What’s Different About Catalogs Today

[responsive]catalogs4[/responsive]Most of us remember the J.C. Penney “Big Book” or the Sears catalog. Those behemoths sat, dog-eared and marked-up, for months on side tables. As kids, we cut out pictures for our letters to Santa Claus, in much the same way our moms circled the drapes they wanted when the budget would allow a living room makeover.

As Paul Swinand of Morningstar told The New York Times’ Rebecca R. Ruiz, those catalogs were “sort of a print version of the Internet before it existed.”

As consumers moved online, the catalog became less of a product listing — consumers don’t need that anymore when they can find it all online — and more of an engagement vehicle for brands.

“These days, retailers are employing devices like adventure tales and photo spreads of wildlife to catch a shopper’s eye, hoping to secure purchases online or in a store,” Ruiz writes.

While direct mail took a sharp hit in 2008, 2013 saw catalog mailings increase for the first time since. What retailers have confirmed is that catalogs are a critical component in the retail sales chain, and companies like Land’s End that discontinue catalogs soon realize their mistake.

“Sometimes the only way to realize how important the catalog is, is to take it away,” said Bruce Cohen, retail strategist, referring to the $100 million drop in sales Land’s End suffered after sharply reducing the number of catalogs they mailed out in 2000.

What’s different these days is that catalogs are less about the stuff and more about the story.

“Of course we’re trying to sell clothes and accessories,” said Suzy Korb of Anthropologie, “but it’s more to inspire and engage.”

“Years ago it was a selling tool, and now it’s become an inspirational source,” agrees Williams-Sonoma’s Felix Carbullido. “We know our customers love a tactile experience.”

Of the close to 12 billion catalogs mailed in the U.S. in 2013, many of them include long-form editorial, gorgeous photo spreads, recipes, lifestyle articles and a host of other types of content aimed at building loyalty and inspiration among their brand followers.

According to Ruiz, for many brands “catalogs are the single most effective driver of online and in-store sales, according to analysts and retailers.”

As catalogs continue to evolve and engage their shopper base, retailers are realizing their power to drive customers to their online properties and their brick and mortar locations. We are still dog-earring ours, and the great ones still have a place of honor on the coffee table.