Don’t call it a comeback.
Catalogs were never on an inevitable path to extinction, though they might have seemed so to the untrained eye.
A catalog used to be a store that got mailed to your house. A comparison between the iconic Sears catalog—from which you could buy everything from opium to a new domicile—and Amazon might suggest that digital disruption would extinguish catalogs completely. Both proposed to offer everything you could possibly need, and the advantages of a database-backed catalog over an analog are many, and clear. Amazon is so good at retailing through the web channel that customers are comfortable with the fact that the company is nearly impossible to contact in person. That would never be possible if we were worried about our complaints and disputes being lost in the workings of big, impersonal corporate machinery.
But strange things happen with technological innovation. When new technologies come along that provide faster, safer, more efficient, or otherwise better ways of doing things, they often coexist for a very long time with the old alternative.
Just look under your TV. You may be streaming shows to your laptop, but you probably still have a DVD player in the stack, under your DVR and cable box. Air travel did not sink ocean liners. And digital audio did not kill off turntables and vinyl. In fact, last year vinyl posted $2.9 million in sales—a 52% increase since 2013 and the most successful year since 1991, when SoundScan first got into the music-sales-tracking business.
When a product loses to a new competitor because of a utilitarian disadvantage, as is the case with print catalogs and e-commerce stores, that process only highlights the remaining advantages, which are likely to be sensory, emotional, and experiential, not practical.
The New York Times recently pointed out that in 2013, catalogs have revealed some advantages. That year, 11.9 billion catalogs were mailed in the U.S., which is a 1% increase from the previous year (though still about 60 percent from their catalogical heyday).
The recent uptick in catalog distribution is a result of an improved understanding of the new jobs for which a catalog is well suited. These jobs are more focused on emotion, experience, and brand.
Consider as another example: ocean liners. They used to be the only means of traveling across oceans. Then commercial air travel came along, allowing people to cover great distances much faster, but not more comfortably. Thus was born a brand-new niche: the pleasure cruise. Ocean liners turned into cruise ships, and the offer went from transportation to experience.
For catalogs, the coexistence with digital channels is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be exploited. Smart retailers are printing and distributing catalogs with the expectation that the web is a partner channel in the customer’s experience. People use catalogs to shop online. For instance, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, Bonobos tested a catalog in 2013 and found that (a) 20% of first-time customers bought after receiving a catalog and (b) this same group purchased 1.5 times as much as first-timers.
The benefits of catalogs: yes, they’re intrusive. If the thing feels like an enjoyable visual experience or read, that unexpected thing in the mail is welcome. If it’s welcome, it belongs on the coffee table, or in the john (let’s be realistic).
A catalog that isn’t immediately thrown out has a deep, subtle impact. Keeping the catalog becomes a gesture you make to yourself and your family that this is a brand you like. Psychologists call this the consistency effect. We want to think we’re consistent in our actions. Buying from someone is consistent with keeping and enjoying their catalog.
So don’t treat your catalog as a store. Speak to your preferred customers, not your speculative targets. Understand their whole life—how their choices are influenced by their values, context, and alternative options.
If, however, you yearn for the good old, pre-digital days: The 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog is a 736-page book you can still buy today. On Amazon, of course.