The Future of Print Catalogs

by Stephen Lett • March 13, 2018

I’ve been a cataloger for over 45 years. Fresh out of the School of Business at Indiana University in 1971, I landed a job in the catalog marketing department for a subsidiary of Pitney Bowes selling price-marking equipment and supplies to small retailers. I was extremely fortunate to work for an individual who taught me catalog marketing/circulation and the importance of Recency, Frequency and Monetary Value (R-F-M). He was tough as nails and I still feel his influence today. Yet, there was not much known about print catalogs back then. You didn’t go to college to pursue a degree in direct (catalog) marketing or graduate thinking you would secure a position with a catalog company. I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time.

stacked catalogs

Back in the early 70s when I was getting my start, specialty catalogs were just beginning to emerge. There were several catalogs prior to that time such as Montgomery Ward, Sears, L.L. Bean, Vermont Country Store, Walter Drake, Taylor Gifts and others. However, the real growth of specialty catalogs like The Horchow Collection (1971), Victoria’s Secret (1977), Coldwater Creek (1984), Chadwick’s of Boston (1983), etc., expanded rapidly in the 70s and 80s.  There was no Internet back then, postage costs were reasonably low, response rates were good and conditions were favorable to start a mail order catalog right on your kitchen table (like Country Curtains, Brookstone and others did).

I have read a few articles recently suggesting that specialty catalogs will go away. The catalog is dead … what!? I just don’t buy it. Fake news. The doom and gloom of more printer consolidation, fewer vendors, elimination of the cooperative databases, etc., is far from my way of thinking. The things that made specialty catalogs successful over the years are the same today; unique and proprietary merchandise. The Brookstone catalog had it right back in the 1970s with their tag line, “Hard to Find Tools (and other things)”. It truly is all about having the right merchandise that is not readily available at Walmart or other big box retailers. It’s niche, i.e., specialty catalogs. Unique and hard-to-find products that consumers have a desire to purchase.

I fully agree that the role of the print catalog is changing. For example, most catalogers have eliminated the use of a bind-in order form which was once considered essential. In fact, many catalogs don’t have any order form today. Catalogs have become an important driver of traffic to the web. With the many match-backs we do for our clients, we find that 80% of all orders placed through the internet were driven there by a print catalog. The strong web presence has caused us to be better marketers. And, to alter our thinking with these changing times. We need to know how to cost effectively circulate to web only vs. to print catalog buyers in this multi-channel marketplace.

The print catalog is a big driver of traffic to the web. Therefore, it is important to understand the difference between orders that come through the web vs. orders that are directly from the web. It is also important to understand how the customer shops. If I am looking for a particular item, I can go to the web and find it. I get what I want and I might not purchase from that site again. However, if I want to “shop” I’ll thumb the pages of a print catalog then go to the internet to place the order. We don’t shop the web like we shop a catalog. For this reason, digital or online catalogs are not very effective. For a few hundred dollars, you can put a digital catalog on your website. They are nice to have but don’t give up your print catalog thinking a digital catalog will replace it. The consumer is not going to sit in front of their computer and flip the pages on their screen like they flip every page of a print catalog sitting in their easy chair.

As the internet has grown, catalog circulation has decreased. But this doesn’t mean catalogs are dead. It means we are circulating to customers smarter and wiser as we learn more about purchasing behavior. At the same time circulation has decreased, page counts have increased. Less circulation and more pages has helped to increase the RPC (Revenue Per Catalog) mailed. We don’t need to mail internet only buyers the same as we mail print catalog buyers. Their R-F-M is different. So is their L-T-V (Life-Time-Value).

Catalogs are great for (a) staying in touch with customer and (b) as an acquisition tool. We are able to mail cost-effectively to our house file eight to twelve times a year by R-F-M. We use the catalog to acquire new buyers by modeling and selecting prospect names from the cooperative databases. (They are not going away either as some industry experts have suggested). Again, we are able to circulate wiser and perhaps not as much because we have other marketing channels to support, i.e., the internet.

It’s not Amazon either. When I read about how Amazon is putting catalogs out of business like Walmart drove mom & pop retailers out of business, I don’t buy that either. The catalogs with a strong merchandise proposition are not blaming lack luster sales on Amazon. Providing unique and proprietary merchandise along with phenomenal customer service is one of the best ways to grow a business and to compete against giants like Amazon. There is no substitute for personal, friendly customer service representatives who take care of the customer. The focus on customer service provides an opportunity to increase customer loyalty by maximizing customer satisfaction.

I’ve seen businesses ruined because the owner/entrepreneur abandoned their catalog in favor of the internet. When catalogs lose their focus, or go out of business, it is generally self-inflicted. Pilot error. The internet can’t replace the catalog and vice versa. These important marketing channels must work together to maximize sales and profits. In a recent survey conducted by one of our clients they asked, “How can we persuade you to purchase from us again?”. Over 85% said, “Send me a catalog”.

We track orders and gross demand revenue weekly for all of our customers. Our print catalog consumer clients are all doing well this year. Through October, orders are up approximately 17% over the prior year; gross demand revenue is up 12% year-over-year.  We are also seeing an increase in circulation this year which is also encouraging.

In the world of multichannel marketing and being able to target and measure results, I feel that print catalogs are here to stay. It is all about maximizing the customer experience through the integration of mail, email marketing, social media, etc. Let’s face it, print catalogs build the brand.