Print Catalogs, Then and Now – Putting the Digital Disruption into Perspective

Wayfair. Williams-Sonoma. Neiman Marcus. Amazon. The list of consumer brands sending beautifully printed catalogs this holiday season is impressive. And when you put the history of catalogs into proper perspective, you realize that, while print fell out of favor for some retailers for a few years, it was a tiny blip in a long and storied history. 

“I was surprised to discover that the very first catalog, containing a list of books for purchase, was published in Venice in 1498, a whopping four centuries before Sears and Roebuck released their much more well-known format in 1894,” writes Nicola Brown in Skyword.

“As consumption rose in the 20th century following both World Wars, so did the mail-order catalog,” Brown continues. “It was a huge hit for both brands and customers, offering a plethora of products designed to make homelife easier for those who now had higher wages and more leisure time. Catalogs contained everything from pianos to firearms to sewing machines—right at the reader’s fingertips.”

Even the rise of the shopping mall and more access to brick and mortar storefronts in the 1980s didn’t dampen the catalog’s appeal. It was only in the 1990s, Brown explains, that retail underwent a massive paradigm shift.

“Still, many brands have not forgotten the trusty catalog, and while their pages may look quite different today, these physical marketing materials now stand out once again in an overwhelming sea of digital information,” Brown writes.

The key difference in modern catalogs is that they must offer something that can’t be replicated online. They must in some way tell a lifestyle story that exists in print alone.

IKEA’s catalogs are a perfect example,” Brown explains. “Rather than just presenting lists of products, the catalog contextualizes those products into the lifestyles of specific buyers. Flipping through the pages feels akin to observing an entire scene or personal snapshot taken inside someone’s home. It delivers information about new products in a highly visual format that helps people literally see how those products work and can fit into their lives.”

The appeal of the catalog has now transcended the brick-and-mortar store, as online-only retailers realize that their customers live in the real world. The best catalogs, Brown explains, helps customers actually envision the brand as part of their lives, in a way that’s non-intrusive, inviting and welcome. For brands that understand how to leverage this, it’s shaping up to be a very Merry Christmas this year.