According to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), the number of catalogs mailed in 2013 increased slightly to 11.9 billion, after years of steady decline (2014 numbers are not yet available). While that figure is about 60% of what it was at its peak in 2007, some analysts say this 1% uptick in mailed catalogs, coupled with the resources retailers are putting into them, may signal something of a print catalog revival.
From American Girl to Patagonia to Williams-Sonoma, retailers are still relying on direct mail – even as they spend considerable resources on improving their e-commerce experience to handle the steady increase in online shopping.
As a Charlotte marketing agency with a specialty in retail, we receive dozens of catalogs each week, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed that retailers are employing tactics like lavish photography and storytelling to catch a shopper’s eye, regardless of whether the final purchase takes place with bricks or clicks.
Interestingly enough, in today’s fast paced digital age, British retailer Boden has calculated that a well-designed, lavish print catalog can keep a customer’s attention much longer then an e-blast or iPad app. Shanie Cunningham, head of U.S. marketing for Boden, told The WallStreet Journal that shoppers spend up to 15 to 20 minutes with the catalog, while only spending around eight seconds with a Boden email and five minutes with the Boden app.
Plus, the catalog is cost-effective to produce. That same WSJ article reported that the average catalog costs less than a dollar to make, while typically resulting in about $4 in sales for every catalog mailed.
The big takeaway: even with the internet, we still really like to hold beautiful static images and read their stories.
The numbers do seem to support this behavior. About 90 million Americans make purchases from catalogs, according to the DMA; nearly 60 percent of them of the fairer sex. And consumers who receive catalogs spend an average of $850 annually on catalog purchases.
However small, the recent resurgence in direct mail may be explained by a better understanding of the catalog’s power to drive sales. Take Lands’ End, for example. In 2000, that retailer sharply cut the number of catalogs it sent out. It then experienced a $100 million drop in sales as a result, according to research by Kurt Salmon, the big global consulting firm. Lands’ End later added a pop-up survey to its website and found that 75 percent of customers who were making purchases had first reviewed the catalog. This iconic American retailer learned the hard way that sometimes the only way to realize how important the catalog is, is to take it away.
As a visionary in the more narrative style of direct mail, Patagonia publishes 10 or so traditional catalogs every year. Last year, in addition, the company sent two built
around themes, including one on “birds of prey.”
That catalog featured photo spreads of children with condors in Chile and wildlife volunteers releasing rehabilitated red-tailed hawks in California, alongside first-person reflections. “The bird on my fist is an opportunist,” one read. “I like to think it’s there because of the patient discipline I exercise.” That catalog included only a handful of products for sale — among them a green trucker hat, jeans and brightly colored backpacks — on four of the final pages in the 43-page book (of course, the models throughout the book were, more often than not, WEARING Patagonia stuff).
So why, in the digital age, are catalogs still around? At our Charlotte marketing agency, we look at them less as selling tools and more as magazines to engage and entertain shoppers. They are also fun to read on coffee breaks.