Blazing a Paper Trail

Perhaps the humble catalog shouldn’t be afraid to sing its own praises. 

Gather round children, and let us tell you a tale … Back in the dark ages, before the internet and its series of tubes disrupted our lives, people got books in the mail called catalogs. These catalogs were wondrous things, pages upon pages of things to buy, from clothes to books, from furniture to cookware. You dialed a number, or mailed off a form, and days or weeks later a box appeared on your doorstep. But then the internet came, and people stopped waiting for the catalogs, stopped ordering from them and simply searched for their every whim and desire online. The end.

Why catalogs are popular again
Or is it? According to the Direct Marketing Association’s 2013 statistics, catalog mailings actually grew for that year, the first time there’s been an increase since the Great Recession. When the economy went south, many (if not most) retailers were looking for a way to cut expenses and catalogs were an obvious and easy target. So what’s fueling this increased interest, and is it here to stay?

The jump in catalog circulation can be attributed to multi-channel marketing. People like multiple ways to interact, peruse and purchase products. And there is research to back this up. Nordstrom has famously pushed for a multi-channel strategy to promote their stores, resulting in a more than 45 percent increase in online sales for 2014/2015. According to, Land’s End tried cutting back on catalogs in 2000 and sales declined by $100 million. So they conducted an online survey and found that 75 percent of customers placed an order after looking through one of their catalogs.

Why today’s catalogs are different
First of all, catalogs are just about the easiest way to track ROI for marketing departments—thanks to mail dates and source codes. It is also easier than ever to target your best possible audience with the information on every household that is available to marketers. That information can then be used to inform the version of the catalog that each customer receives, so that what you get in the mail may not be the same as what your neighbor does (if your neighbor even gets a catalog from that company at all). Finally, a catalog is a terrific vehicle to express your company’s personality and purpose.

Catalogs may seem like a blast from the past, but with today’s technologies they are more relevant than ever, something more and more retailers are catching on to.