Print catalogs help customers unplug for the holidays

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Dec 15, 2021

Print catalogs may seem old-fashioned to some, but old-fashioned is just what some customers have been looking for as the tumultuous pandemic era wears on.

This holiday season, some shoppers say that they are browsing print catalogs to avoid the stress and over-stimulation of online shopping, according to NBC News. Some also point to a cozy feeling, reminiscent of childhood, that one gets when thumbing through a physical catalog.

In the past year, marketers have begun to rethink print advertising as changes to the social media and technology landscape have made online advertising more expensive and reduced the return on investment, according to a CNBC article. Apple’s new iOS privacy settings, which limit the effectiveness of online tracking, and increasing scrutiny over Facebook’s business practices have played large roles in this shift. In addition to direct-mail catalogs, more retail brands this year have been trying out advertising on podcasts and television campaigns.

Enthusiasm for print catalogs in the digital age did not, however, begin in response to any recent move by Apple or Facebook. As far back as 2014, proponents of physical catalogs were touting them as a path to differentiation, given that print catalogs stood out more in a marketing landscape where far fewer retailers were using print for advertising.

The fact that one of the biggest names in online retail recently picked up on the catalog trend for the first time may further demonstrate the enduring value of the medium.

E-tail juggernaut Amazon.com launched a yearly physical toy catalog during the 2018 holiday season. The catalog even managed to generate controversy, a year later, when it was revealed that the retailer was charging up to $2 million for placement in the “curated” holiday toy guide.

On the other hand, some retailers that were keeping their longstanding catalogs going until recently have abandoned the medium. H&M stopped publishing its print catalog in 2019 due to reported dwindling customer interest, according to Bloomberg. The retailer had been publishing its catalog for 39 years.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see marketing value for retailer print catalogs in the current environment? What are the keys to producing successful print catalogs at this point in time?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"People still enjoy catalogs and not just for the nostalgic value."
"Call it nostalgia or reminders of years gone by, the catalogs were a nice departure from the online world."
"The new catalog shopper browses the catalog in order to spend less time on the web. They order online but do their showrooming via the catalog."

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25 Comments on "Print catalogs help customers unplug for the holidays"


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Bob Amster
BrainTrust

When properly targeted at the demographic that still enjoys the concept of touch, feel, and something more personal than clicking keys on a keyboard, the catalog still has a place in retailing. With pinpoint mailings, the cost associated with volume can be reduced to the most efficient but the production costs will remain high. As that demographic that enjoys the physical catalog disappears, so will the catalog, until a new dynamic emerges and the hard copy makes a come back.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

I believe there is certainly a niche market for print catalogs. Full disclosure, I get ink on my fingers every morning over coffee paging through something called a “newspaper.”

I agree that paging through a catalog that I’m interested in can be a good experience. While you can’t beat digital for finding specific items quickly or searching on key words, I do think that for browsing and reading stories about products or experiences a catalog can deliver that experience very well.

I do think the key is to find ways to make the transition from catalog for browsing to digital for buying seamless. With QR codes on items, I think we’re pretty close.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

I know there is much abandonment of the idea that print media, specifically catalogs, is out. However in our focus groups over the last two years, we found most consumers agreed that catalogs were fun to read while relaxing at home. And yes, the bathroom was also mentioned as a favorite place to enjoy catalogs. Catalogs have life.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

We have indie retail clients who do a Christmas catalog every year with great success. People still enjoy catalogs and not just for the nostalgic value.

You can’t get the Amazon “Ready, Set, Play” toy catalog away from my grandson anymore than you could get the Sears Big Toy Book away from me. Everything old is new again. We still buy magazines, don’t we?

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Print catalogs have tremendous value. They can be shared, looked at together, sit on the table to remind us of something we are interested in, and much more.

Yes, they can be a great addition to retail and have a known result of increasing shopping basket size while also bringing new shoppers to the store. And with the mailbox relatively empty of competing catalogs now, they are ever more noticeable.

