Everything you could ever want is at your fingertips. Literally.
The digital age has allowed consumers to purchase almost anything from their laptop, handheld device or über-luxe Apple Watch.
Want a hover scooter? Click.
Some Uranium? Click.
Their response would always be: African or Asian?
Yet despite the shopping ease offered by technology, more than 12.5 billion catalogs are mailed out annually, according to the Direct Marketing Association, even though 78% of the U.S. population—roughly 198 million people—are online shoppers and 44% of consumers wished they received less mail.
So why are retailers like Restoration Hardware, Williams-Sonoma, J. Crew, and Barney’s New York still using print publication as a viable shopping medium.
And why are they sending them to our mailbox and not our inbox?
“Catalogs are being geared more towards content over product. It’s very much about the styling and the lifestyle and the connection to the brand,” Bridget Johns, the head of customer engagement at the in-store analytics company Retail Next, told The Daily Beast.
“[Customers] look at catalogs as a magazine versus a shopping vehicle, which gives this very different experience from the one that you get online.”
More and more we see that retailers are revamping their catalogs, swapping out flimsy four-page throwaways with a few promotional discounts for mammoth, beautifully crafted, coffee table-worthy publications that rival the likes of your favorite high-profile glossy.
It’s lifestyle porn for the consumer. Brands are injecting their aesthetic and aspirational world directly into the minds of millions.
Restoration Hardware, whose print catalogs consists of five or more separate books bound together (reportedly weighing up to 17 pounds), is an interior decorator’s wet dream—over a thousand pages of impeccably curated possibilities.
Affordable fashion brand J. Crew, which began as a mail-order business and has since opened more than 300 stores globally, produces a catalog akin to the aesthetic of editorial pillars like Vogue, CR Fashion Book, and Porter, which began as an e-commerce business itself.
“Catalogs have to be regarded as being as much about branding as about sales,” Doug Stephens, a retail futurist and founder of Retail Prophet, told The Daily Beast. “The cost of putting together a great catalog can be extraordinary just for the photography alone, never mind the cost of printing and distribution.”
Barney’s New York, for instance, enlisted famed fashion photographer Bruce Weber to shoot its 2014 spring catalog, which spotlighted the transgendered community and their families.
Weber’s prints often sell for more than $43,000 a pop.
Retailers of all sizes are “moving over to a generation of content that is extremely creative,” Stephens said. “It’s becoming very aesthetically pleasing to look at and a very high quality in terms of how it’s manufactured. It’s not just about pushing more messages through smartphones, but about engaging consumers in a sensory way as well.”
“I delete 20 emails every morning,” Michael Natenshon, the founder of Marine Layer, a clothing company founded on crafting the perfect shirt, told The Daily Beast. “There is so much noise out there and so much on your computer that it’s actually refreshing to have something that’s not on your computer to look through.”
After five years in business, his brand shipped their first mail catalog, The Weekend Journal, to more than 150,000 consumers at the beginning of June.
“It’s a great way to display our lifestyle and tell our story better,” Natenshon said. “It’s also an opportunity for us to explore some of the areas around where our customers are based,” such as San Francisco, where the brand was founded, as well as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Portland, where their other stores are located.
“Each catalog is going to be an aspiration of a place that we like or want to visit and feature things that we or our customers would like to do,” he added, mentioning the possibility of adding editorial content to future catalogs so that “it’s not just a shopping network. I think that is where the resurgence is coming from. People are realizing you can make them whatever you want and consumers are reading them.”
Along with the immediate lifestyle aspirations the publications can evoke, they also serve to be an extremely savvy and resourceful marketing maneuver.
The catalog keeps customers aware of the retailer’s presence in their life, and often guides them to purchase products online or in-store that they may not considered before.
JCPenney, who was once known for their retail catalogs containing thousands of pages, found that their “customers, particularly when it comes to shopping for home merchandise, still prefer to browse a traditional print piece but will then go online or in store to purchase the item,” a statement issued to The Daily Beast by JCPenney said.
In 2009, the retailer discontinued its massive tomes after 46 years to focus on web development.
In the recession years following the market crash, many businesses were looking for places to cut corners. Catalogs were one of the first things to go, with their high cost of production and fewer customers shopping both online and in stores.
But as soon as the store discontinued their catalog, sales drastically dropped off.
No one realized that a large portion of online sales were from catalog shoppers.
So JCPenney resurrected a more refined, curated 120-page home catalog in 2012 as “part of a larger promotional mix that includes direct mail, preprints and other marketing vehicles that are designed to keep JCPenney top of mind and entice customers to shop with us throughout the year.”
“It’s about being able to maintain a connection with the customer through all channels of their life,” Johns said. “When you leave the store, how does the retailer or brand keep that connection with you? If you’re not actively looking for a particular item you may not go to their website, but you might open the catalog which is pushed to your house. It’s just another way to keep that conversation going.”
After all, it’s easy to delete an unopened email, but so much harder to resist a beautifully produced magazine of lifestyle porn.