Catalogs fill retail therapy niche for pandemic-weary shoppers

After a year of learning, doing business and buying products online, shoppers are looking back at the holidays. They put down their phones, tablets and laptops and pick up that pillar of the bygone era before Amazon: the catalog.

Many say the online shopping experience is too hectic or not conducive to leisurely browsing or discovering new gift ideas. Some catalog fans say the experience also reminds them of childhood holiday seasons, absorbed into the pages of department store toy catalogs.

Some fans of the catalog say the experience also reminds them of childhood holiday seasons.

“I feel like I’m always on my phone or the computer, so it’s a little calming to sit down with a cup of coffee and a tactile catalog and just flip through it,” Kristi said. Krass, a mother of three boys who lives near Grand Rapids, Michigan, who said she receives an average of two catalogs a day in her mail this holiday season.

“There is an old-fashioned simplicity, [and] there’s probably a bit of nostalgia to be younger “and flipping through Christmas holiday catalogs,” said Krass. “Maybe I subconsciously connect to this.”

Conventional wisdom is that e-commerce has killed the catalog, but retail and merchandising experts say the reality is more complicated. Catalogs fill a retail therapy niche for a pandemic-weary buying population.

Hamilton Davison, president of the American Catalog Mailers Association, cited research revealing that millennials have a particular affinity for turning pages – a preference he compared to rediscovering vinyl records and other so-called retro trends.

Millennials love to turn the pages, a preference compared to rediscovering vinyl records and other “retro trends”.

“One of the big surprises is that millennials find great value in catalogs,” he said. “The internet is too much like work,” he said.

“Catalogs have traditionally been a form of entertainment before they’ve been devoted to shopping,” said Dave Marcotte, senior vice president of cross-border cross-industry technology and technology at Kantar Consulting.

The death of catalogs has been overstated, although they have evolved in the Amazon era and fill a different kind of shopping niche, experts say. For its part, Amazon has come full circle in the catalog experience. It started sending out a toy catalog from 2018 – the year after Sears last folded its Christmas greeting book. Sears stopped releasing the annual icon after the 2011 edition. It brought back a print and digital version for a year in 2017, but the retailer’s financial difficulties have eclipsed the tradition.

Fort Worth resident Belinda Norris said she preferred catalog shopping for her three nephews and fondly remembered the wish book. “I looked forward to it every year. I’m a little frustrated looking for stuff online. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you don’t know what’s there. You can’t just flip through and watch things, ”she said. “I think what was great about the old catalogs is that you could flip through them and there were things you didn’t know you wanted.” Norris added that she used Amazon’s vacation toy catalog to choose Lego kits for her nephews.

In many cases, today’s catalogs have shrunk – printing is expensive, as is mailing, especially after the recent increase in postage rates. But through cross-pollination between online, social media and the direct mail community, brands can send more precisely targeted media to people’s mailboxes. People who regularly shop for gifts for young children, for example, can receive a catalog filled with Lego kits and animatronic pets, while people who have embraced the work-from-home lifestyle can get pages. comfortable sweatpants and office accessories.

Products also get the glossy magazine treatment, with rows of tiny images now replaced with expertly photographed paintings and narrative writing.

Irene Bunnell, marketing manager at Uncommon Goods, a web-based and catalog-based gift shop, said the company revamped the format of its usual holiday catalog this year to look more like a gift guide in a magazine from lifestyle – a common trend among retailers publishing vacation catalogs. Photo gift brand Shutterfly also gave its holiday catalog a more “editorial” look and increased its distribution by 6% from last year, according to a company spokesperson.

Market research firm Keypoint Intelligence has tracked digital printing volumes – the production method for most small-run catalogs – and found that after experiencing a sharp decline last year, production has declined. rebounded near its pre-pandemic level. German Sacristan, director of print-on-demand services, said demand is expected to skyrocket beyond pre-pandemic production by next year and continue to grow at a compound annual rate of 8 % until 2025.

“A lot of marketers have found the mailbox to be very useful, especially when people are at home,” Sacristan said. “We’ve seen a shift towards this,” he said, as buyers felt digital fatigue.

“It helps stimulate ideas… to see them in physical form,” said Joe Feldman, senior managing director and deputy director of research at Telsey Advisory Group. “For the holidays, it’s gift time and people are always looking for ideas.

The size of the catalogs gives them an advantage over portable displays, experts said. “The large visual profile of a catalog cover can invite people to… They mimic the retail shopping experience, or retail therapy, in your home at a time and place of your choosing.” , Davison said.

Polly Wong, president of Belardi Wong, a direct mail and print marketing company, pointed out that the tangible nature of catalogs means that even throwing them away requires minimal interaction that a marketer can’t get. with, for example, promotional emails. which are deleted unread.

What was great about the old catalogs is that you could flip through them and there were things you didn’t know you wanted.

“The problem with catalogs and direct mail is that the consumer has to touch it to recycle it. You have this huge amount of real estate to tell your story with, ”she said. “You can’t duplicate the amount of real estate in a catalog. “

Perhaps surprisingly, Wong said some of the paper’s biggest proponents are web and social media-based startups – an irony that is not lost on marketers.

“I think it’s helpful to connect with customers in a different way than just on their screens,” Bunnell said. “I think since we’re an online brand it’s one of the most tangible ways to connect with customers. “

Wong said that many direct-to-consumer brands that have gone online and started advertising on social media are turning to catalogs because paid searches and social media advertising do not provide the kind of feedback they used to do. “To increase response rates you need reach and frequency, but the challenge is in the algorithms… you can’t be sure you’re getting the kind of contact frequency you need. Marketing and advertising are so crowded today, ”Wong said.

Apple’s changes to its privacy policy allowing app users not to be tracked have reduced the precision that was once a hallmark of digital marketing, Wong said. The Facebook whistleblower scandal has also made some brands reluctant to advertise on the Meta platform, which includes Facebook and Instagram.

“It’s kind of meeting the customer where they are and I think it’s a little more eye-catching than just seeing an ad on the internet or on social media,” said Anna Palmer, senior marketing manager. growth and e-commerce for Apparis, a startup clothing brand that launched in 2019 online and has since expanded to a pop-up store in New York City earlier this year. “We have seen the catalog increase sales in-store as well as online,” said Palmer.

Jonathan Zhang, associate professor of marketing at Colorado State University, said the appeal of digital advertising has diminished as the cost of acquiring a customer has increased. “I heard a lot of annoyance because the cost of advertising was getting too high because Google and Facebook were de facto monopolies,” he said. “The cost of acquiring a customer is sometimes more expensive. And the other thing is that the customers who were acquired online weren’t as loyal… Customers who were acquired in physical stores are more loyal and customers acquired through catalogs are slightly more loyal than customers acquired. online, ”he said.

Zhang found that greater loyalty resulted in higher sales. He conducted field research which found that customers who received the catalog from a retailer bought more than those in a control group who did not receive the catalog. In-store shoppers, he said, are particularly likely to be drawn to catalog purchases.

“The stores provide an immersive experience,” he said. “I realized that the catalogs preserved the sensory and physical experience of the stores.


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