Why paper catalogs still matter

RetailDive – The paper catalog was the internet before the internet was. While the sheer volume of mailers has declined, savvy retailers are still using catalogs to push their brands and make sales. The pages of the 1942 Sears Christmas catalog held much that might seem quaintly old-fashioned today.

Today the paper catalog has become primarily a marketing tool — one of special importance during the holiday season. And for many, it remains an important sales channel. The most sophisticated retailers are continuously working to build a seamless omnichannel operation and experience that uses catalogs, websites and physical stores seamlessly and interchangeably to help customers shop and make purchases.

“I think it’s the difference between e-books and printed books,” Ken Morris, principal at consulting firm Boston Retail Partners, told Retail Dive in an interview. “It’s a piece of paper they can manipulate.” As an example, he points to his own wife, who Morris says flips through paper catalogs while watching TV, though she owns a smartphone and a tablet.

Morris said pure-play catalog retailers have been growing as a sector at 10% year over year. “I was speaking to some private equity people who had investments in a number of catalogs, and they came back and said this was an area they were investing in because the growth was sustainable,” he said

Two names came up frequently in Retail Dive’s discussions with industry consultants: Williams Sonoma Inc. and Restoration Hardware. Of Restoration Hardware, Morris said: “I think their catalog is a work of art. It’s very, very high end. People end up wanting to see the products [in stores] because of how beautiful they look on the page.”

With retailers like Restoration Hardware, “It’s a whole philosophy with these guys,” Morris said. Artful images in catalogs might spur someone to going to a gallery to look at furniture and, days or weeks later, customers might place their purchases online.

After looking at in-store samples of paint colors for his own house at a Restoration Hardware near Boston not long ago, Morris asked for a manager. “I asked him, ‘What happens when I go home and I buy this, does your store get credit for the sale?’ He said, ‘No, we don’t get credit for the sale. We don’t even track it.’ They only track geographic sales. The catalog drives trips to store, the store drives a trip to the web later.”

Morris thinks Sears made a dramatic error when it dropped its catalog in the 1990s. “Sears sold everything,” he said. “When they got rid of catalog, they sold all that CRM information. Everybody today is dying to get that customer info. … It’s an asset that no one else has.”

David Naumann, vice president of marketing for BRP, noted studies that have shown people can spend upward of 20 minutes looking at catalogs compared to the seconds they might spend looking at product images displayed online.

“When you have that physical catalog, customers might ponder it longer, even write notes on it,” he said. “It’s something you really can’t replicate in other media.”

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