Is It Time for a Return of the Catalog?

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Retailers have always been at the forefront to meet consumer needs. Successful retailers know their markets intimately and have adapted to meet new customer trends. Being consumer-dependent, retail has transformed its branding over and over from Burma-Shave road signs to the metaverse.

Catalogs are predictable. They create anticipation and expectations for the customer. They showcase brands and reflect their personalities. Catalogs fuel aspirations and trigger engagement with the consumer whenever they turn a page.

Everything Old Is New Again

To move forward, it often takes perspective. Trends can be cyclical, so what used to work, then didn’t, can now work better than before. Why? Nostalgia is one explanation. But what’s truer is the fact that while the circumstances of life change, people’s values don’t. Constants in our lives are:

  • People still want to connect with others.
  • They need to engage, have experiences, explore, and learn.
  • They want to be entertained.
  • They need to establish their position and identity within society.

What we are seeing post-pandemic/quarantine is that there is a renewed interest in physical engagements over digital. This can’t be surprising since so many of us were stuck at home, isolated from friends, family, and shared experience. An unintended consequence of the lock-down has been a renaissance of print marketing, direct mail. and catalogs.

Direct Marketing

From the first days of the Sears catalog, marketers applied the simple science of identifying where their customers were and how to best get their products/services in front of them. Catalogs came directly into your living room and were designed to bring products to consumers who were in remote/rural areas. Pre-Walmart and other anchor stores, retailers were mostly based in urban, densely populated areas/cities. So, direct mail brought the stores to customers who lived outside of that market radius. As populations started to migrate from cities to suburbs, retailers followed suit and reshaped local main streets and communities with shopping centers. Much later, with the birth of the internet and ecommerce, retailers reversed course and brought their goods from the stores directly back into customers’ homes. With history repeating itself, the digital front door became the portal to the store.

Cost Centers

Digital marketing initially made catalogs archaic. With paper costs, sustainability concerns, postal increases, mail clutter and limited personalization capabilities, the use of catalogs to produce an ROI/ROAS became challenging. No surprise, retailers turned to the digital space, which was fast, customized, highly measurable, price responsive, cost effective and offered exponential reach and inventory exposure. And just like that, direct mail became so last year.

But not so fast. After many years of drowning in digital data, heavy investing in video advertising, mastering social platforms, optimizing search, launching ecommerce websites, facing more restrictive privacy regulations and dealing with email fatigue, catalogs are making a comeback.

Page Turners

Catalogs are predictable. They create anticipation and expectations for the customer. They showcase brands and reflect their personalities. Catalogs fuel aspirations and trigger engagement with the consumer whenever they turn a page. They can have a shelf life well beyond a fleeting digital ad and provide a more personal experience with the shopper much like a book or magazine.

And catalogs are measurable. Using sophisticated metrics, when a catalog drops into a home retailers/brands know exactly when to expect sales. In best practices, retailers/brands have a 10-day strong selling window with a predictable bell curve model that allows them to time product deliveries. They can also predict accurate inventory levels based on space and presentation in the catalog. And the selling window also enables them to gear up customer service accordingly.

Unified Commerce

Similar to ecommerce, catalogs/direct mail also create ROI synergy from multichannel marketing and advertising. Shoppers who engage with a brand through multiple channels convert more often, spend more money, and become more loyal than shoppers who only hear from their brands via one medium. The magic combination originated with radio + print/direct mail, but now it’s digital platforms + broadcast + print/direct mail as a multiple touchpoint media plan.

Poster Children

Who’s doing it well today? In addition to legacy catalog companies like LL Bean, Vermont Country Store and Garnet Hill, direct mail/catalogs are being elevated to an art form merging product displays with content and special experiential offers by Bergdorf Goodman, RH, J McLaughlin, and Anthropologie. Even Amazon is leveraging a catalog to promote seasonal retail during the holidays.

Why the change in strategy? It’s all about the race to omnichannel, both in distribution and marketing. As retailers strive to meet their consumers wherever they are and whenever they want to shop, they need to build multichannel, multi-touch engagement points. Both mature shoppers and digitally savvy next gens like to engage with print as a break from the screen. Catalogs are narrative devices, and everyone likes a good story.

Designing the Mix

Catalogs are not a panacea. Retailers need to ask themselves how they can best reach their audiences in ways that drive attention, represent their brand, engage, sell, and build loyalty through value, promise and service. Regardless of media platform, your most recent buyers are most likely your next buyers. And your loyal customers are more valuable and less costly to keep than acquiring new customers.

The entire customer relationship may look like a funnel to marketers, but it is more of a bullseye in the lens of actual consumers. The center, of course, is them. The concentric marketing circles around the bullseye will vary by brand; some may rely more on print, others on digital and still others, on brick and mortar. This cycle may change by audience segment and remix over time.

Some brands, like Soft Surroundings, have built their business on the catalog that represents most of the company’s total revenue compared to brick-and-mortar stores. Fashion retailers and other categories may see the complete inversion of this business model. And then there are brands like Warby Parker who is a true multi/omnichannel marketer. They started as a digital native offering five eyeglass frames delivered by direct mail to shoppers. Their only store was the showroom in their corporate office. Their website evolved with the technology that allowed for 3D and augmented reality virtual try-ons. Brick-and-mortar expansion followed as did their catalog business. All their bases are covered, circle complete.

Catalog Conversion

So why doesn’t everyone hop on the catalog bandwagon? Cost is still an issue as are limitations with dynamic pricing and promotional elasticity. Stores and websites can take immediate markdowns while catalogs have fixed printed retail values associated with items. But layering direct mail and catalogs into the marketing mix may be something every brand can benefit from.

Consumers are poised to engage with physical extensions of brands which may explain why unboxing is so endearing to consumers. Whether it’s the luxury tissue paper and ribbon from upscale retailers or the sleek, modern packaging from Apple, the anticipation of opening the box is a meaningful experience.

Like anything else in business, knowing when and how to use various levers to reach, engage and convert consumers takes more than a large budget. It takes a deep understanding of customers supported by metrics, attribution methodology and technology/systems to execute on the promise of a brand experience across all touchpoints. Catalogs are a new and fresh option… again.

Note: Columbus Consulting is a TRR Collaborative Partner

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