Restoration Hardware and the Golden Age of Catalogs

The year was 2001, and Restoration Hardware was hanging on by the slim wires of their high-end chandeliers.  Zoom forward to March of this year, and their stock logs the highest price it’s ever seen.

According to Amanda Mull in The Atlantic, their massive catalog is at the core of their revival.

She notes that “although the number of catalogs mailed in America has fallen since its high of 19 billion in 2007, an estimated 11.5 billion were still sent in 2018. As retailers become ever more desperate to find ways to sell their stuff without tithing to the tech behemoths, America might be entering a golden age of the catalog.”

Hamilton Davison, ED of the American Catalog Mailers Association, tells Mull the early 2000s were some rough years, with a change in USPS regulation that made it more expensive to mail catalogs, along with the massive acceleration of online shopping.

We all watched as big names like JC Penny and others cut their catalog mailings. Five years later, they came back, realizing the direct mail catalog played a critical role in the customer journey. Mail a catalog; sales go up … the math was undeniable.

Then we watched as online-first companies launched direct mail catalogs, reinventing the genre in new ways as inspirational lifestyle storytelling. Brick and mortar store IKEA consistently nailed it for several years running (remember their 2014 “it’s not an ebook … it’s a book book!” campaign?)

It’s the simplicity of use that helps make catalogs so effective, Mull believes.

“You don’t have to be very old, after all, to grow tired of trying to keep up with technology—just ask any 30-something American still trying to decide whether to download TikTok. No one has to be taught how to flip through a catalog,” she writes.

Catalogs appeal to something else too … an escape from the cheap and trendy, with an eye on the lasting. And this is where Restoration Hardware grounds their catalog … a long term investment in a chosen lifestyle, rather than competing by price or shipping speed.

“This is a company that constantly reminds you that it’s still possible to buy some of what you need from people who aren’t trying to eliminate competitors or extract every last bit of value from employees or colonize the moon,” Mull writes. “That kind of context is lost entirely when a nightgown appears in Google’s shopping tab, alongside less expensive alternatives from Walmart.”

Focusing on the admittedly expensive catalog sales channel (Mull estimates around $3/copy for the “toddler size” book), they’ve been able to avoid dumping vast sums into the digital ad duopoly and the Amazon rankings game.

In this new age of commerce, print catalogs are taking an increasingly visible role in how we shop, and how brands tell their stories. A catalog says a lot about us as consumers, and brands are realizing how powerfully we align to that print book on our kitchen table.