Catalogues drive online sales

As more and more shoppers went online, JC Penney’s decided to stop printing their main catalogue assuming people would migrate to the web. But the calculation didn’t pan out as expected: A lot of what they thought were online sales were actually catalog shoppers using the website to place their orders. Now, it seems like an increasing number of online retailers and other internet firms are finding value in print again.

Thick as a phonebook, the JC Penney catalogue was sent out to almost every U.S. household since its first edition in 1963. But in 2010 as more and more shoppers went online, JC Penney’s decided to stop printing the main catalogue, also known as the big book, assuming people would migrate to the web and order directly from JC Penney’s online shop.

The calculation didn’t pan out as expected. JC Penney eventually learned that a lot of what they thought were online sales were actually catalog shoppers using the website to place their orders. In a dramatic move, the department-store chain now decided to start printing its catalogue again; the catalogues are expected to hit JC Penney’s customers’ mailboxes in March 2015.

JC Penney’s decision marks a new way of thinking about connecting with the customers online and offline. And it may turn out that reports about the demise of catalogues have been premature. The Wall Street Journal writes in a recent article: “Catalog mailings are down considerably from 2007, when they peaked at 19.6 billion, according to the Direct Marketing Association. But in a sign the decline might have bottomed out, mailings grew in 2013 for the first time in six years to 11.9 billion.”

It seems like an increasing number of online retailers and other internet firms are finding value in print. One example is Bonobos, a men’s retailer that started as an online business. The company mailed its first catalogue in 2013, after it realized that the catalogue helped telling a fuller narrative about the brand and the products. A narrative that was hard to convey online. The ability to tell stories that go beyond the company’s core service was also behind Airbnb’s decision to publish the travel magazine Pineapple that aims at conveying experiences and creating a community, according to Pineapple’s website.

Other pure-play online retailers such as Rent the Runway, JackThreads and Birchbox have also started to send out catalogues. As flash-sale site One King’s Lane’s vice president Ethan Trask explained in an interview with Adweek: “Putting money behind print doesn’t necessarily seem like the first thing you’d think of doing. But we all love products here, we love magazines and books, so I think that bringing our brand into that physical space is really important.” Plus, he said, “It helps people become more active with our brand.”

Customer engagement and brand loyalty are popular terms but what finally counts is whether the engagement turns into actual sales. A study by the Australian market research firm Roy Morgan looked into that question and found that heavy consumers of print are richer, better educated, and more likely to spend money than big consumers of radio or TV, according to an article in ProPrint. While catalogue readers are not in the top percentile of this group, they are still better educated and more likely to try new products.

Barry Hibbert, the CEO of Polestar, one of the UK’s leading print companies, believes catalogue printing represents the single biggest opportunity for printers in 2015. In an interview with Print Week he answers the question about the biggest opportunity for 2015 with the following statement: “Supporting and persuading publishers and catalogue producers that print is here to stay and they should be investing in print as an important medium for consumer communication. Returns are far higher on a sales-to-spend ratio than digital can ever hope to achieve.”