Catalogs fill a retail therapy niche for pandemic-weary shoppers

After a year spent learning, conducting business and purchasing goods online, shoppers are having a throwback holiday season. They’re putting down their phones, tablets and laptops and picking up that stalwart of a bygone, pre-Amazon era: the catalog.

Many say that the online shopping experience is too hectic or that it isn’t conducive to leisurely browsing or discovering new gift ideas. Some catalog fans say the experience also reminds them of childhood holiday seasons, absorbed in the pages of department store toy catalogs.  

Some catalog fans say the experience also reminds them of childhood holiday seasons.

“I feel like I’m always on my phone or the computer, so it’s kind of soothing sitting down with a cup of coffee and a tactile catalog and just flipping through it,” said Kristi Krass, a mother of three boys who lives near Grand Rapids, Michigan, who said she has been getting an average of two catalogs a day in the mail this holiday season.

“There’s an old-school simplicity, [and] there probably is a bit of nostalgia from being younger” and paging through holiday Christmas catalogs, Krass said. “Maybe I’m subconsciously connecting with that.”

The conventional wisdom is that e-commerce killed off the catalog, but retail and merchandising experts say the reality is more complicated. Catalogs are filling a retail therapy niche for a pandemic-weary shopping population. 

Hamilton Davison, the president of the American Catalog Mailers Association, cited research finding that millennials in particularly have an affinity for flipping pages — a preference he likened to the rediscovery of LPs and other so-called retro trends.

Millennials enjoy flipping pages — a preference likened to the rediscovery of LPs and other retro trends.

“One of the big surprises is that millennials find great value in catalogs,” he said. “The internet feels too much like work,” he said. 

Dave Marcotte, the senior vice president of cross industry cross border and technology at Kantar Consulting, said, “Catalogs traditionally have been a form of entertainment first before they’ve been about shopping.”

The death of catalogs has been overstated — they have evolved in the age of Amazon and fill a different kind of shopping niche, experts say. Amazon has brought the catalog experience full circle. It started mailing out a toy catalog beginning in 2018 — the year after Sears folded its Christmas Wish Book for the final time. Sears stopped publishing the annual icon after the 2011 edition. It brought back a print and digital version for one year in 2017, but the retailer’s financial struggles eclipsed the tradition.

Belinda Norris, of Fort Worth, Texas, who said she preferred shopping by catalog for her three nephews, recalled the Wish Book fondly.

“I looked forward to it every year. I get kind of frustrated looking for stuff online. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you don’t know what’s there. You can’t just flip through and look at things,” she said. “I think what was great about the old catalogs is you could flip through and there were things you didn’t know you wanted.”

Norris added that she used Amazon’s holiday toy catalog to pick out some Lego kits for her nephews. 

In many cases, today’s catalogs have slimmed down — printing is expensive, as is mailing, especially after the recent postal rate increase. But thanks to the cross-pollination among the online, social media and direct mail milieus, brands can send more precisely targeted media to people’s mailboxes. People who regularly buy presents for young kids, for instance, might get catalogs chock-full of Lego kits and animatronic pets, while people who have embraced the work-from-home lifestyle might get pages of cozy sweatpants and desk accessories. 

Products are also getting the glossy-magazine treatment, with rows of tiny pictures replaced by artfully photographed tableaux and narrative copywriting. 

Irene Bunnell, the marketing manager at Uncommon Goods, a web- and catalog-based gift shop, said the company revamped the format of its usual holiday catalog this year to look more like a gift guide in a lifestyle magazine — a common trend among retailers publishing holiday catalogs. The photo-gift brand Shutterfly also gave its holiday catalog more of an “editorial” look and feel and bumped up distribution by 6 percent over last year, a company spokesperson said.

Keypoint Intelligence, a market research firm, tracked digital print volumes — the production method for most smaller-run catalogs — and found that after it plunged last year, production rebounded close to its pre-pandemic level. German Sacristan, the director of print-on-demand services, said demand is projected to soar past pre-pandemic production by next year and to continue rising at a compound annual rate of 8 percent through 2025.

“A lot of marketers found the mailbox to be very helpful, especially when people were home. We’ve seen a shift towards that,” he said, as shoppers experienced digital fatigue.  

Joe Feldman, the senior managing director and assistant director of research at Telsey Advisory Group, said: “It does help to stimulate ideas … to see it in a physical form. For holiday, it’s a gift-giving time, and people are always looking for ideas.”

The size of catalogs gives them an edge over handheld screens, experts said. “The large visual profile of a catalog cover can invite people in. … They mimic the retail shopping experience, or retail therapy, in your home at a time and place of your choosing,” Davison said.

Polly Wong, the president of Belardi Wong, a marketing company specializing in direct mail and print, pointed out that the tangible nature of catalogs means even throwing one away takes a modicum of interaction that a marketer can’t get with, say, promotional emails that are deleted unread. 

What was great about the old catalogs is you could flip through and there were things you didn’t know you wanted.

“The thing with catalogs and direct mail is the consumer has to touch it to recycle it. You have this huge amount of real estate with which to tell your story,” she said. “You can’t replicate the amount of real estate in a catalog.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Wong said some of the biggest proponents of paper are web- and social media-based startups — an irony that isn’t lost on marketing pros.  

“I think it’s helpful to connect with customers in a different way than just on their screens,” Bunnell said. “I think since we are an online brand it’s one of the most tangible ways we can connect with customers.”

Wong said many direct-to-consumer brands that launched online and started out advertising on social media are turning to catalogs because paid search and social media advertising aren’t delivering the kinds of returns they once did.

“To drive response rates, you need reach, and you need frequency, but the challenge is with the algorithms. … You can’t be sure you’re getting the kind of contact frequency that you need. Marketing and advertising is so cluttered today,” Wong said. 

Changes in Apple’s privacy policy letting app users opt out of being tracked have reduced the precision that once was a hallmark of digital marketing, Wong said. Facebook’s whistleblower scandal has also made some brands reluctant to advertise across the Meta platform, which includes Facebook and Instagram. 

Anna Palmer, the senior manager for growth marketing and e-commerce for Apparis, a startup clothing brand that launched online in 2019 and expanded to a pop-up boutique in New York City this year, said: “It’s kind of meeting the customer where they are, and I think it’s a little more attention-grabbing than just seeing an ad on the internet or social media. We’ve seen the catalog drive sales in store as well as online.”

Jonathan Zhang, an associate professor of marketing at Colorado State University, said the appeal of digital advertising has diminished as the cost of acquiring a customer has risen.

“I heard a lot of dissatisfaction because the cost of advertising was getting too high because Google and Facebook were de facto monopolies,” he said. “The cost of acquiring a customer sometimes costs more. And the other thing is the customers that were acquired online were not as loyal. … Customers who were acquired in the physical stores are more loyal, and customers acquired through catalogs are slightly more loyal than customers who were acquired through online.”  

Zhang found that greater loyalty translated into higher sales. He conducted field research that found that customers who had received a retailer’s catalog bought more than those in a control group that didn’t get the catalog. In-store shoppers, he said, are especially likely to be drawn to catalog shopping. 

“Stores provide an immersive experience,” he said. “I realized the catalogs preserve the sensory, physical experience of the stores.” 

Linda J. Picard

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