Why Print Catalogs are Making a Comeback

JC Penney Print Catalogs

Earlier this year, J.C. Penney made headlines when it announced it would send out its first print catalogs in five years, bringing back a marketing item that was once a defining feature of the brand.

New evidence shows that the number of companies mailing catalogs is growing, and that the previous decline in catalog mailings likely had more to do with the recession than customers going online-only.

Print Catalog Shipments are Growing

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) notes that print catalog shipments grew in 2013 for the first time since before the recession. Denise Lee Yohn, the author of the article, points out that she does not believe this growth is an anomaly.

“Given the new dynamics of multichannel marketing and commerce, as well as the new targeting and measurement capabilities of catalog marketing, I think catalogs are here to stay this time,” she wrote.

Bringing back the mail catalog is part of a turnaround effort by J.C. Penney that may have factored into the company’s recently released earnings that exceeded Wall Street expectations.

Yohn also points out that the multichannel importance is not just for traditional retailers like J.C. Penney but also for digital retailers like Bonobos and Birchbox, which also recently launched print catalogs.

Bonobos VP of marketing Craig Elbert told the HBR that 20 percent of first-time orders on the company’s site come from customers that received a catalog. He also said these customers spend one and a half times as much as those customers that did not receive a print catalog.

This news falls in line with other digital-first companies turning to print, such as Airbnb launching a print magazine late last year.

This Isn’t Your Parent’s Catalog

As companies begin to recognize the importance print can play across marketing channels, they also are realizing that effective catalogs today look considerably different than the Sears catalogs or J.C. Penney Big Book some of us may remember.

In fact, J.C. Penney is not attempting to recreate the Big Book — which at times topped out at 1,000+ pages and featured products from a variety of departments. Instead, the 120 pages of the new catalog features items only from the company’s home store.

This trend toward specialization is one of the reasons companies are realizing the power of print today. Large national consumer databases let companies know where their desired customers are and allow them to cater magazines directly to individual groups. This information coupled with the companies own databases of previous customer information provide even more targeting options. L.L. Bean, a company that has long relied on catalogs to reach former and potential customers, is one of the companies currently experimenting with this concept by producing magazines with varied page counts depending on the customer.

“Can I only send [a frequent website visitor] 50 pages, or 20, as a reminder of, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to the website’?” asks L.L. Bean Chief Marketing Officer Steve Fuller as he explores new ways of optimizing his company’s famous catalog marketing.

Advancements in print technology allow for shorter runs and more personalization in printed materials. This allows print and other direct mail items to play a more specialized and targeted marketing role than ever before.

Catalog Design is Changing, Too

Personalization is not the only change coming to new print catalogs, their look is changing, too.

Print design trends are utilizing larger images and blocks of text, echoing online design trends. The content of the pages is changing the looks of the catalog, as well.

Many catalogs now more closely resemble lifestyle magazines rather than the older catalogs that presented nearly every item offered by a company. Instead of actually shopping out of a catalog, consumers are presented with the lifestyle associated with the products of the company.

For example, the Williams-Sonoma catalog provides readers with useful cooking recipes, which are shown alongside the products that are required to make those recipes. Not coincidentally, of course, these necessary items can be picked up at Williams-Sonoma stores or on the company’s website.

The company — also the parent company of brands like West Elm and Pottery Barn — takes data very seriously when considering what should appear in the catalogs and who should receive them.

“They’re not just sales-generating tools, they help people decorate,” CEO Laura Alber told CBS News. “In the same way we have great artists, we have great data scientists. They study the response rate from every customer that we mailed it to.”

Like Bonobos, Williams-Sonoma also has found catalog readers spend more money, both online and at brick and mortar stores.

Print Catalogs are Here to Stay

As Yohn wrote in the HBR, it seems catalogs are here to stay. Catalogs are poised to perform as a leading avenue of brand building, and help refine target audiences online and off.

To find out more about how Colorwise can help you create catalogs as another marketing vehicle for your company, head over to our contact page.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons