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Catalogs make a comeback

April 2, 2014

There's no doubt the importance of print catalogs has diminished in correlation with the rise in retail e-commerce sales. Despite all the logical reasons print catalogs should cease to be, they remain an important marketing tool for a wide variety of retailers.

It was two years ago, in an April 2012 discussion on RetailWire, that Martin Mehalchin, partner at Lenati, wrote, "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 hasn't seemed to be any reason since to believe the downward trend in catalog publishing would reverse.

And yet Adweek recently reported on e-tailers that are publishing catalogs and "magalogs" as a means to differentiate from the competition and drive sales. Among the retailers cited by Adweek are Net-a-Porter, One Kings Lane, Rent the Runway, JackThreads and Birchbox.

Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester Research, told the magazine, "As a lot of other marketers cut back on print marketing, there's an opportunity to stand out more. It's not perceived as clutter — nobody has a bad impression of magazines — and it can be a very useful way to drive traffic to your core property."

Discussion Questions:

What role do print catalogs and magalogs have to play in retail marketing efforts? Do you think they are warranted based on ROI? Will we see more retailers distribute print publications to support sales through digital channels?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How important do you expect catalogs and magalogs will become to the marketing efforts of e-commerce sites?


Catalogs serve the purpose of building and reinforcing awareness, not only for the retailer's brand but the array of products available. In the digital world we live in, what we receive in the mail box has a greater opportunity to break through our daily serving of advertising clutter than what we have to click on to experience.

We touch and feel the catalog. We see the cover (its home page so to speak) and can decide to turn the page or toss it. Either way, we've seen the retailer's name and the cover has conveyed an image that we process.

There are many ways to measure ROI for catalogs. But I suggest that retailers take into account the many functions of their particular catalogs. One metric doesn't fit all in this case. I don't believe it's always about supporting digital channels through immediate transactions. There are also retailers who benefit from catalogs that bring customers into their stores and catalogs that foster 800 number call-ins for orders.

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Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC

The printed piece is another touchpoint with the customer and shouldn't be ignored. It can serve as a supplement to drive consumers to both web and stores. I think the consumer will occasionally need a trigger to drive them to the web to make a purchase, and the printed catalog can do just that.

On the ROI front, I'm sure that when the catalog drops, retailers see a huge surge in web visits/purchases.

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Robert DiPietro, SVP Energy Services and New Ventures, Homeserve

As a former catalog company employee (long ago) and a digital lifestyle person (now), I don't see any substantial future for print catalogs.

Clearly catalogs can present a pleasant surprise, when they're found in the mailbox and they are of interest. An e-mail attempting the same thing is considered SPAM. Also, the "be different" mentality of do what competitors aren't, has some cache, but neither are going to create a resurgence in paper-based product marketing.

As the generations move on and lifestyles change, there is no real place for print. There's more wrong with a tree and chemical based means of communication than there is right with it, especially among a younger generation that has a (likely) stronger social consciousness than their parents and grandparents.

ROI from retailers distributing paper catalogs to large audiences? I highly doubt it, but don't ask me, ask Sears and J.C. Penney.

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Ken Lonyai, Digital Innovation Strategist, co-founder, ScreenPlay InterActive

It is all about gaining attention and focus. Print allows for handling and "manipulation" that electronic does not always permit. Of all organizations, the United States Post Office has a wealth of information on the strength of printed materials and the influence it has on consumer decision-making (even if discounted as biased, one cannot throw out all of the data collected).

Print is not going to replace digital or reverse the trend we have seen toward electronic marketing. However, it is not wise to throw the baby out with the bath water at this point. It has relevance - but should be scrutinized in the same way as any other expense - what are the objectives? What is the payoff/ROI? Who is it being targeted to? Etc.

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David Zahn, Owner, ZAHN Consulting, LLC

For any retailer but a catalog-only retailer, it is difficult to determine the value of catalogs. For some retailers having both stores and online shopping, they are a plus. For the boater, West Marine and Defender, their catalog is a reference tool. While this approach may not work for every retailer, for some it is clearly worth the money.

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W. Frank Dell II, CMC, President, Dellmart & Company

Magazines are a critical component in omni channel fulfillment as well as implementation of a clicks and bricks strategy.

The key is to make "smart mags that can interact with mobile to provide 3D visual augmentation, QR code links to product information and availability as well as pickup options.

Magazines should be the secret weapon to engage highly savvy customers with lifestyle information and direct action content to pick up in-store, check availability or chat with a specialist over the phone.

While social media sounds great in theory and delivers big data numbers, nothing beats the personal and physical interaction of a magalog in terms of engagement and follow through.

Ed Dunn, Founder, (Stealth Operation)

My wife receives literally hundreds of catalogs per year from the companies from which she has purchased. I can say this, about half she reads, the other half she puts in our recycling bin. They do work! She continues to buy.

There is something about a hard copy magazine that appeals to the senses of touch, sight and smell (yes you can smell the ink on these catalogs). Another benefit of hard copy is it has far longer shelf life than online catalogs. The longer they are around the more noticed they get.
Catalogs will continue to play an important role in retail marketing efforts for the right kind of companies. They are warranted based on ROI. Yes we will see more retailers go back to trying the hard copy versions again. Like any good idea, it needs to be tested and measured, evaluated and tweaked or tossed.

