How (And Why) Major Retailers Are Embracing Print Catalogs Again

How Major Retailers Are Embracing Print Catalogs

The holiday season is the time for nostalgia and tradition, and that is the case here at PYMNTS, where even amid our coverage of the newest retail trends, we sometimes get the warm-and-fuzzies. It led us to wonder, going into the heart of the fourth quarter and then into 2020, about the status of that old standby, the retail catalog.

Those old-fashioned methods of selling might have more life in the eCommerce age than many assume – thanks in large part, according to experts, to younger consumers’ desire for non-digital shopping experiences and the need for retailers to stand out from the pack. Whatever the reasons, catalogs have seen renewed life in this digital age, and will probably be a source of some innovation going forward into the new decade.

By the numbers, catalogs certainly aren’t what they once were. In 2006, 19.8 billion catalogs were shipped to U.S. customers; by 2018, that figure had fallen by roughly half to 9.8 billion, according to the Data & Marketing Association (DMA).

But there are still almost 10 billion catalogs going out to American consumers each year – which, objectively, is a big number. And while smaller DTC brands have been rapidly embracing them in recent years – because in many cases, they tend to be about as effective as advertising on Facebook or Instagram while also being quite a bit cheaper, according to reports – the biggest moves in catalogs in the last 18-24 months have come from some very well-established players.

High-Tech Offerings

And those big retailers are offering products that may seem surprisingly high-tech for printed, glossy product magazines.

Walmart, for example, has embedded its holiday catalog this year with “Scan & Shop” technology by Digimarc, which will allow customers to easily buy what they like via the Walmart app as soon as they see it on the page.

Walmart will print 35 million catalogs with the tech embedded. Customers can either request to have one sent to them or can grab one from any of the 4,800 participating store locations.

And because Amazon is usually quick to respond to any action Walmart takes to influence customer sales, the eCommerce giant – which is often credited with recreating the concept of mail-order business via the internet – has, in fact, embraced the catalog itself … in a very Amazon-like fashion.

There are no prices in the catalog – they have been replaced by “Scan & Shop” QR codes linking back to the online pages, given that pricing on the site is constantly in flux. Like the Walmart version, Amazon Scan & Shop is accessible through the Amazon app.

But the most Amazon-esque feature? Not everyone is seeing the same catalog – the version each shopper receives seems to be targeted to the purchases they make.

Speaking of Amazon, the company recently launched its second annual holiday season toy catalog, according to a report.

So, where are retail catalogs headed? More customization and personalization, according to experts – reflecting larger retail and technology trends, and shifts in consumer desires and expectations. As well, top-level and even curated content is becoming more important to retailers in attracting and retaining customers, and the general catalog format can certainly help with that.

Catalog Content

Online luxury marketplace 1stdibs stands as an example of that kind of content, while demonstrating the appeal of both digital and physical forms of content to tie consumers to a brand or ecosystem. In a discussion with PYMNTS, Anthony Barzilay Freund, editorial director and fine art director at the retailer of antique and modern furniture, jewelry, fashion and art, talked about the role that content – even long-form articles – can play in eCommerce.

The company, which launched in 2001, has been providing online and physical content since about 2006. Its collection now includes a print catalog as part of 1stdib’s effort to cement its position in the luxury marketplace.

But the company doesn’t just use its content to speak to one audience. Instead, it needs to reach a “very sophisticated audience who expects a high level of content,” Freund told PYMNTS, “and also an audience that knows a little less” about the products, dealers and artists featured by 1stdibs. Consumers in the latter group often need more guidance about the value and pricing of the works sold via the online luxury marketplace, he said.

Catalogs are certainly not dead. In fact, they seem to be in the midst of a revival.


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