Good move.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

The new catalog shopper browses the catalog in order to spend less time on the web. They order online but do their showrooming via the catalog. For retailers, the catalog is a way to communicate to your customer in a more intimate way. When a shopper opens their mailbox, they don’t have to choose from dozens, hundreds, or thousands of competing catalogs. The one or two catalogs are in their hands.That’s a huge marketing plus.

RH Gallery (Restoration Hardware) has their Source Book which is a reinvention of the genre with its interactive multi-platform capability. This is the next generation of catalog with a multi-channel approach leveraging stores/galleries, the web and the catalog.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Each time we get a catalog in the mail, I wonder what could possibly be the profitability of this endeavor. For years, any catalog we have received makes it to the recycle bin before it makes it to our apartment.

Some catalogs are sent in bulk to be placed in our mailroom for people to pick up. A week later maybe two or three have been picked up and the rest of the pile goes to recycle. It strikes me as a terrible waste.

David Spear
BrainTrust

I’ve received a number of outstanding print catalogs at my home and have really enjoyed thumbing through them. Call it nostalgia or reminders of years gone by, the catalogs were a nice departure from the online world. And two of them impressed me so much, I bought from them. Will the trend continue? I think so, as long as the content is high quality and attention getting. It’s a great way to differentiate from the digital masses.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

Print catalogs can certainly be an antidote to so much that is wrong with online shopping. They obviously alleviate screen fatigue, which is no small thing. But printed catalogs also present shoppers with curated collections. The absolutely overwhelming glut of choices presented by the online giants and their marketplaces full of knock-offs have become a significant barrier to effective, efficient and enjoyable product discovery. Carefully curated collections in print (and online) catalogs can represent a meaningful, brand-driven alternative to the drudgery of product discovery that the online giants have created.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

Well, I am a little biased toward catalogs. In her earlier modeling days my wife and her girlfriends dominated the Sears, Eaton’s and other catalogs in Canada for years. Forty years later she’s still hot! But I digress.

Many retailers follow the crowd, unfortunately. The value of sifting through a catalog while having a glass of hot mulled wine, sitting in the big chair in front of the fireplace will never be replaced by squinting at a screen. I feel the same way about real books. Calling them “hard” copies doesn’t make any sense to me. There is nothing like the soft feel of cotton fiber paper, touching the words that came from the heart and mind of the writer, marveling at good design and so on.

If those qualities could be infused into a catalog — I vote yes on catalogs. And Merry Christmas to all.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

There is a richness to browsing a catalog that just doesn’t come across when scrolling online. Patagonia is a great example of a catalog I look forward to. It might not be as engaging as a great novel, but it’s always an interesting read. My ranking of shopping experience, in ascending order, would be phone, laptop, catalog, physical retail.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Well-done print catalogs can provide an element of visual storytelling and targeted lifestyle merchandising that might get lost on a website. I doubt that catalogs generate a lot of sales via mail-order forms or phone orders (compared to the old days) but they certainly help direct traffic to retailers’ websites and to the items they want to highlight.

It’s also a good way for a retailer to gain recognition outside of SEO. We’ve gotten many catalogs this year from food providers that we otherwise wouldn’t have heard of, and bought several gifts from one in particular. This never would have happened without the direct mail piece.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
BrainTrust

If a retailer can identify which consumers value and use catalogs and how they use them, this business can be lucrative. Given the cost of producing the catalogs and postage, sending catalogs to all customers every month is not lucrative. Finding the sweet spot for each retailer requires an understanding of your consumers’ behavior.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Media platforms never go away. There is still AM radio, people are buying vinyl records in record numbers, and indie bookstores are enjoying a renaissance. So why not print catalogs? If I could respectfully differ with Matthew a bit, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some print catalogs popular with a generation of consumers who, en masse, rarely if ever saw one in their youth. For them it isn’t nostalgia, but a “new” media. That said, catalogs can’t just be lists of products. Graphics and visuals are more important than ever and the text should be written for a generation most comfortable with short form prose and being entertained.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Along with unplugging from the digital matrix and heading outside for a walk, print catalogs still have a place in our hearts during the holiday season. We should never expect print catalogs to be as omnipresent as they were in the pre-digital age. However receiving a targeted and somewhat personalized print catalog in the mail hits the nostalgic tone we need during these relentlessly digitally connected times.

