Why The Digital Economy Still Needs 12 Billion Print Catalogs

Danielle Beurteaux

You know the holiday season has officially begun when toy store behemoth Toys ‘R Us releases its massive print catalog—this year’s counts in at 96 pages (the online version, by comparison, is only 48 pages). Titled “The Great Big Toys ‘R Us Book of Awesome,” this latest edition has some big changes. For the first time, it includes interactive components such as a game powered by a smartphone app; there are also 3D viewing capabilities.

Because: kids these days. More than 50 percent of kids’ entertainment is accessed digitally. Why do we still have print catalogs at all? The demise of dead tree matter has long been predicted, but the opposite has happened: Catalogs are proliferating. Far from killing them off, the digital economy is prolonging their existence.

Paper catalog plus digital access is what’s working now. And Toys ‘R Us is an example of how retailers are using hybrid catalogs to improve customer relationships. Every catalog this holiday season needs to be multi-channel.

Admit it — you love catalogs

That’s what the numbers are saying, anyway. Call it a catalog renaissance. After hitting a high in 2007 and then taking a dive, catalogs rebounded to about 60 percent of that peak in 2013, when 11.9 billion catalogs were mailed to consumers.

Retailers that are deploying catalogs are, like Toys ‘R Us, rethinking their entire purpose. Stores like Anthropologie and Patagonia are using theirs to deliver a concept more than a list of products, with photo spreads and narratives that emphasize lifestyle. In fact, they’re easily mistaken for magazines. Even some online retailers, including beauty subscription service Birchbox and shoe purveyor Zappos, now have print catalogs.

Digital economy & print: a match made in heaven

One reason print catalogs work so well is that they can actually drive shoppers to e-commerce. Attracted by lush visuals and imaginative product styling, and because catalogs as objects are hard to ignore, buyers research offline. How many times have you flipped through one, even if you weren’t particularly interested in the products, just ‘cause? Shoppers then move online, where they’ll make a purchase. Catalog shoppers also spend more than purely online shoppers. The return on investment is there.

And retailers are trying to make catalogs interesting and fun. Nordstrom debuted an app earlier this year that marries digital and print. Using a tablet or smartphone, the app scans an item from the company’s print catalog and the product page appears on the device, ready to be added to a shopping cart.

Thanks in part to new technology and the huge consumer information databases retailers can access, catalogs are also highly targetable, and creating different versions (aka “versioning) for different customer segments is easier than ever. That means a retailer might, for example, send a truncated version that’s tailored to a customer’s previous purchases.

Expect more catalogs in your mailbox as more retailers adopt sophisticated marketing and technology capabilities that make perusing print and purchasing online easier. And you might welcome them with open arms and your tablet ready to scan.

Want more on how to maximize your customers’ experience in the Digital Economy? See Influencing The Modern Shopping Journey.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.