Are retail catalogs making a comeback?

Abstract 
In the fight between saving the forests and saving our economy, who’s winning? With desktop computers, tablets and phones you could shop virtually everywhere without the need for a paper catalog. And yet, companies are bringing them back.

Are retail catalogs making a comeback?  In the fight between saving the forests and saving our economy, who’s winning?

I remember thinking back in December that I couldn’t wait until the New Year.  When my mailbox might contain something other than 17 catalogs each and every day.  Some, admittedly, from retailers I purchased from (online), but many from companies I hadn’t even heard of.   CatClaws (all I could think of was wall mountings of various … yep … cats’ claws.  Right next to the moose head.) and the obligatory Betty’s Attic and Vermont Country Store.  Needless to say, these catalogs went from the mailbox directly to the recycle bin, and then every Wednesday night we would drag out the two-wheeler because even the Incredible Hulk couldn’t have lifted the 70+ catalogs that went to the curb.

It was my belief that with the rise in paper costs, printing and postage, catalogs would become a thing of the past soon.  After all, wasn’t it more environmentally friendly?  With desktop computers, laptops, netbooks, tablets you could shop virtually everywhere without the need for a paper catalog.  And if any retailer didn’t already have a mobile optimized site, they were quick to lose business to those that did.

But then JCPenney announced it was bringing back its classic catalog.  They were actually a latecomer to the mail order game, sending out their first catalog in 1963, and then phasing it out in 2009.

So why the comeback?  Well, it appears that the tangible nature of print catalogs actually increase online sales, according to pmdigital.  Rather than just going to the website and ordering planned items, browsing through the catalog increases impulse orders as well. And not only that, but “print catalogs … also contribute to brand affinity.”  

So this is good, right?  Sales are up, companies are healthy, the economy grows, and jobs are created.  Okay.  But what about those 16 out of 17 catalogs you get that you don’t want, won’t use and will never purchase anything from?  What about those trees?  Those carbon emissions?  Well, it turns out you can do something about that.  

At catalogchoice.org you can tell them which catalogs you no longer want to receive, and they’ll take care of it.  It’s a bit cumbersome in that you need the key code or your account number to complete the request.  So rip off the back page of the catalog and toss the rest in the recycle bin.  The website even tells you how much it (and you if you cancel any catalogs) has helped the economy thus far.  (As of 5:42pm on 2/10/15, it has saved 941,773 trees, 392,270,142 pounds of greenhouse gas, 139,054,305… well you get the idea).

Perhaps the upscale retailer Restoration Hardware has found a good compromise.  When visiting their website, you have the choice of viewing their “source books,” in virtual catalog format with the option to add things to your shopping cart.  You can peruse them all, turning pages back and forth.  Or you can request a hard copy to be mailed to you.  

The beauty of this approach is the virtual catalog offers options a hard print copy does not.  Like cropping a photo of an item and emailing to someone, ordering straight from the catalog page, or downloading a copy of an item to save on your hardrive and plug into your room schematic.  Oh yeah, and I don’t have to haul it out to the curb on Wednesday night.  Sounds like the best of both worlds to me.

What do you think from a business standpoint?  What about from the consumer standpoint?  Let us know on Twitter @sycamoreandco