Amazon has hit the right holiday and nostalgic themes with its holiday catalogs. It’s clear that while print catalogs will not have the impact they used to, any positive engagement with consumers goes a long way to driving incremental sales and brand affinity. The fascinating part of this is that the physical catalog has become our escape and return to a world we once knew.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

I love well–done catalogs! They are inspiring and a nice, relatively quick break from reality. It’s another way to build a brand and engage with customers.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

I couldn’t agree with you more Patricia! I don’t know of any shopping websites that are inviting, inspiring or provide a break from reality. They’ve changed “reality” into something cold, functional and robotic.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

Right?! I especially think that companies like Williams-Sonoma and Crate & Barrel do a great job of engaging!

Gwen Morrison
BrainTrust

There are some great advantages of a print catalog. It gives retailers the opportunity to present a lifestyle magazine of their brand. From the consumer side, there are often the gift givers and the recipients. Amazon’s toy catalog was mentioned in the article. This offers a chance for families to engage with one another around the perfect “must have” for the holidays.

Rashida Ahmed
Guest
5 months 8 days ago

I agree there is a niche market in receiving the catalogues, specially during the holidays. It gives a person a chance to go through it leisurely and on their own time instead of sitting in front of a computer. I look forward to them. It also lets you see different range of products that you may miss on the computer.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

IKEA’s decision to stop publishing its iconic catalogue felt like the symbolic end of an era as consumers migrate to digital.

Yet even my tech-savvy kids bodychecked each other to grab Amazon’s 2021 toy catalogue (and its stickers to adorn the items on their wish lists).

Going in the opposite direction of the masses (printed catalogues, direct mail in general) helps companies stand out and face less traffic using traditional marketing tactics that now seem quaint.

James Ray
Guest

Catalogs still work in my house, they collect in our bathroom and the credit card statements provide evidence of their efficacy. One of them had me shaking my head wondering who brands their online/catalog business, FATFACE?

Rachelle King
BrainTrust

Consider the onslaught of digital media marketing on the consumer mindset since 2020. Ecommerce, and with it, digital marketing, accelerated some 5 years in a 1-2 year period. In that space, not only could we lose our perspective on print media, many consumers lost interest in a lot of things as values and priorities shift.

However, it is exactly this shift in mindset that may welcome the print catalog. In part because we crave nostalgia during unsettling times but in part due to mental burn out of online shopping. A catalogue can say to weary-minded consumers: “Here, we’ve done all the work for you. A carefully curated guide of everything you need for the holidays and thousands you don’t but may still buy anyway.” The catalogue can be a good conduit to offline/online shopping; browser the book, buy online.

There are a hundred ways consumers will be overwhelmed for the holidays. A catalogue at their fingertips filled with best of lists may actually be welcomed and helpful if done right.

amcguire
Guest
5 months 8 days ago

We spend tens of millions of dollars on printing and mailing catalogs every year due to our customer demographic. It’s a fascinating industry with an infinite amount of metrics you can use to measure performance. We still get ~10 percent of our orders from mailed-in order forms, and another 50 percent call-ins using their catalog code. If you’re anything like me you’ll take a look at the catalog and then jump online to place an order for something you see in there that you like. Our customers love the catalog. They’re more comfortable with it than online as it seems you’re hearing about cyberattacks every other week on the news. It’s safe, familiar, and also doubles as advertising for our online customers.

PrintFan
Guest
2 months 19 days ago

I loved the Christmas catalogs I received this year. The Amazon and Target toy catalogs are devoured by my kids and flipping thru a physical catalog vs scroll online was a novelty they enjoyed. This old post is about brochures, but discusses that print can stand out and likens print advertising tools to polaroid cameras and record players in that they stand out because of the modern practicality they lack.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"People still enjoy catalogs and not just for the nostalgic value."
"Call it nostalgia or reminders of years gone by, the catalogs were a nice departure from the online world."
"The new catalog shopper browses the catalog in order to spend less time on the web. They order online but do their showrooming via the catalog."

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