The enduring paper catalog and the power of print in an omnichannel world
By Warren Volkmann, Editor and Jeep Daddy
Why are there still catalogs in my mailbox?
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.
Neo-traditional retailers in an omnichannel world
In 2015 Louis Gordon, Marcom Manager for Landa Digital Printing, published a thoughtful analysis of the place of paper catalogs, “Catalogs and the 'Neo-traditional' Retailer.” Corporate consultants at Accenture echoed those conclusions in a detailed review titled, "Is the catalog dead?" Their answer was clear in the subtitle: "Not in an omnichannel world." An infographic titled "Why Print Matters in 2019" illustrated the high points of paper's enduring value.
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.
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.)
(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.
FYI: Check out the Top 30 Mailers in the Catalog Industry