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JC Penney E-Commerce Strategy Turns Back To Catalogs

Hoping to capitalize on the latest data trends that show print catalogs turn shoppers’ eyes toward the Web, J.C. Penney is bringing back its own catalog for the first time in five years.

In a tradition dating back to 1963, the retailer’s largest catalog ever hit 1,000 pages, according to The Wall Street Journal; the new catalog will dial back a bit and feature 120 pages from J.C. Penney’s home department that will release in March. But in a time when shoppers are turning to e-commerce for their retail needs, is J.C. Penney joining back on a fad that’s already passed?

Not according to what the data is showing.

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 catalogs 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 catalogs 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.

Turns out there is some value to those hefty, high-cost catalogs that flood the mailboxes and coffee tables. What retail experts are finding is that consumers are turning to catalogs for the shopping experience to be part of a brand and catch up on news trends. They aren’t necessarily looking for specific items when they pick up that catalog.

“At the time, everyone said digital was the future and catalogs were old time,” said Craig Elbert, Bonobos’s vice president of marketing. “We found that the catalog allowed us to tell a fuller narrative about the brand and our products in a way that we were struggling to do online.”

That story is the same from what J.C. Penney’s team is seeing. The catalog decision comes at a time when the retailer is attempting to get back on its feet after it was recently announced that 40 stores will be shutting down in 2015. CEO Mike Ullman told WSJ that the decision to drop the catalog in 2010 came when retailers were putting more of their budgets and focus online. But what those retailers like J.C. Penney learned is that many of their online sales were being driven from catalog shoppers who picked up the print edition before turning online.

“We lost a lot of customers,” Ullman said. “We are trying to get back those lapsed customers.”

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