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The Catalog Comeback

As a kid, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, I would spend almost as many lazy hours engrossed in catalogs – the Christmas toy and wish books especially – as comic books and Mad Magazine. I can even trace my interest in graphic design and marketing communication to a time when I would combine my affinity for catalogs, comic book fantasy and satire to create parody catalogs with ridiculous themes like discount gadgets for aspiring superheroes and evil underworld masterminds. Although I never achieved my goal of hijacking the grade school mimeograph machine to actually produce my early work; my career eventually led to a critical role in the catalogs of a major giftware and collectables wholesaler. To this day, I still enjoy picking up and flipping through a catalog. That’s why I’m excited to see that they seem to be making a comeback of sorts.

According to The Wall Street Journal and the Direct Marketing Association, the peak of catalog distribution didn’t actually occur until 2007 when retailers mailed 19.6 billion in the U.S. By the time 2007 had rolled around, Sears, the granddaddy of all catalog retailers, was long out of the large-scale catalog scene. Other retailers had obviously picked up the slack and then some. Unfortunately, the years following 2007 showed a constant, and often steep, trend of decline. In the very midst of that slump, J.C. Penney, the last remaining big gun of the catalog world, had phased out their so-called Big Book and all of their specialty catalogs.Finally, in 2013 catalog distribution was up, for the first time in six years, to 11.9 billion. Far shy of the 2007 peak but up nonetheless.

Earlier this year Penney’s made several big announcements. One, of course, was that they were planning to close underperforming stores. Another was that they were bringing back the catalog. The two announcements were an interesting juxtaposition since the start of many of the company’s financial woes coincided with the time it decided to dump the printed catalog and make mail order a strictly online operation. Far from the thousand page, soup-to-nuts behemoth of old, the company’s first catalog in five years was to be mailed in March. In the month since it was supposed to be distributed, I have not seen a new J.C. Penney catalog in the wild, although I understand that it was planned to be 120 pages focused on home goods. More akin to their old specialty catalogs than their Big Book.

Penney’s, it seems, is on-board with the realization of many other retailers; printed direct mail catalogs are effective in leading lifestyle-driven consumers to make in-store and online purchases. The key is to also realize that catalog marketing is highly adaptable and, given today’s design, printing and mailing technology, even nimble. When it comes to presenting a massive amount of products and related information as a point of reference, as was the main role of the huge old full-line print catalogs, the web is a worthy successor. In instances where many variations or options exist for products, the web can even be superior. However, when it comes to appealing to the senses, presenting shoppers with ideas, forming opinions and helping them make a buying decision on an emotional level, print can’t be beat.

There is nothing like moving through the thick, glossy full-color pages of a targeted, specialty catalog and turning to a beauty, or hero, page to see the products staged in a way that makes the reader want to replicate that scene in their own life. They see what could be the answer to their needs or desires, they get to understand about each of the products and they may even gain some insight from a designer or an expert in an article, separate from the product detail copy, that relates to the scene that has been set. With a quick look around to superimpose the beauty shot over their own surroundings, the reader is off to the website, catalog and credit card in hand, typing item numbers and filling a cart. In this way, print catalogs are not simply listings of what a retailer has for sale, they are a connection to the audience’s lifestyle.

Sure, you can put beauty shots and inspirational copy on a website. But the audience has to know it is there. Yes, you can let them know the website is there through email, but email is easy to ignore. You can have a web catalog site highly optimized for search, but the audience still has to be searching for what the site is selling to find it. When a person pulls a catalog out of the mailbox and they hold it in their hands, they have connected with it that’s harder to ignore.

In addition, marketers have much more control over graphic communication in print than they have online. No one knows the size, quality or settings of every screen in a given audience. Responsive web design can account for many of the challenges with screen size, but nothing can prevent low-quality hardware or out-of-whack settings from destroying the impact of otherwise stunning photography and design. If you are in full control of correctly managing your specifications, color standards, proofing and production, you can ensure that what the audience sees is what you want it to see in print.

Today’s printed catalogs may not look anything like the ones that inspired me as a kid. They are, however, still doing what those old catalogs were designed to do – sell to contemporary audiences – and do it well. For that reason I still find inspiration, and sense of satisfaction, when I pick up a printed catalog. Let’s keep ‘em coming!

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