After a year spent learning, conducting business and purchasing goods online, shoppers are having a throwback holiday season. They’re putting down their phones, tablets and laptops, and picking up that stalwart of the bygone, pre-Amazon era: the catalog.
Many say the online shopping experience is too hectic, or isn’t conducive to leisurely browsing or discovering new gift ideas. Some catalog fans say the experience also reminds them of childhood holiday seasons, absorbed in the pages of department store toy catalogs.
Some catalog fans say the experience also reminds them of childhood holiday seasons.
“I feel like I’m always on my phone or the computer, so it’s kind of soothing sitting down with a cup of coffee and a tactile catalog and just flipping through it,” said Kristi Krass, a mother of three boys who lives near Grand Rapids, Michigan, who said she has been getting an average of two catalogs a day in her mail this holiday season.
“There’s an old-school simplicity, [and] there probably is a bit of nostalgia from being younger” and paging through holiday Christmas catalogs, Krass said. “Maybe I’m subconsciously connecting with that.”
The conventional wisdom is that e-commerce killed off the catalog, but retail and merchandising experts say the reality is more complicated. Catalogs are filling a retail therapy niche for a pandemic-weary shopping population.
Hamilton Davison, president of the American Catalog Mailers Association, cited research finding that millennials in particularly have an affinity for flipping pages — a preference he likened to the rediscovery of LPs and other so-called retro trends.
Millennials enjoy flipping pages — a preference likened to the rediscovery of LPs and other ‘retro trends.
“One of the big surprises is that millennials find great value in catalogs,” he said. “The internet feels too much like work,” he said.
“Catalogs traditionally have been a form of entertainment first before they’ve been about shopping,” said Dave Marcotte, senior vice president of cross industry cross border and technology at Kantar Consulting.
The death of catalogs has been overstated, although they have evolved in the age of Amazon and fill a different kind of shopping niche, experts say. For its part, Amazon has brought the catalog experience full circle. It started mailing out a toy catalog beginning in 2018 — the year after Sears folded its Christmas Wish Book for the final time. Sears stopped publishing the annual icon after the 2011 edition. It brought back a print and digital version for one year in 2017, but the retailer’s financial struggles eclipsed the tradition.
Fort Worth resident Belinda Norris said she preferred catalog shopping for her three nephews and recalled the Wish Book fondly. “ I looked forward to it every year. I get kind frustrated looking for stuff online. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you don’t know what’s there. You can’t just flip through and look at things,” she said. “I think what was great about the old catalogs is you could flip through and there were things you didn’t know you wanted.” Norris added that she used Amazon’s holiday toy catalog to pick out some Lego kits for her nephews.
In many cases, today’s catalogs have slimmed down — printing is expensive, as is mailing, especially after recent postal rate increase. But thanks to the cross-pollination between online, social media and the direct mail milieu, brands can send more precisely targeted media to people’s mailboxes. People who regularly buy presents for young kids, for instance, might receive a catalog chock-full of Lego kits and animatronic pets, while people who have embraced the work-from-home lifestyle might get pages of cozy sweatpants and desk accessories.
Products are also getting the glossy-magazine treatment, with rows of tiny pictures now replaced by artfully photographed tableaus and narrative copywriting.
Irene Bunnell, marketing manager at Uncommon Goods, a web- and catalog-based gift shop, said the company revamped the format of its usual holiday catalog this year to look more like a gift guide in a lifestyle magazine — a common trend among retailers publishing holiday catalogs. Photo-gift brand Shutterfly also gave its holiday catalog more of an “editorial” look and feel, and bumped up distribution by 6 percent over last year, according to a company spokesperson.
Market research firm Keypoint Intelligence tracked digital print volumes — the production method for most smaller-run catalogs — and found that after sustaining a sharp plunge last year, production rebounded close to its pre-pandemic level. German Sacristan, director of print on demand services, said demand is projected to soar past pre-pandemic production by next year and continue rising at a compound annual rate of 8 percent through 2025.
“A lot of marketers found the mailbox to be very helpful, especially when people were home,” Sacristan said. “We’ve seen a shift towards that,” he said, as shoppers experienced digital fatigue.
“It does help to stimulate ideas… to see it in a physical form,” said Joe Feldman, senior managing director and assistant director of research at Telsey Advisory Group. “For holiday, it’s a gift-giving time and people are always looking for ideas.”
The size of catalogs gives them an edge over handheld screens, experts said. “The large visual profile of a catalog cover can invite people in… They mimic the retail shopping experience, or retail therapy, in your…
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