Paper catalogs get a new look by savvy retailers

In this digital age when buying gifts during the holiday season requires little more than clicking between screens and adding items to a virtual cart, the printed retail catalog is making a comeback on the coffee table. In 2016, retailers mailed some 9.8 billion catalogs to consumers, and tens of millions of consumers still make purchases based, at least in part, on images and copy printed in catalogs that find their way to mailboxes. From Anthropologie to American Girl, Pottery Barn to Patagonia, retailers are refocusing on and investing in direct mail even as they spend considerable resources on improving their websites to accommodate the steady increase in online shopping.

Why are paper catalogs making a comeback?

One of the catalog’s main advantages is also one of its most elemental qualities: it can be touched, skimmed with minimal effort or eye strain, and offers retailers invaluable time in a customer's hands. Even if it’s walked directly from mailbox to trash can, it still offers brands more exposure time with customers than direct emails which can be deleted sight unseen. A catalog that sits on top of a coffee table, sits quite literally on "top-of-mind" for someone as they browse through it over drinks or while watching TV. 

The novelty a paper catalog offers might also afford retailers more attention with millenials who are suffering from ad blindness. Millennials are only 15% likely to ignore direct mail, compared to 50% who say they ignore digital ads, according to a report from the U.S. Postal Service, which noted results from an experiment showing that physical marketing "triggered activity in a part of the brain that corresponds with value and desirability." Along those lines, 87% of millenials reported liking receiving direct mail and 57% have made purchases based on direct mail offers. 

Digital marketers turn to paper 

Marine Layer, which started out as a digital only player — is an example of a retailer that is using paper catalogs to break through the "noise" of the online world and create "brand ethos." While the end goal is always to sell clothes and accessories, new brands who previously embraced digital marketing are beginning to see that it is also possible to inspire and engage through the medium of paper and beautiful images. 

The knowledge that catalogs drive sales is something that has always been leveraged by Williams Sonoma Inc. and Restoration Hardware. In its 10-K, Restoration Hardware said its catalogs, which the furniture retailer calls "source books," were "one of our primary branding and advertising vehicles" and "a key driver of sales through both our websites and retail stores." Catalogs and e-commerce sales together make up 45% of the company’s net revenue. Of Restoration Hardware, Ken Morris, principal at consulting firm Boston Retail Partners 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." Williams Sonoma Inc. and Restoration Hardware understand that artful images in catalogs might spur someone to go into one of their stores to look at furniture and, days or weeks later, customers might place their purchases online if they did not buy in store. 

Some brands are foregoing the idea of a catalog of items, choosing instead to engage customers with essays and other long-form materials. Last year, Patagonia sent two booklets built around themes, including one on falconry. That booklet featured photo spreads of children with condors in Chile and wildlife volunteers releasing rehabilitated red-tailed hawks in California, alongside first-person reflections. “The bird on my fist is an opportunist,” one read. “I like to think it’s there because of the patient discipline I exercise.” That booklet included only a handful of products — among them a green trucker hat, jeans and brightly colored backpacks — on four of the final pages in the 43-page book. Dmitri Siegel, executive creative director and vice president of e-commerce for Patagonia, described their approach as “a way we’re speaking to our closest friends and people who know the brand really well.”

How can retailers leverage offline data to get a better understanding of their customer? 

Who knew that paper catalogs could one day be truly omnichannel? There are now ways to demonstrate the relationship between online activity, store sales, and direct catalog recipients.

“You know if you ultimately made a sale,” he said. “You know where you ship a catalog and where you ship your orders.” - Craig Elbert, vice president for marketing at Bonobos (another digital-first retailer)
  • Catalog retailers typically code their catalogs to create data sets they can match to sales and develop a sophisticated understanding of who their customers are, where they live and what they want. Think of it as an additional data input to a retailer's CRM systems
  • The luggage manufacturer and retailer Tumi last year started working with PebblePost, a startup that connects website cookies to home addresses to automate retargeting via direct mail, and found 96% of the sales driven by the home mailings occurred in a Tumi store from customers who had previously browsed their website

How does PebblePost work?

PebblePost describes its technology as “programmatic direct mail.” In some ways, it’s similar to the emails and ads that might nudge you to make a purchase after visiting a retailer’s website. But for PebblePost, these nudges take the form of printed, personalized postcards and catalogs — CEO Lewis Gersh has said this combination of new and old approaches allows marketers to reach consumers when they’re more receptive to the company’s message. 

PebblePost starts by tagging online browsers who visit a product page or abandon a shopping cart. Then it tries to connect those visitors to a home address by matching them against the client’s CRM data, PebblePost’s own database and third-party data onboarders, converting about 70% of site traffic to a postal address, according to founder and CEO Lewis Gersh. It is a pretty convoluted process, but PebblePost is helping its partner retailers think through retail attribution across multiple channels- something that was previously inaccesible to most of them. They are essentially incorporating online conversions from direct mail to capture the full revenue picture. 

What does the future look like? 

  1. Expect more loyalty programs that prompt you for your name, street addresses and email addresses- the more detail a retailer has on you, the closer they get to full attribution and the better they can be about targeting you at the right place and right time through the right medium
  2. Retailers will strive to bring you more tactile experiences- we've always had scent packs and sniff patches in magazines, we should also be prepared to be wow-ed by recycled paper (Patagonia), virtual living rooms (Ikea), and a variety of sensory devices 
  3. More recently, Facebook has been offering its ad services to retailers with a new platform that tries to capture the catalog experience in mobile ads for users of the social network. There will be more "blended experiences" across paper and screen as advertising channels compete for wallet share

All in all, consumers stand to receive better and more engaging experiences as retailers get more savvy about their ad spend. There are diminishing returns to seeing the same message in the same medium too many times, so it seems that the winning combination is likely to be a balance of both paper catalogs and digital ads.