The enduring paper catalog and the power of print in an omnichannel world

Why are there still catalogs in my mailbox?

There’s Lands’ End for my daughter’s clothes, Athleta for my active wife, and for me, Extreme Terrain for my off-road Jeep daydreams. This seasonal parade of printed pulp, delivered by the U.S. Postal Service at considerable expense, seems to have escaped notice in the Digital Age.

With the rise of the Internet, now more than two decades old, I kept expecting catalogs to disappear from the mail stream, to be replaced by thrifty postcards that would encourage me to “visit our website and e-catalog.” All the big catalog companies have websites. Jeff Bezos at Amazon drones on and on about making everything available online. But the catalogs just keep on coming.

Lands’ (Dead) End

Lands’ End, the nation’s No. 1 mail order company, tried to trim its monstrous printing and mailing costs in 2000 as the dot-com craze was sweeping the country. However, modest savings on printing and postage were outweighed by a $100 million sales drop. Nixing the catalog seemed to be penny wise, but pound foolish. So the next year the catalogs appeared again. Sales recovered.

It is always risky to draw a cause-and-effect conclusion based on one company’s experience, but people who study consumer shopping habits have concluded that paper catalogs do, indeed, drive sales – including online and in-store purchases.

Omnichannel world

One such management consulting firm, The Kurt Salmon Review, published a detailed analysis posing the question, “Is the Catalog Dead?” The report’s subtitle – “Not in the Omnichannel World” – immediately answered the question.

At the height of the holiday shopping season, National Public Radio reported on the resurgence of the paper catalog: Here’s Why Retailers Keep Sending You Catalogs. It turns out that not only is J.C. Penny once again printing a catalog, but also purely online retailers are expanding their consumer touchpoints with paper catalogs.

So, just as television didn’t kill the movie theater, just as airplanes didn’t completely replace trains and busses, just as FM radio couldn’t knock AM stations off the air (as Rush Limbaugh is pleased to point out), so online shopping hasn’t “disappeared” the catalogs from our mailboxes.

Printer delivery?

But still, catalogs are so wasteful. All that printed pulp, all that gasoline, all those tons of paper. I just wish there was an app that would let me order specific sections of a catalog. And deliver it to my printer – no postage required. (I will gladly pay for the paper and ink in exchange for the greater good for the planet.)

Lands' End now prints specialty catalogsMy wife wants the outdoor clothes from Athleta. For my daughter, who is hard to fit, I want the kid’s section from Lands’ End. They offer sizes we rarely find on store racks.

(In the course of writing this blog post I found that Lands’ End does offer a kids’ catalog and other targeted print catalogs, which they will mail out for free. The seven specialty catalogs are also presented online as e-catalogs. They have an e-catalog viewer that emulates the catalog browsing experience.  When you click on an item you like in the e-catalog, a hotlink jumps you to the item in the standard on-line catalog. So Lands’ End has gone omni-omni-channel. They offer a paper catalog, an online catalog, and an e-catalog that can be mailed or viewed online.)

And what section do I want from the Extreme Terrain catalog? I want it all! I want to flip through the pages and dream of spending my days outside of a cubicle. I want to tab the pages with sticky notes as I plan my off-road accessorizing as it were a manly outdoor curriculum – first the thump-proof bumper, then the winch, then the rock rails, then the high-lift jack…et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Keep the entire Jeep catalog coming to my mailbox. But for other less practical catalogs (like clothing), would someone please create an app that lets me pick the catalogs I want, the sections I want, then deliver them to me postage-free through my always connected printer?

That would be the best of both worlds.

Sign me,

Jeep Daddy

FYI: Check out the Top 30 Mailers in the Catalog Industry