There’s a Place in Retail for Print Catalogs

Discussion
May 30, 2012

It’s amazing what a difference a few years can make.

In 2007, a RetailWire poll found only 14 percent of respondents believed that printed catalogs would become "largely obsolete" as a result of electronic alternatives.

By 2011, another RetailWire poll found 44 percent believed that tablet devices would "mean the end of printed catalogs for all intents and purposes."

So, what does the future hold for catalogs?

According to Direct Marketing Association figures, quoted in a CNBC report, nearly 90 million Americans bought an item from a catalog last year.

J.Crew, which mails around 40 million catalogs a year, sees its printed communications as complementary to what it is doing online.

"Most of our business goes from catalog to online," J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler told CNBC. I’m always looking at the turn-on item or category or outfit that will drive them to want to shop at J.Crew instead of the millions of choices out there."

Express, IKEA, New York and Co., Restoration Hardware, Territory Ahead and Urban Outfitters are just a few of the other retailers that continue to make use of printed catalogs.

Discussion Questions: What do you see as the role of printed catalogs in retail today? What does the future hold for printed catalogs?

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20 Comments on "There’s a Place in Retail for Print Catalogs"


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Ed Dunn
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

Printed catalogs are much more important today to enable interaction with digital/mobile technology.

Printed catalogs can use QR codes, augmented reality glyphs, instructions, and offer magazine style content for readers while shifting some of the old world catalog functions to digital.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

Could Sears and Montgomery Ward make print catalogs work? Maybe, but I suspect the reason print catalogs are working is they are so targeted to various niches with high production values.

On the other side, the Restoration Catalog I received a couple months ago was 600+ pages. Who in the world will take time to make this profitable by going online or in-store?

Max Goldberg
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

With smartphone penetration just hitting 50 percent and tablet penetration reaching 20%, there is plenty of room for catalogues. Catalogues can remain within arm’s reach long after a tablet has been shut down. Consumers still like the look, feel and usefulness of catalogues. Don’t look for them to go away any time soon.

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

There are a lot of consumers who are not buying online. There are a lot of consumers that don’t always have their computer on when they want to look up or research something.

The technology believers continue to over sell the internet. It will be many years before your only form of communication is the internet. I for one keep a number of catalogs handy to save time looking up items for clients. It is faster than learning a new web site for the answer to a simple question.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

Thanks to “showrooming,” the future of the catalog is assured — assuming of course you understand that the retail store is the new catalog.

On an only slightly more serious note, the future of printed anything is, at best, limited and generationally defined. If a retailer accepts those terms pursuing a catalog strategy is great … if not … not so much.

Not everyone has access a J.Crew store, but most people in the market for their clothes have access to a computer. As digital imaging technologies get more sophisticated, catalogs will become the button hooks and buggy whips of off-premise merchandising and marketing.

Lisa Bradner
Guest
Lisa Bradner
6 years 5 months ago

I don’t know who it was but a few years back I heard someone say, “If we had inventing computers first we’d all be talking about this great new invention called print — it’s portable, it doesn’t take any electricity and people don’t have to ask for it.” I’m not a Luddite but you get the point: paper has a role to play.

My own experience concurs with Mickey Drexler’s market research. I love getting the J.Crew catalog. I thumb through it eagerly when it comes, but I order just about everything online. Does the catalog stimulate demand? Just ask my husband — you betcha!

The iPad will certainly drive printless catalogs and magazines, but I want to believe there are still times and places where we won’t want or be hooked up to a battery. Print catalogs will fade over time, but I’m not sure their time is up yet.

Okay, I sound old, even to me. What does everyone else think?

Adrian Weidmann
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

The role of printed catalogs will continue to decline as digital alternatives become more prevalent and the cost of paper (ecological and financial), printing and distribution continue to increase. Regardless of what people say, I base many of my perspectives and insights upon observation. In that spirit, my 16-year old daughter and more recently, my wife, do all of their ‘catalog’ shopping online. The constant stream of catalogs mailed to our home move very quickly to the recycling bin. The catalog as we know it will continue to become less relevant and fade away.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
6 years 5 months ago

There will always be room in the market for “awesome!” So, if your printed, old-school, tree-killing catalog also happens to be awesome for some reason, consumers will eat it up. They will seek it out, talk about it, share it, covet it and ultimately (one would hope) BUY from it.

If on the other hand you’re printing an “average” catalog, hoping to retain the “average customer” and maintain the status quo in your marketing approach, you will see diminishing returns. There is no room in the market for average.

I’d worry less about the media channel and more about being awesome.

Martin Mehalchin
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

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; and we live in a major market so this effect would be magnified in smaller, secondary cities. I do see opportunity to “enhance” the catalog using techniques such as QR codes to encourage consumers to visit the retailer’s website while the catalog is still in their hands.

David Zahn
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

Interestingly, the research being done demonstrates an insight as to HOW people plan their shopping purchases. Online, mobile, and other immediate “interruptive” technologies and messaging do not do nearly as well at allowing the shopper to plan and research their prospective purchases.

The catalog and paper mail in general are received and saved for later referring. The email or pop-up is seen immediately — but if not reaching the shopper when in the shopping mindset and seeking that information — it is deleted, ignored, discarded, etc.

