Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It’s Catalog Season and e-Commerce Has Slowed It Down Not At All.

They come from everywhere, addressed to Barbara Nytes-Baron, as well as B Nytes Barton, Ms Barbara Baron and virtually every other combination you can make with nine different letters. We used to laugh about it – now it’s hardly worth a glance. Yet 20,000 American catalog companies form an industry whose economic value is north of $270 billion (the last estimate’s from 2006) and includes both catalog and online sales.

That’s right, catalogs…the multi-page books-of-dreams that fill mailboxes at home and at work every year, all year…and especially in time for the holidays. Ink-on-paper catalogs that in theory should not exist in today’s remarkable e-economy.

Yet over and over again, starting with Montgomery Ward in 1872 and then Sears, Roebuck in 1888, they are marketing mechanisms and sales tools that have been adjusted and perfected for more than 100 years in America. (I grew up waiting for and spending hours poring through the toy and then the tool sections of the Sears Christmas Catalog. Every year.)

Perhaps in your crowded day as a creator of marketing programs for natural gas or machine tools, or commercials for the trendiest beer, you don’t give them a much of a thought. But if you are a direct marketer or a catalog marketer, I bet you’ve seen mail-order catalogs as the  wellsprings of business-to-consumer sales and even dramatically useful adjuncts for B2B marketing for decades.

Catalog marketers’ profitability generally averages five percent of sales – like much of retail, it’s a high-volume but low-margin business. And its heavy petting relationship with the US Postal Service is widely known: catalogs contribute nearly 10% of USPS volume

Catalogs can inform, can open up entire vistas of highly focused products like specialized modeling tools and machines or gun parts; they even entertain 3,000 feet in the air – I wrote about the SkyMall Shopping catalog here several weeks ago.

Even before the Worldwide Web and e-commerce, catalogs offered remarkable advantages: 24/7/365 availability, great portability, high frequency of sharing, warehouse-direct-to-end-user, reduction of gasoline usage. And now, thanks to the Internet, almost instant gratification. Catalog advantages fit Internet marketers (and vice versa) to a T: today, most catalogers have substantial web presence and gain 20% to 50% of their orders from the Internet. After all, mail-delivered catalogs drive web traffic. Isn’t that what web marketers of all stripes tell us to aim for?

This post was stimulated by today’s arrival of a Victoria Trading Company Holiday Catalog, which is at the same time terribly frustrating and endlessly fascinating.

I’m no great fan of the Victorian era which, despite its marvels, only charms if you were well-off. Queen Victoria ruled England and the Dominions from May 24, 1819 to January 22, 1901. Life for many people in many of those years was, to use a phrase out of context, “nasty, brutish and short.” It’s the period which contained the Crimean War, the Great Cholera Outbreak of 1854, the American Civil War…you get the idea.

At the same time, it’s also the period in which the West recognized both the force of empire-building and the Industrial Revolution. Great designers delivered wonders of design and painting and plastic arts – mostly (but not always) a little frou-frou for me. And do NOT get me started on Jane Austen who overlapped the beginning of the Victorian Era and who appears to have been poisoned. With arsenic. Good.

The huge sweep of Victorian history gives the Victorian Trading Company plenty of romping room and I do confess some partiality to Steam Punk. Their catalogs offer up everything from paper products to Arts & Crafts leaded glass lamp reproductions to peppermint pigs.

Prefer to shop the MoMa Store catalog (for something completely different)? The Museum of Modern Art, NYC, has its holiday catalog coming out soon. And there’s always Cabela’s. You can enjoy many choices – and lots of marketing and advertising savvy – with 20,000 catalog companies and more mailing full-time.

Merry holiday shopping season ahead – don’t forget to do your part. And note that this post’s facts and figures come from the Catalog Industry Fact Sheet courtesy of the American Catalog Mailers Association, for which I am indebted. The ACMA website offers mucho useful thinking if you feel like looking into one more fascinating facet of American marketing practice.


ObeyThePurebreed said...

amazing that in 2011 they still send out this many catalogs! I must have gotten 50+ so far this holiday season...

Richard Laurence Baron said...

Thanks for the note, Kevin. It reminds me I haven't received your seasonal catalog yet! Best wishes for Thanksgiving.