While Sears Roebuck gets all the credit for inventing the mail order catalog business in the United States, in historical terms they were actually a bit late to the game. The first catalogs date back to the Middle Ages, when people used them to buy seeds for planting and books from distant monasteries. The first big entrant in the U.S. was Tiffany & Co., who released a mail-order jewelry catalog in 1848.
The catalog was popular, but poorly timed. Just as the model really started to take off for Tiffany, the Civil War broke out and the demand for a mail-order jewelry catalog fell sharply. The next major appearance for U.S. consumers was in 1872, when Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago produced a catalog for his mail-order business.
Ward sold general merchandise on a theory that might sound somewhat familiar to our regular readers. Instead of buying goods and selling them wholesale to the general stores, he could sell directly to consumers, remove the middleman and undercut the stores on price.
DTC, version 1.0.
The first catalog didn’t look much like the modern version – it was a single 8”x12” piece of paper that was basically an inventory and price list with some ordering instructions. But the idea got bigger and better – within 20 years of producing that single slip of paper, Ward was sending out a 540-page, fully illustrated tome with over 20,000 items, including things like livestock and prefabricated kit houses called Wardway Homes.
But, of course, the catalog had to elevate its game – because, as is the case with most things that work, Montgomery Ward soon had competitors.
A Brief History of US Catalogs
The next big name in the game, Hammacher Schlemmer – which is still currently open and operational – decided to zoom in and specialize while Montgomery Ward was expanding outwards. First published in 1881, it was the first catalog dedicated solely to mechanics’ tools and builders’ hardware.
It wasn’t until 1887, 15 years after Montgomery Ward entered the game, that Sears, Roebuck and Co. put out its first catalog, the same year they relocated their headquarters to Chicago. And, because everything seems to come full-circle in U.S. retail, the first products they sold were diamonds, watches and jewelry – exactly where Tiffany started 39 years prior.
But unlike Tiffany, they quickly thought bigger. By 1893, Sears, Roebuck and Co. was putting out catalogs for nearly every occasion, all with an underlying goal similar to Montgomery Ward’s: to disrupt the general store with mail-order wholesale prices and a wide array of goods for homes, businesses and farms (over 90 percent of the population worked in farming at the time) that could be delivered.
The subsequent rise, dominance and fall of Sears is a well-known and well-covered story, but suffice to say it has been quite a long time since it was thought of as primarily a catalog retailer. The Montgomery Ward story was a bit less dramatic: It went from mainly a mail-order business to a brick-and-mortar business until it declared bankruptcy in 2000 – and then in 2004, after its name and assets were acquired, it was brought back to life in a much smaller form as an online business.
It might be tempting to conclude that the paper catalog is, like the pioneers that brought it to mailboxes in the past, a historical part of American consumer retail, much like the paper check or coupon booklet. But, as it turns out, that view is a little skewed.
By the numbers, catalogs certainly aren’t what they once. In 2006, there were 19.8 billion catalogs 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).
The Modern Era of the Catalog
But there are still almost 10 billion catalogs going out to American consumers each year – which, objectively, is a lot of catalogs. 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.
And they 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.
"Creating convenience for Walmart's customers was a key priority for this year's Toy Catalog. Through our partnership with Digimarc, we were able to enhance our catalog with a Scan & Shop option for our customers. This is an exciting new feature that I know will resonate with our customers,” Alvis Washington, vice president of store experience marketing for Walmart, said in a statement.
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 – those 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.
The Custom Catalog of the Future
Some side-by-side comparisons made by Forbes found that customers with young children saw a section filled with little-kid pajamas, toddler-focused toys and a lot of parenting support products. A catalog that went to a family with teenagers featured video games and fashion items. It appears that Amazon is looking at exact demographics and building specifically customized offerings to meet their needs.
And, according to Tim Curtis, president of direct mail consultancy CohereOne, this is probably only the start of what Amazon ultimately wants to offer in terms of catalog customization.
“Their roadmap will probably include custom content for each recipient,” he noted. “Based on the size of the Halloween costumes we ordered, they the ages of the children in our household. They also know what kind of content we watch on Prime, what kinds of groceries we like to order and all kinds of things about how and when we shop.”
And the direct mail channel, Curtis added, is particularly well-suited to building goodwill with personalization.
“Amazon will surely see positive responses from this. We know from neuroscience that this medium [direct mail] is extremely effective at building an emotional connection with customers and driving demand,” he said.
And while we might have argued with the idea that consumers have an emotional reaction to getting a catalog in the mail, while researching this article we found a blog post by a woman who got her Neiman Marcus Christmas Book in the mail, describing the joy and honor she felt. Apparently, she doesn’t make the cut every year for the catalog, and receiving it was a holiday treat.
“This, of course, is the Neiman Marcus holiday offering of everything most average Americans can never afford, much less need or want. How I made the cut and got on the mailing list is beyond me, as my actual catalog expenditures are fairly mundane and boring. I’m more a browser than a buyer,” the writer noted.
She went on to spend a day in her PJs by the fire, overawed by holiday spirit. And some Googling revealed that this is actually a pretty common reaction to getting the Christmas Book in the mail.
That’s a long way of saying that maybe there is something to be said for the emotional appeal of direct mail, after all – demonstrated by its now 171-year history in the U.S.
So, enjoy your catalog this holiday season. Apparently, some very high-tech little elves have been working hard to make it more easily shoppable. And maybe some year soon, those elves will be able to send you your own specific catalog, complete with glossy photos and customized descriptions.