The Printed Catalog: A Consumer’s Turning Point

Do catalogs really work?

Why, in an era when you can get practically all the information you need online, does the printed product catalog still hold a huge place in so many companies’ marketing budgets?

I have a couple of friends who are boaters. They are currently selling their sailboat and planning to purchase a power boat. John, with his scientific and analytical mind, has been spending a lot of time online looking at models and dealers, comparing specs and getting a feel for what’s available. Meanwhile Carol is exploring docking options and local attractions that are boater friendly in the waterfront community they plan to move to.

The couple decided to visit a few local boat dealers, and picked up a full color glossy product catalog from one of the manufacturers. While they had already seen most of this information online or in downloaded PDFs, the product catalog did something remarkable.

After touring a few boats, they stopped for lunch and poured over the catalog, with John looking at the engine and marine specs while Carol chose colors and cushion options. By the end of their meal, they were referring to one particular model in the catalog as “our boat” and called the dealer for a price quote on exactly the specs they wanted.

Was the catalog the only piece of marketing in this process? No, of course not. They visited manufacturers’ websites and shopped at local dealers, checked out online reviews of various brands and absorbed a ton of information from other boaters at their marina.

But what the catalog did was crystalize all the disjointed information they had received into something tangible, something they could look at and call their own.

This is the power of the printed catalog. To be sure, this very same information was available to them online, but seeing it in print the entire process became real. While John and Carol’s story is anecdotal, industry research backs this up.

According to FGI Research, “two-thirds of the catalogs received by consumers are being open and read. Nearly all consumers who receive catalogs have made a purchase from a company whose catalog they receive in the mail, with half doing so within the past month (source: FGI, Catalogs: The Consumers Point of View, 2012). Further, it was discovered in the same research survey that “if catalogs were no longer available, the most upset customers (defined by those who would stop doing business with the companies entirely) are those who spend the most on catalog purchases.”

Catalog industry expert Lois Geller, in an article in Forbes, explored the reasons that print catalogs continue to pull in spite of digital saturation.

“For starters, a lot of people like printed catalogs, printed anything, really. Our agency puts out a quarterly magazine for a western Canadian client. A recent survey of readers asked how they’d feel if the magazine became an online e-zine. There was a near revolt: 95% loudly preferred the printed version,” she writes.

The tactile nature of print is the second reason, Geller asserts.

“You can hold a catalog in your hands, mark it up, put it down and pick it up again a day later. It can, and often does, stay in the house for weeks,” she says, adding that catalogs are still mailed in the billions each year because they work, bringing in huge returns.

When mail-order company Lands’ End cut back on the number of catalogs they sent each year, sales took a nose dive. “Where retailers have cut back [on sending catalogs], it has impacted their revenue negatively,” said retail strategist Kurt Salmon in Crain’s New York Business.

Yes, postal increases and the rising cost of paper have made catalog production more expensive in some ways. But there are ways to mitigate some of these additional costs without sacrificing your potential sales. Cutting back or eliminating product catalogs is not the answer.

Like John and Carol, consumers are driven by emotion. And print has the power to engage and help them turn that corner from “thinking about” to “buying.” It’s what works.