RSR Research: What is Catalog’s Place in an Omni-Channel World?

Discussion
Apr 10, 2012

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of an article from Retail Paradox, Retail Systems Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers.

There was a time, between 2002 and 2006 or so, when the web seemed to be killing off catalogs. Certainly catalogs cost a lot of money to produce, mail and manage, and theoretically, with "everyone" moving to the web to do their shopping, it seemed that just a postcard informing customers of new products or promotions would suffice.

Fast forward to 2012: At my household, at least, it sure seems like business is booming for catalog print companies. Every day brings another round of hefty catalogs, most from companies I have never spent a dime with nor visited the website of.

Some catalogs are relatively lean, but some of them are positively encyclopedic. Just the other day, I received a 700-page catalog from a furniture retailer I have never bought anything from (NOT the famous IKEA catalog). Befuddled, I left it on my kitchen table while I visited a friend. There, on her kitchen counter was the same big book. We both chuckled at its size, and it turns out she’d never bought from that retailer either. In her words, "Why are they sending this huge thing to me? It must have cost them a fortune and I have never once entered their store?" In fact, I’m not sure this retailer even as a presence in Miami.

I honestly don’t know what to make of it. I don’t remember getting such massive tomes even in pre-web times. I would say that out of every twenty catalogs I receive, I open maybe two of them, and actually use one as a shopping tool. (This month it was LL Bean’s that made the cut given a trip I’m making to the Galapagos and the Amazon this summer.)

So it appears that catalogs are alive and well. But I don’t quite understand why. Does this mean retailers are hedging their omni-channel bets? In an era of eBooks, do we think our catalogs will be the "last man standing" on consumers’ coffee tables? And curiously, why not offer them as eBooks free on B&N or Amazon? How about an iPad app? It’s got to be less expensive than the books themselves, and you could send me an email or postcard letting me know it was available.
Help me out guys …I’m really lost. And I’m getting embarrassed at the number of catalogs that make the direct trip from mailbox to recycling bin. It feels almost decadent.

Discussion Questions: In an online and eco-conscious world, why haven’t catalogs become extinct? What particular value are larger statement catalogs holding for certain retailers? How relevant will catalogs remain in the emerging omni-channel experience?

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14 Comments on "RSR Research: What is Catalog’s Place in an Omni-Channel World?"


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Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
10 years 2 months ago

It is just like books and magazines. The digital versions are superior in many ways, and yet huge amounts of physical books and magazines are sold. Why? People (even kids who have grown up on iPads & Kindles) like the tactile pleasure they bring. Catalogs are no different. When they are done well with fabulous photography and excellent merchandising of desired products, catalogs can still work.

Having said all of that, I do believe print media, including catalogs, will continue to decline as the technology keeps getting better and more realistic in terms of ease of reading and lightweight platforms.

There will always be a place for catalogs; they will just occupy a smaller percentage of the available retail platforms.

Robert DiPietro
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

Catalogs are not dead! There is still a multi-sensory pleasure customers experience in ‘flipping’ through a catalog. You can’t experience that tangible feeling on the iPad or online. Customers still enjoy tearing out the page of an item they want to then later go online and buy … seems like much more work, but maybe it’s just that old habits take a while to die.

Is it eco-friendly? Probably not.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

They keep coming because they work. People still like to hold and feel things, they like looking at real pictures, they get tired of looking at a screen, they like to receive real mail.

Even though we think the world is going completely digital, there is a lot of evolution that needs to take place.

I wonder it the author of this article looked at the pictures in the furniture catalog, and how long it sat around the house?

W. Frank Dell II, CMC
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

Maybe this will shed some light. In a recent un-official, un-scientific poll, of those who graduated high school in 1962, only 40% had e-mail addresses. The class of 1963 had 60% with e-mail addresses and the class of 1964 had 80% participation. Too many in the industry are wowed by technology and forget the people factor.

David Biernbaum
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

There are still some large numbers of consumers, mostly older ones, that still prefer a catalog rather than e-commerce, and there are even a number of younger consumers that still find it easier to shop through a book, rather than online.

Warren Thayer
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

I agree with the gist of the comments posted so far. The fact that half the respondents (as I post) see catalog use staying roughly the same or increasing does not surprise me. As RetailWire’s resident Luddite, I’ve seen lots of things that were supposed to “take the world by storm overnight” take years to reach even vaguely critical mass, if at all. A friend of mine used to love to point out that all the sci-fi movies and even The Jetsons showed only futuristic houses without any of the old-time homes sprinkled in here and there. It’s evolution, and that’s slow. Obviously, catalogs still return ROI. Just as obviously, market forces will diminish their importance. But this won’t take place overnight, even if techies hold their breaths until they turn blue.

