The evolution of the Catalogue

Posted on July 30, 2015 by Canada Post in Marketing solutions

The traditional catalogue, that iconic paper brick from Sears and Eaton’s, has quietly evolved over the last two decades into a sleek marketing tool that embraces Smartmail Marketing™, bringing together the power of physical experience, audience data and cross-media connectivity. The catalogue’s renewed popularity springs from its ability to draw in readers and keep people’s attention over long periods of time, inspiring both online and in-store purchases.

The catalogue then

Maybe you remember what it was like to live before constant online connection was a given?

Social contact meant face-to-face time or talking on the phone. Information was found at the library. Almost all your shopping research and purchases took place in store, with a big ticket item requiring visits to different stores to compare prices and features. The big catalogue was a valued part of the purchase journey in that slower world. Children thumbed through the Christmas Wish catalogue, hopefully circling their dream toys, well in advance of the holidays. Most catalogues in the pre-digital world were basically large binders full of information, functioning primarily as a purchase mechanism.


Eaton’s Catalogue 1972

You’ve come a long way, baby: Women go to work

As the number of Canadian working women doubled in the final 25 years of the century, they created a large marketing segment that demanded convenience, value and style. Companies like Victoria’s Secret, Williams and Sonoma and J. Crew saw the trend and responded with a new type of catalogue. It had fewer pages. It came out several times a year. It was designed to appeal to the lifestyle that customers aspired to. The new approach worked and catalogue-generated sales grew rapidly – U.S. figures show a growth from $35.7 billion in 1987 to $75 billion 1996, according to research by the WEFA Group.


J.Crew catalogue 1998

Design became increasingly important. While the majority of the catalogue pages were still essentially lists of items, larger visual spreads began to appear, copying the pages of fashion and home design magazines. Catalogue marketing continued to expand. And then the digital revolution happened.

It’s the end of the (marketing) world as we know it

As the millennium progressed, consumers began to spend more time online and so did marketing efforts. We became more comfortable making online purchases. Print catalogues seemed old-fashioned in the face of the shift to digital. The economic crash of 2008 drove even traditional print catalogue retailers to cut back and focus on less expensive marketing channels. The end of the catalogue was predicted. And then the smart phone happened.

The power of the printed page in a digital world (ALT: A funny thing happened on the way to the e-commerce forum)

The rapid spread of the smartphone has doubled the amount of time Canadians spend online (comScore, 2014). We’re now expert at scanning for what we want and ignoring anything else on the screen – and it’s much harder to keep our attention. Which helps to explain why the catalogue is enjoying a resurgence in the marketing mix of some of retail’s cutting-edge companies.

Studies show that, in the wired world, consumers pay more attention to physical marketing. Catalogues in particular have a long shelf life in consumers’ homes, often on display and flipped through for a month or more. Which is a big deal when the average consumer has an eight second attention span – shorter than the average goldfish. Retailers have responded with catalogues that are more like magazines. “Years ago it (the catalogue) was a selling tool, and now it’s become an inspirational source. We know our customers love the tactile experience,” says Felix Carbullido, the chief marketing officer for Williams-Sonoma brands, in an interview with the New York Times.


Williams-Sonoma catalogue 2013

Top e-commerce retailers like Williams-Sonoma, Nordstroms and Bonobos have the numbers to prove that catalogues are a cost-effective way to create sales in both their physical and online stores. Williams-Sonoma sees 55% of its online purchases begin in its paper catalogues. Fashion retailer Nordstrom rejigged its catalogue and increased net revenue by 23%, according to its annual report. The trendy online men’s clothing retailer Bonobos decided test the waters with a catalogue in 2013. A year later, 20% of the website’s first-time orders are generated by the catalogue – and these new customers spend 1.5 times more than new customers who come in by other marketing channels, stated Bonobos vice president of marketing, Craig Elbert.


Bonobos catalogue 2014

Bonobos sends out fashionable mini-catalogues with beautifully shot editorial pages, showing its models in scenarios that its fashionable male customers would enjoy being in. Elbert explains that the catalogue gives Bonobos the opportunity to tell a “fuller story.” Children’s clothing online retailer Tea Collection sends eight catalogues a year, helping to generate $50 million in sales, because “We see the catalogue as more relevant as a true storytelling and brand piece and not just a sales channel,” according to the company’s head of strategy and marketing, Sarah Knup. Like many online retailers, she believes that “our catalog functions as a flagship store” for the brand.

Today’s beautifully curated and designed catalogues live and linger in consumers’ homes and memories. In a busy world, it’s easy to pick one up for a few minutes and flip back and forth, to pass it to someone else and reinforce the desire factor of the purchase. This approach produces great results – a recent report by Kurt Salmon showed that 58% of online shoppers first browse catalogues. The same report also shows that catalogues heavily inspire purchases in brick-and-mortar locations. Susy Korb, the chief marketing officer of cult retailer Anthropologie, explains their heavy reliance on catalogues, “Of course we’re trying to sell clothes and accessories, but it’s more to inspire and engage.”

Ironically, much of the catalogue’s new marketing power comes from the digital world. Access to inexpensive data solutions (both sorting and storage) gives even the smallest business the ability to track customers’ preferences and buying patterns. At the same time, advances in digital printing have cut the price of small, variable-data print runs, allowing businesses to affordably create catalogues that target increasingly detailed customer personas.


Nordstrom catalogue 2015

Today’s print catalogues are really an extension of an overarching marketing strategy. They no longer act as an actual sales mechanism. Instead, they are long-term direct marketing pieces that amplify the brand’s reach and prompt sales both online and in store.


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