All the pageantry for catalogs might seem puzzling, given that print media and retail stores are struggling to compete with the infotainment hub of the smartphone. But although the number of catalogs mailed in America has fallen since its high of 19 billion in 2007, an estimated 11.5 billion were still sent in 2018. As retailers become ever more desperate to find ways to sell their stuff without tithing to the tech behemoths, America might be entering a golden age of the catalog.
“The rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated,” says Hamilton Davison, the executive director of the American Catalog Mailers Association, which advocates for things like favorable postage rates and tax rules. “Isn’t that what Mark Twain said?” In the late 2000s, a change in federal regulation raised mailing prices for catalogs, and as online shopping accelerated in the years afterward, a lot of companies abandoned catalogs in favor of email and social-media strategies targeting younger consumers. Those retailers included companies known for their direct-mail products, such as JCPenney, whose catalog had figured prominently in its branding since 1963 but was discontinued in 2010.
Five years later, though, the JCPenney catalog was back, in defeated recognition that the physical world still matters. “You can’t make me open your email, you can’t make me open your website, you can’t make me go to your retail store, but you can send a large-format mail piece I have to pick up,” Davison says. “It’s invasive, but it’s welcome.” Davison has a vested interest in the future of the format, of course, but his claims are borne out by research suggesting that even though catalogs typically arrive unbidden, consumers find them less presumptuous and irritating than marketing emails. “The internet is too much like work,” Davison says, while catalogs feel more like play. “The internet is great if you know what you’re looking for,” he adds, “but it’s a lousy browsing vehicle.” Instead of being followed around online for days by ads for a product you already ordered (or considered and ruled out), you can peruse catalogs at your leisure and disengage fully when you’re done. It’s so analog, it almost feels wholesome.
Around the same time that JCPenney was returning to mailboxes, catalogs began gaining favor among newer companies. “You can think about a catalog as a push versus a pull,” says Matt Krepsik, the global head of analytics for Nielsen’s marketing-effectiveness arm. “On the internet, I just have to hope that Matt discovers my website. When I send Matt a catalog, I’m reaching out to him one-to-one.”
Another benefit: Catalog-mailers can “prospect” by sending their books to whomever they choose, but most email-marketing services require retailers to gain consent from recipients. That’s partly because sending marketing emails without permission is illegal in some countries and partly because it’s against the rules of some internet- and email-service providers—businesses risk having everything they send algorithmically disregarded as spam.