Catalogs, after years of decline, are revamped for changing times

In the digital age where filling a shopping cart requires little more than clicking a screen, the printed retail catalog continues to compete for a place on the coffee table.

From Anthropologie to American Girl, from Pottery Barn to Patagonia, retailers still rely on direct mail even as they spend considerable resources improving their websites to meet the steady increase in online shopping.

However, some of their catalog forays bear little resemblance to the traditional merchandise book. Today, retailers use devices such as adventure stories and pictures of wild animals to grab shoppers’ attention, hoping to secure their purchases online or in-store.

Attracting a specific clientele appears to be part of the strategy behind JC Penney’s surprise announcement this month that it would relaunch a homewares catalog in March, three years after the struggling company discontinued all such mailings. Its new version will focus not on recruiting new customers but on reaching existing customers, according to a spokeswoman. It’s unclear whether the company will resume a regular schedule of mailing seasonal or general merchandise catalogs.

“JC Penney is making a big statement,” said Bruce Cohen, private equity strategist at Kurt Salmon, a consulting firm. “It’s a statement in support of what all retailers recognize – that there are times when people want to slow down, and there’s always an important place for the catalog.”

After years of decline, the number of catalogs mailed in the United States increased in 2013, to 11.9 billion, according to the Direct Marketing Association, a trade group. While that figure is about 60% of what it was at its peak in 2007, some analysts say the recent 1% increase in mailed catalogs, coupled with the care retailers are putting into it, could signal something of a renaissance.

Not all catalogs will bounce in this environment. The parent company of SkyMall, the in-flight shopping magazine, filed for bankruptcy last week. But Paul Swinand, an analyst for Morningstar, called this catalog different from most with its quirky assortment of products. “It’s not about branding with SkyMall,” he said. “There’s nothing emotional about it.”

Even small, the recent resurgence of direct mail can be explained by a better understanding of the power of the catalog to boost sales, Mr. Cohen said. He cited Lands’ End as an early example. In 2000, this retailer reduced the number of catalogs it sent to consumers. According to Kurt Salmon’s research, he suffered a $100 million drop in sales. Lands’ End then added a contextual survey to its website and found that 75% of customers who made purchases had looked at the catalog first.

“Sometimes the only way to realize how important the catalog is is to take it down,” Cohen said.

About 90 million Americans make purchases from catalogs, according to the Direct Marketing Association; nearly 60% of them are women. According to the American Catalog Mailers Association, consumers who receive catalogs spend an average of $850 per year on catalog purchases.

For many brands, catalogs are the most effective driver of online and in-store sales, according to analysts and retailers. Recognizing this, American Girl, a subsidiary of Mattel, has recently increased mailings, spending more on catalogs last year than any year in the past decade, according to Kathy Monetti, senior vice president of the marketing.

Some stores, like Anthropologie, are so dependent on catalogs that they make them their primary form of advertising. “We don’t call it a catalog; we call it a journal,” said Susy Korb, marketing director of Anthropologie, whose materials show women wearing dresses in fields, on beaches, and “where rolling heather meets wide, crisp skies.” as detailed in a recent broadcast.

“Of course, we try to sell apparel and accessories,” Ms. Korb said, “but it’s more to inspire and engage.”

Patagonia produced long-form marketing materials, commissioning trials for them. Last year, in addition to having published a dozen traditional catalogs, the company sent two built around themes, including one on falconry. This catalog featured photos of children with condors in Chile and wildlife volunteers releasing rehabilitated red-tailed hawks in California, as well as first-person reflections. “The bird on my fist is an opportunist,” read one. “I like to think it’s there because of the patient discipline I exercise.”

This catalog included only a handful of products – including a green trucker hat, jeans and brightly colored backpacks – on four of the last pages of the 43-page book.

Dmitri Siegel, executive creative director and vice president of e-commerce for Patagonia, called the catalogs “the way we talk to our closest friends and people who know the brand really well.”

Mr Siegel added that Patagonia has started printing on 100% recycled paper. “We had to compromise in terms of traffic and other expenses, but it aligned the mode of communication with our values,” he said.

Across all segments, retailers are looking to make their catalogs more of an experience and to celebrate print as something retro. Ikea recently made a humorous advertisement for its catalog. “This is not a digital book, or an e-book,” the ad says. ” It’s a book’. The 2015 Ikea catalog is fully loaded and the battery life is forever.

Although it is a large store with a different clientele than Patagonia or Ikea, JC Penney is no different in having a high experiential vision for the new catalog. “The scenes tell a story,” said Kate Coultas, spokeswoman for JC Penney.

While the retailer’s “Big Book” of up to 1,000 pages was discontinued in 2009, the company continued to produce short niche catalogs on segments like school uniforms or outdoor furniture until in 2012. The upcoming catalog will be balanced, with 120 pages showcasing a wide variety of homewares, Ms. Coultas said.

Melissa Berggren of Minneapolis, Minnesota, a mother of two, said the revival of the JC Penney catalog surprised her but made sense. “We’ve gotten used to businesses printing less and less,” she said. “But more of us are going back to our mailboxes.”

Ms Berggren said she regularly studies Pottery Barn catalogs. “It’s not about getting a deal,” she said. “It’s about looking at different settings, how they’re decorated.”

Not every mailing gets her attention, she said, adding that she’s never looked at the “Macy’s tabloid-style mail” regularly piled up in her mailbox.

Felix Carbullido, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Williams-Sonoma brands including Pottery Barn and West Elm, said the company’s commitment to catalogs hasn’t waned but its view of them has changed. “Years ago it was a sales tool, and now it’s become an inspiration,” he said, comparing catalogs to magazines. “We know our customers love a tactile experience.”

Morningstar’s Mr Swinand pointed to Tiffany & Company’s Blue Book catalog – said to be the first catalog mailed to the United States, in 1845. “It’s the kind of thing you might want to keep on your coffee table all year round.” he said. “It’s not the Sears catalog big book, which was sort of a print version of the internet before it existed.”

When asked if he might consider relaunching a catalog, Sears declined to comment.

Some consumers believe that retailers should make catalog mailings more flexible. “They’re a nuisance,” said Lee Wright, who works in sales for a software company in Arlington, Virginia.

While Mr Wright remembered wistfully poring over the Sears catalog in the 1980s and tearing up pages, he said he was now looking to cut off mailings to his house. “Today catalogs are a waste of paper,” he said. “It’s the same information that’s online.” He said he doesn’t like shopping without reading product reviews, which is often built into e-commerce platforms.

Millennials accustomed to online shopping may share Mr. Wright’s view in greater numbers. Yet some e-commerce retailers like Bonobos see print materials as having modern appeal for all age groups and have embraced them.

Craig Elbert, vice president of marketing at Bonobos, called them useful for building relationships and measuring effectiveness. “You know if you’ve finally made a sale,” he said. “You know where you ship a catalog and where you ship your orders.”

With “so much clutter and information overload,” said Rohit Deshpande, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, “just getting attention is the hardest thing to do right now for It is conceivable that retrying catalogs is one way to do this.

Deshpande said research has shown frequency helps consumers process marketing messages, but some studies suggested diminishing returns after three ads.

“The problem has always been: what should we do to share the spirit and not bore people?” said Mr. Deshpande. “Or, worse, turn them off?