Gary Ostrager
Guest
Gary Ostrager
10 years 2 months ago

Think J.Crew. Target audience, high digital apps user, very mobile. You would never think a catalog would be an effective piece of the company’s cross channel contact strategy. Wrong! My household receives at least 2 different catalogs a month. In combination with a targeted email program, it works. The catalog stimulates action. As a result of an effective cross channel contact strategy my family is continually shopping in the store and online. I guess that’s why catalogs, when done right, continue to have a reason for being.

Dan Raftery
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

Catalogs have survived and hold a valid place in retailing for several reasons, including:
* Printing costs have declined dramatically due to off-shore options.
* Target marketing is much more focused. Paula and her friend likely have a lot more in common than just similar zip codes. I’ll bet both of their names are on several commercial databases.
* Merchandise selection is well-matched to the target market and is heavily skewed toward innovation. Catalog buyers are some of the sharpest around.
Plus, good old glossy pictures still work well to showcase products. Next time you’re on a plane, watch what happens when everyone has to turn off all electronic devices. You’ll see a lot of folks flipping through Sky Mall pages.

Gordon Arnold
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

This sounds like decision makers insisting on doing things the old fashioned way. There is a massive amount of pressure from the consumer to the retailer to provide “free shipping” for off site merchandise, internet sales and special order sales. This expense is in search of funding and likely targets include many marketing departments in the industry. Placing catalogs online is easy and cheap. Doing so will loosen up some of the budgeted dollars that can be better put to use providing a sales edge, like free shipping.

Martin Mehalchin
Guest
Martin Mehalchin
10 years 2 months ago

Dan’s comment above is a good summary of the reasons why. Very few people (under a certain age) order directly from the catalog anymore. The catalog has really become an advertisement that drives incremental visits to the website or prompts consumers to drop by the store the next time they are at the mall. There are also multiple relevant retailers that my family would not even be aware of if it weren’t for our frequent receipt of their catalog. There’s an analogy here to those late night TV ads that the major record labels used to run (for bands like Trans Siberian Orchestra): there were almost no calls to the 800 number in the ad, but sales of the release at the local record store invariably went up significantly after a spot ran in a given market.

Roger Saunders
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

They continue to be delivered to consumers because … drum roll … they work. Catalogs offer portability, interactivity with a merchant’s websites for online purchases, an offer to make a telephone connection, visible/shelf-life-in-the-home usefulness, and an opportunity to tear out a page for future reference (a favorite tool for a 63 year-old wife who is an avid iPad user throughout the day, but an educated consumer who is influenced by multiple media points).

The BIGinsight Monthly Consumer Survey does point out via a question to 8,500+ consumers, “Do you plan to spend MORE, the SAME, or LESS on Internet, Catalog, and TV-Home Shopping, that Internet will continue to grow in impact throughout the coming 12 months. Catalog and TV-Home Shopping are not finished. They are media tools that consumers like and appreciate. Hence, they work by delivering positive results.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
10 years 2 months ago

Although there will continue to be a general decline in print advertising, there will be a culture among us whom either remember the great catalogs of the past and want to experience the process of turning the physical pages (not on an eReader!), and there will be those of younger generations whom want the “retro” experience of it all.

Companies engaging in physical catalog distribution need to leverage shopper/consumer analytics to make the investment far more productive.

Frank Riso
Guest
10 years 2 months ago
Paula, thanks for the trip down to memory lane. I may date myself here, but I recall when the catalog was in its prime. Does everyone remember the Sears and the JC Penney catalogs of yesteryear? They arrived almost monthly and then there was the big issue around the holidays. In the 1970s, we even had catalog showroom stores! Today, there are many ways to shop given all the new technology. We can shop from anywhere on our smartphones, from our computers over the internet, and even from a Kiosk in a mall or our side the local 7-Eleven. Mail order is yet another way to shop based on an ad in a magazine or in a newspaper. Does everyone remember learning how to write a business letter by ordering something from the Sunday paper from Macy’s, Bamberger’s’ or Gimbels? I keep dating myself … and yes we can still shop in a store too or any combination of the six ways to shop these days. But I agree, the catalog is not going away… Read more »
Tracey Croughwell
Guest
Tracey Croughwell
10 years 2 months ago

I’ve seen a trend with some retailers using at least part of the catalog as more of an engagement tool, e.g., giving stylist lessons (Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, CB2, Anthropologie), recipes (Williams Sonoma), and even reinforcing the brand through social activism (Patagonia). The spreads seem to have moved away from a straightforward photo/description of products, and instead stage the products within a story. The story, hopefully, leads the consumer to interact online and find more products. I’ve gotten some interior decorating ideas from flipping through the catalogs personally. Good brand reinforcement.

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