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Catalogs in ecommerce: unnecessary or indispensable?

Catalogs in ecommerce: unnecessary or indispensable?

Catalogs were a very important marketing tool during the mail order era. But now with the success of ecommerce and the almost extinction of the mail order business, catalogs are however still being sent to millions of consumers. How could it be that such an old-fashioned looking medium is still being used by lots of retailers?


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Business Of Fashion has written an interesting piece about this. It interviewed several popular fashion retailers, who still rely on the power of their catalog. Critics might say the catalog is something from the past. It’s no longer the most efficient way to inform consumers about the products, plus the customer’s interactions with the catalogs are much harder to measure and mine for data than user engagement with online ads and ecommerce sites.

But still, an online fashion retailer like Neiman Marcus publishes 100 different catalogs a year, with a combined circulation of over 37 million. That’s not nothing. Of course, the figures were much harder some decennia ago, but the recent decline in catalog circulation was a result of “more efficient and effective mailing practices” and not a shift in strategy, John Koryl, president of stores and online at Neiman Marcus tells BOF.

Catalogs scratch the itch that certain customers want
He admits he could easily buy a thousand display ads for what a catalog costs, but both marketing tools serve a different purpose. “We are trying to win the battle for luxury fashion mindshare, which leads to market share. We’re trying to make sure we’re spending on a per customer basis in the most efficient way possible. Catalogs scratch the itch that certain customers want,” he says. That’s also why they won’t go running television commercials. Neiman Marcus only appeals to a small set of the total international audience for luxury fashion. “We have to work in a very targeted way. Thankfully, catalogs can still be very targeted.”

But Neiman Marcus may the exception that proves the rule. Because other retailers aren’t that confident about the power of catalogs and see their circulations drop dramatically. British online fashion retailer Shop Direct for example, produced 30 million catalogs in 2002, but now send out less than a million. But the paper catalogs still account for about 10% of the retailer’s business, generating 240 million euros in sales last year.


‘Enough people still want them’
The origin of Shop Direct lies in the mail order business, but of course it has adapted to the electronic world and nowadays it’s known as a popular online retailer. But it has continued to make catalogs, because enough people continue to want them, says Dan Rubel, group strategy director of the UK fashion retailer. Catalogs are a ‘very small part’ of Shop Direct’s wider marketing and CRM campaign.

Koryl thinks the combination of catalogs and ecommerce can be much more powerful than either channel alone. In other words, every ecommerce player can still make use of these old-fashioned paper catalogs. “If you look at the conversion metrics of somebody who does or does not receive a catalogue, as you can imagine, the more educated customer, familiar with our lens of what luxury fashion is, has a higher conversion rate – even if they migrate online.”

Combining the power of catalog and digital
Boden is one of these retailers who’s combining the catalog and digital activities and let them work together. “Having a single customer view is key— and we have developed a sophisticated, holistic customer database. We are therefore able to match all of our purchase data with behavioural browse data and understand the channel and device habits within”, says Matthew Hiscock, director of global marketing.

He thinks a catalog is a great way of showing the customer curated product imagery, something that’s hard to replicate online or in email form. “We are also able to give our ranges an editorial viewpoint, which is becoming increasingly important. The challenge we face is finding the right mix of relevant printed material to excite and engage the customer whilst complementing the digital experience.”


All in all, it seems the catalog of course has lost some of its charm and influential power, but it’s still a handy tool that’s loved by a significant and certain group of customers. The lion’s share of a catalog’s function might be replaced by more digital initiatives, but this doesn’t have to mean the catalog itself is something from the past.

The return of the catalog
The American department store J.C. Penney stopped mailing its ‘Big Book’ catalog in 2009 and phased out its distribution of 70 smaller catalogs a year later, but recently it decided to bring back its 120-page book. Even digital retailers such as menswear retailer Bonobos and beauty subscription service Birchbox have started mailing catalogs.

Also check out “Is the catalog dead?“, written by consulting firm Kurt Salmon.