Catalog Comeback

Catalog Comeback

After years of declining sales that led some large retailers to stop publishing catalogs, the trend has begun to reverse. Here’s why the “old-fashioned” catalog is experiencing a newfangled revival. 

On January 24, 2011, J.C. Penney announced it would exit the catalog business and close all 19 of its catalog outlet stores.

Fast forward to four years later. Last week, The New York Times reported J. C. Penney’s “surprise announcement” that it would revive a home goods catalog in March.

What’s behind the change of heart?

According to the trade group Direct Marketing Association (DMA), the number of catalogs mailed out in the US inched up 1% in 2013, to 11.9 billion, after six years of steady declines from the 2007 peak of almost 20-billion catalog mailings.

Does this mean catalogs are back in vogue?

The Times asked Bruce Cohen, a retail private equity strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon, who said: “J. C. Penney is making a big statement. It’s a pronouncement in favor of what all retailers are recognizing — that there are moments when people want to slow down, and there’s still an important place for the catalog. Sometimes the only way to realize how important the catalog is, is to take it away.

Even retailers founded on the principle of online sales have been getting in on the catalog act. The Wall Street Journal cited men’s clothier Bonobos, who reported last spring that about 20% of their customers who placed their first order via their website placed subsequent orders after having received a catalog. Catalog buyers spend more than 1½ times as much as new shoppers that don’t have a catalog in hand.

Overall, the DMA says some 90-million Americans make catalog purchases; some 60% are women. The American Catalog Mailers Association says consumers who receive catalogs spend an average of $850 annually on catalog purchases.

What makes the catalog so interesting in an era when people can order almost anything with a few clicks or swipes on a computer or phone screen?

Printed materials, like catalogs and direct mail pieces, have universal appeal, across all age groups. Bonobos’ vice president for marketing, Craig Elbert, told the Times that catalogs help build relationships, and helps the company measure effectiveness: “You know if you ultimately made a sale because you know where you ship a catalog and where you ship your orders.”

Retailers have learned from the lean years and are tweaking their catalogs accordingly. The new catalogs are much more personal and targeted. J.C. Penney’s new catalog will not be the 1,000-page behemoth it used to be, but a trim, 120-page version. It will feature home goods, such as small appliances, bedding, and of course accent tables, on which you can set down your J.C. Penney catalog when you’re not browsing through it.

To promote interest, J.C. Penney will evoke “lifestyle imagery,” which portrays products in the context of idealized and desirable lifestyles.

Having produced product catalogs for firms such as L&R Distributors, Buzz Electronics, and seeing how effective they can be, I found J.C. Penney’s return to the catalog business after a four-year absence to be a validation of the print medium in an era when web commerce and social media has exploded. Catalogs, and direct mail in general, are still clearly winning approaches and a viable way of reaching a target audience.

Of course, printing a catalog is only one step toward a successful marketing and sales effort. You need a great mailing list, and building that also requires market research.  The more accurate the list, the higher the sales conversion rate.

It will be interesting to turn the clock forward a year from now to see how J.C. Penney does. Many experts are optimistic. With “so much clutter and information overload,” said Rohit Deshpande, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, “just getting attention is the hardest thing to do right now for brands. It’s conceivable that trying catalogs again is a way to do it.”


Bottom Line Action Step: If a marketing method is tried and true, think how to renew.  

Yitzchok Saftlas

Yitzchok Saftlas is the CEO of Bottom Line Marketing Group, a premier marketing agency recognized for its goal-oriented branding, sales, and recruitment and fundraising techniques. Serving corporate, non-profit and political clientele, Bottom Line's notable clients include: Beth Medrash Govoha, Dirshu and TeachNYS. He can be reached at

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