There needs to be BOTH — but print is far from being replaced. It is being supplemented by electronic.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

The New Orleans Times-Picayune announces they are going from 7 days of print to 3, but they will continue to publish 7 days online. Time magazine predicts that they will be entirely online by 2020. I don’t see much future for online catalogs.

Anecdotally, my wife recently bought a new dresser for our bedroom. She did all her research online. She decided on one from Restoration Hardware. Ordered it online. The process was simple. Even the customer service on the phone regarding delivery, etc., was excellent.

That must have made us a Restoration Hardware customer, because we too got that 600-page catalog. My wife looked at it, laughed, said “what a waste” and dropped it in the recycle bin.

More strategically, as devices converge, no one will be without access to the internet and online catalogs. They will be far more convenient that print. We will access them on our smart phones and view them on our television screens. Say good-bye to print.

James Tenser
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

New media displace (not replace) older media. Catalogs now must coexist with other omni-channel touch points, so their role within the ecosystem is continuing to evolve.

Not too many catalogs are hung inside outhouse doors anymore. And the sheer numerical volume I receive from the likes of Lands’ End and L.L.Bean has definitely declined — I surmise due to the spiraling cost of printing and postage and the existence of digital alternatives.

Print catalogs are a numerical proposition rooted in direct marketing methodology. When the response to a given mailing fails to meet targets, they usually do not repeat. The difference today is that catalogers are learning to track response through sister channels. A sale is a sale, whether it’s booked in the store, online, or from the call center.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

We can all think of expensive, not really targeted catalogs we still receive in the mail. I actually do tend to look through them because they are somewhat of an anomaly these days. Do I make a purchase from any of them? No. Not ever. They are simply a luxurious indulgence of time spent in a way that has almost been forgotten by most people. It is nostalgic, but typically not all that productive or profitable for the retailers.

Roger Saunders
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

Let’s agree to paraphrase Mark Twain when he stated, “…the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated….”

The same applies for catalog shopping. Consumers are finding the use of catalogs in an integrated fashion — digital and printed versions — to provide them value in time, money, and convenience savings. In the May, 2012 BIGinsight Monthly Consumer Survey, respondents’ plans to spend More in the next 90 days via Catalog index at 102 compared to the previous quarter, and at 107 compared to this time last year.

In addition, while spending plans dipped in 2009 via this media, they rose back to 2007/2008 levels by late 2010.

We will likely see the need to have smaller books, more targeted mailings, and reference guides to online sites. However, the demise of print catalog shopping is premature. The consumer is still very much engaged in the medium.

Lee Kent
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

For those of us who do not have a tablet yet, yeah I know, please keep the printed catalogs coming. I love to throw them in my bag when on vacation, for lounging in the hot tub, etc.

Mark Burr
Guest
6 years 5 months ago
I believe that what is quoted in the article says it best. “J.Crew, which mails around 40 million catalogs a year, sees its printed communications as complementary to what it is doing online.” The key word here is as a compliment or supplement to what they are doing online. It already is no longer the primary source for many that were originally catalog marketers only. The catalogs that I receive from my favorite retailers are much smaller and much more focused. What they do for me is cause me to look further online. I look at it as similar to the daily or weekly emails that I receive from these same retailers. The best at it are those we talk about frequently. They are retailers like L.L.Bean, C. Crane, Lands’ End, JoS. A. Bank, J.Crew, Griot’s Garage, and many others. Retailers such as these have already made the transition of utilizing catalogs or supplement fliers effectively in the new world. They are targeted at regular customers and a nice addition and reminder to check out… Read more »
Jonathan Marek
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

The great thing about catalogs is that you can easily test to make sure the print is driving economic value. Yes, the value is likely to decline over time, while digital channels grow. But it’ll take a long time, and a good program of analytics will make sure you keep making money at each step.

Kai Clarke
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

This is a dying concept. Why waste paper, to print a concept that is better online, especially when our phones, tablets and computers allow us to have effortless access to full-color, full-motion media? Since the elimination of Sears’ and Montgomery Ward’s catalogs, we have seen more catalogs dying every year. It is only a matter of time before they all disappear.

Pam Goodfellow
Guest
Pam Goodfellow
6 years 5 months ago
In the age of smartphones, tablets, and quick internet access, I think that consumers still find a little joy in receiving “good” snail mail in the form of catalogs — not bills, not junk mail, but something that they can take their time flipping through, dog-earing pages … and the best part — unlike magazines — catalogs are generally free. Many consumers rely on catalogs as idea-starters; the great ones that come to mind are, of course, J.Crew and Pottery Barn. Catalogs give the consumer a chance to browse without interruption — no salesperson, no pop-ups. In a recent survey we conducted, we found that nearly half of shoppers responded that they “enjoy looking through catalogs, direct mail advertisements, and circulars for apparel.” This number rises substantially among women. So while the number of consumers filling out the printed catalog order forms has likely drastically dwindled in the online age, catalogs still remain a relevant part of the shopping experience for the mainstream consumer…for now. For more on consumers’ shopping habits when purchasing apparel, please… Read more »
Phil Rubin
Guest
6 years 5 months ago

Catalogs, and print in general, can still be a part of an integrated customer relationship strategy. It’s not always an either/or, black/white decision.

Content matters more than ever as does disrupting the new and mostly all-digital normal.

There are plenty of brands that can be highly relevant, delivered on analog paper, in-home content that drives sales. Sorry people, it’s not that easy to simply say “catalogs, never.”

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