Are Catalogs Still Relevant In a Digital Age?

This is every retailer’s dream.

Cozied up by the fireplace with a cup of coffee, Sarah reaches across the table — over the iPad, past the smartphone and far away from her computer — and grabs for something heavier, more colorful and something that takes more than just a few clicks to get through. Sarah is about to open and flip through a print catalog from a retailer.

It’s true, of course, that e-commerce has disrupted nearly every aspect of retail and how retailers conduct business and attract consumers. But there’s one thing e-commerce can’t re-create, the full-on visual experience that a consumer has when picking up the 50, 100 or 150 page, high-gloss store catalog. A print medium that has stood the test of time when other print mediums are collapsing right and left. But what’s different is that instead of picking up the phone and calling in an order, like Sarah did (if she is old enough) in the old days, she’s going to the store, or online to make her purchase. And what’s driven her to do that is the experience – visual and tactile – that the catalog has created for her.

Take, for example, a Williams-Sonoma catalog. Of course, it‘s going to try to sell Sarah a set of pans and household goods, but in a very different way. It’s all about context and curation. And creating an editorial shopping experience. Instead of selling a cake pan, the catalog in early November featured a snowman cake pan, finished cake and the cake recipe to make that snowman cake using that pan, along with 10 tips to host the perfect holiday party and a series of pages showing how to set the perfect holiday party table. Sarah, when receiving that magazine, probably had no earthly idea that a snowman cake much less that a holiday party celebrating with the said snowman cake, was in her future. But $215 later, she’s ready to rock and roll and ready to play hostess with the mostest at her upcoming party. Thanks to the inspiration she found inside those catalog’s pages.

“We look at [catalogless as tools and more as magazines for our customers,” Felix Carbullido, chief marketing officer at Williams-Sonoma, told NPR. “They’ve become more editorial. They’ve become more of a sourcebook of ideas.”

Williams-Sonoma is just one example of a retailer whose team reviews analytical data to identify what kinds of consumers are receptive to catalogs based on size and content. Shopping trends from brick-and-mortar stores also help influence how those catalogs are put together, Carbullido said, with some customers even referencing specific catalog styles when visiting stores. But it’s not always about creating a shopper; it’s about creating a vision for that shopper that motivates their purchasing behavior, which gives retailers motivation to keep producing those catalogs.

Statistics from the Direct Marketing Association show that the number of catalogs delivered across the U.S. hit its peak of around 19 billion in 2007. After a few tough years of declining numbers, 2013 brought about another surge and catalog were delivered to nearly 12 billion U.S. addresses rebounding after a tough economic crisis that crippled the budgets of many retailers.

Research from the management consulting firm Kurt Salmon states that only 13 percent of consumers say they’d want more catalog and 44 percent said they like to receive fewer. But that same research shows that 58 percent of online shoppers said they get their ideas from browsing catalogs; and nearly a third said they have a retailer’s catalog on hand when making an online purchase. In that same report, when polling women ages 18-30, 45 percent reported catalogs sparked interest in a retailer’s product and nearly 90 percent bought items they saw first in a catalog.

No wonder retailers still believe in the power of print.

“Consumers really still love looking at catalogs,” says Bruce Cohen, a retail private equity strategist at Kurt Salmon.”And what’s interesting about that is you even have purely online companies starting to experiment with printed catalogs.”

But what about the production costs? The average catalog costs about $1 to produce and send, according to the American Catalog Mailers Association. But Polly Wong, a managing partner with direct marketing and creative agency Belardi/Ostroy, said the return on investment can be high since catalogs can bring in $2 for every prospective customer it reaches and $10 for every returning customer.

“The Internet customer doesn’t order quite as much, but a catalog customer comes back again and again,” said Hamilton Davison, president and executive director of the American Catalog Mailers Association.

During the last holiday shopping season in particular — especially for customers who may have once browsed on the website or shopped in a physical store — retailers like Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus focused their attention on making their catalogs shine. Retailers have said they can actually predict when catalogs hit mailboxes because of the increased traffic in stores and online.

“We see an immediate sales lift,” John Koryl, president of stores and online at Neiman Marcus told The Wall Street Journal. “[Shoppers] may not buy what’s on the cover of the catalog. They may not even buy in the category that the catalog covered, but it is this inspirational moment to remind them to shop on our site.”

Technology innovations have also helped prolong the life of catalogs since print technology also enables those catalogs to be personalized. U.K.-based clothing retailer Boden, for example, sends millions of catalogs globally every year. Shanie Cunningham, head of U.S. marketing for the company, told the WSJ that consumers typically spend 15-20 minutes with a catalog before turning to online. Boden also has the ability to tailor the content, size or catalog type, and even the discounts offered to each consumer based on their shopping habits with the retailer.

The moral of the story here is that it takes more than just Web blitzes, email campaigns and big-buck marketing budgets to draw in consumers; it takes an edited and curated experience to make that customer connect with the brand and remind them of their presence —across all channels. And that’s why retailers still bulk up the consumer’s physical mailboxes with the colorful, informational catalogs that are more like a magazine with products for sale than a shopping book.

Catalogs for many retailers serve as a reminder to consumers to get online or in their cars to get to the store, by generating ideas that will encourage future shopping. This creates engaged customers who are more likely to return — the ultimate retailer goal. Even in the age of mobile and tech innovation dominating the e-commerce space, it seems there’s still room on the table for catalogs.