.

“Given the new dynamics of multichannel marketing and commerce, as well as the new targeting and measurement capabilities of catalog marketing, I think catalogs are here to stay this time,” she continues.

Lee Yohn notes that multi-channel shopping is now a fixed feature of American consumerism, with big names like Nordstrom reporting that their customers who engage in more than one channel spend four times as much as those who don’t.

This consumer trend, combined with the proven marketing power of content to engage in the sales process, means that catalogs can serve as much more than a printed listing of a company’s products.

“High-touch print pieces filled with stories, fashion show images, profiles of celebrity endorsers and designers, and room layouts have proven to be excellent ways to convey a brand ethos and express a brand personality,” notes Lee Yohn, citing Williams Sonoma and Bonobos as two examples.

Add to this the growing ability of marketers to use big data and high-tech printing to personalize their mailings, and we are clearly a different industry this time around.

“Targeting with catalogs is also much easier now, thanks to huge industry databases containing all sorts of information on millions of households,” says Lee Yohn. “And thanks to online purchasing, many retailers have amassed their own customer databases that can be synced up with them.  This combination gets the right catalogs into the right hands.”

For the catalog industry, the lessons we’ve learned may have been painful, but with pain has come tremendous growth and a new awareness of just what a good catalog can do. As marketers look for bullet-proof tools, catalogs look to be cased in lead.