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Catalogs in the New Digital age

Some History

Not long after the printing press was invented, the first catalogs were printed, and have been in circulation ever since. Seed companies started utilizing catalogs in the 17th Century, and they continue to this date. Even Ben Franklin, though better known for lightning rods and bifocals, is credited with the invention of the mail order concept. He created a catalog of nearly 600 book titles, and made it possible for people to purchase without visiting his store front.


“Those Persons that live remote, by sending their Orders and Money to said B. Franklin, may depend on the same Justice as if present.”


And let’s not forget, before Amazon became the one-stop-shop for practically everything, there was the Sears Catalog. The well-known Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalog was first printed in 1893. Selling everything from houses to everyday household sundries, it continued to be a staple until it was discontinued in 1993.


It may seem that the decline of this catalog giant, combined with the advent of the digital age, would mean catalogs would become a thing of the past. This fact begs the question, is there still really a place for catalogs today?


Personally Speaking

“When I really think about it, some of my interest in graphic design stems from catalogs. As a child, I fondly remember spending hours pouring over the Sears Wishbook, and marking every page that had items I hoped Santa would deliver under the tree.”

“Fast forward decades of experience in the catalog industry, the one thing I know for sure, catalogs are not going anywhere anytime soon. However, not unlike every other business, it must adapt to stay relevant. The truth is: the internet cannot replace the catalog—and as marketers, we really don’t want this to happen. A catalog can remain an important tactic within the marketing mix. When used in combination with its digital counterpart, it is a win-win. Some retailers have found catalog outreach can increase site traffic, proving that catalogs are still an effective tool to drive sales.”


How Catalogs Remain Relevant


Brand Focused

Catalogs are a great physical touch-point to support brand identity, helping to tell your story and further build recognition and loyalty. Gone are the days of cramming 50 products on cluttered pages. Catalogs are used as brand ambassadors that sell stories. Catalogs allow customers to imagine themselves using your products, making them want to buy.

As with other forms of marketing, the best way to leverage a print catalog is not to think if it as a singular tactic performing in isolation, but to consider its advantage as an important part of your overarching marketing strategy and plans.

Less Noise

There is a return to snail mail as the digital landscape has become overcrowded. The web has become so chaotic that it has lost some of its value. Plus, our current COVID-19 reality has transferred more professional and social activities online. The psychological fatigue of digital may drive your audience to turn the screens off and pick up printed material.

Independent research company Toluna found that 66 percent of people say “it’s important to switch off and enjoy printed books and magazines.” Meanwhile, 54 percent believe they currently spend too much time on electronic devices and are concerned that such overuse could be damaging to their health.

Catalogs allow for your audiences undivided attention, unlike online where customers are bombarded with unwanted pulls from competition. According to CNBC, the Data & Marketing Association found that response rates for  catalogs have increased in recent years, likely due to the relative lack of other mail being sent. This is particularly true of millennial's who haven’t experienced the same volume of mail as previous generations, and are more emotionally impacted when they do receive direct marketing materials.


Targeted Approach

Prior to the e-commerce age, retailers relied on less sophisticated ways of tracking the behavior of customers and prospects. Now, with enhanced data-gathering capabilities, you can customize your printed content for your audience. Send one catalog to prospects, and a different, larger one to loyal customers. And the response is significant: According to U.S. Postal Service, 44% of households read catalogs, and only 21% discard them without reading them. Can you say the same for your email open rate?


A large part of online sales can be attributed to catalog customers. Even when people unplug, they browse and make purchasing decisions. A well-designed and well-written printed piece using consistent SEO terms and a clear call-to action can be a valuable part of your marketing mix. 



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