Tom Borg, Business Expert, Tom Borg Consulting, LLC

Of course print catalogs are expensive, however when truly targeted to a specific, defined audience, they are still very effective in certain markets. I believe the hybrid of online and traditional print will eventually merge into an easy-to-navigate shopping tool via mobile.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Retail Industry Analytics Marketing Executive, IBM

Sure, the big, all-encompassing catalogs of yesteryear are gone, but dozens of specialty retailers like Hammacher-Schlemmer, L.L.Bean, Orvis and the Vermont Country Store (my personal favorites) still rely heavily on catalog drops to spur impulse sales, particularly around holidays and seasonal changes. I don't see that diminishing. Print catalogs are fun.


Amazon has its forever role as a marketplace where one can search for products from a variety of sources and compare prices. Individual storefronts and brands which maintain their own websites are wonderful sources of short term "deals" or closeout specials, and for zoom shots of products. But yes, my friends and I seem to be shopping from catalogs more, lately.

I think it's partly because the privacy thing is starting to really bug people who realize that their every move and keystroke online is being watched and monitored -- by somebody. Yes, the catalog puts me on a mailing list and the credit card company knows what I ultimately bought --but all those pages I flipped and cornered, and all the items I looked at in between are still known only to me. When the cookware company or the athletic wear company includes their new catalog in their shipment that I initiated online, they are smart. They are working to keep me in the fold. Perhaps I will see something else I did not know I needed. Perhaps I'll fold a few more corners and then buy the items from them.


In spite of the increasing sales numbers, e-commerce is still facing a couple of old problems that just will not go away. These same issues are largely the reason for television commercials, retail catalogs and weekly printed adds slowing demise. Creating a site that is easy to navigate and fun to use is not cheap and easy. What is even more difficult is getting the consumer to know about it and try it.

This is what all the chatter is about concerning the use of search engines, multimedia and marketing sites as a vehicle to create awareness and inspire a visit. Printing a catalog and distributing it free of charge to places where the public will see it and have the time and inclination to explore is still more effective for many retailers.

The reason e-commerce marketing sites are not getting the public attention they are frantic to receive is simply because of screen clutter and slowness added to the same difficulties I just discussed. This strategic marketing requirement is a pivotal reason for the stunted growth of e-commerce throughout the world. Studies of the success of companies like Amazon, eBay, Apple, Google and others have always failed to disclose how they became and remain publicly visible and viable. This is clearly demonstrated by the failures to recreate something new in a controlled pattern. So companies are forced to use 19th century methods to attract a 21st century market.

Just as e-commerce is all new, so too is the means to study and understand it's marketing methods and means. The continuance of measuring and relating e-commerce marketing with news paper and television study practices is simply not working and needs to be abandoned. The creation and testing for e-commerce marketing should be started from the beginning without assumptions.


Very, very simple. If retailers want MORE sales they will leverage MORE targeted catalogs. These might range from short promo-oriented catalogs to larger, full assortment catalogs. Depends on the target market.

There are some retailers in the EMEA space that put out a huge number of catalogs per year - and they generate a strong ROI.

NA retailers like J.Jill (my wife's addiction) is a great selling tool. She picks out outfits, then goes online and orders. Recently she ordered via the catalog selection and after the order arrived went to the store to expand the new Spring set of clothes she did not need.

Catalogs have a long life left - if they are tuned to the targets and synch with the other channels - meaning that retail is ONE CHANNEL with different branches that feed ROI. Look - I never said the "omni" spin word!

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Tom Redd, Global Vice President, Strategic Communications, SAP Global Retail Business Unit

Yes, catalogs should be part of the retail strategy for many retailers. For some stores and demographics, this is a great way to reach shoppers in a relaxed state and love the idea of no pressure "browsing." Especially for many female baby boomers and above, products just become more attractive if they can be previewed in a comfortable space. The more retailers learn about their core consumers and the best ways to reach them, catalogs will be leveraged to differentiate and drive purchase.

Anne Bieler, Sr. Associate, Packaging and Technology Integrated Solutions

Thanks for the shout out George.

I think what I said two years ago still holds true. The magalog trend is tied to the rising importance of content marketing as pioneered by brands like Red Bull. There's even a term now, "Brand as Publisher." Google it and you'll see a lot of buzz and discussion. Most of the action in this space is happening online, with video being an especially effective form factor. However, I do see how print could remain effective for engaging certain consumer segments.

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Martin Mehalchin, Partner, Lenati, LLC

As a regular online shopper, one of the online challenges is that web browsing narrows considerably our ability to consider a range of products.

By contrast, catalogs offer far more shopping value - faster browsing of a wider range of goods in order to find the unusual things that make life far more interesting.

And this is the likely continued limiter for online shopping. When you know exactly what you want - it's perfect. When you want to browse, it's mediocre to bad.

It could be that this is the natural limiter that will keep online purchases below 20% of the market except in select areas (e.g. books, music) where the beauties of online delivery will give more power.

Doug Garnett, Founder & CEO, Atomic Direct

Well thought out printed pieces are like the merchandise depicted inside - they offer the intangible 'touchy-feely' contact with something made by hand, rather than the cold, hard facts of a digital screen.

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Jerry Gelsomino, Principal, FutureBest

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