Time and time again I contact catalogers only to learn that they have phased out their catalogs.  They all say the same thing: “Print is dying and it’s time to shift resources.”  This leaves me speechless.   I think L.L. Bean would have something to say about that; and, Brookstone, Pottery Barn, Land’s End, Victoria’s Secret, Eddie Bauer, and, well, I could list them for a week straight.  But wait, something is not right here.  I thought print was dying.  Hm…  Studies show that catalogs are the best way to drive online traffic, convert one time shoppers in to lifetime value customers, maximize sales growth, and increase Return on Investment (ROI).   If all that is true then what’s the problem?  Why do retailers have trouble getting a ROI from their catalogs?  Often we will see a company close their doors not long after they discontinue their catalog.  Why?  Because, contrary to what they say, it really wasn’t the catalog that pulled them under.   So before you decide to close the book on your catalog due to budget restraints or a lack of ROI consider that it might just be time to go the extra mile and ask yourself the tough questions.  Like, what can you do to get the ROI from your catalog that you should be getting.

My grandmother has no interest in reading a catalog from Musicians Choice and I have no interest in reading a catalog from Hearing Help Express.   That does not mean that Musician’s Choice or Hearing Help Express should discontinue their catalogs does it?   If you are not seeing a ROI from your catalog—before you decide to bank on the web and discontinue your strongest method of marketing—consider the possibility that it is time for you to revise your circulation plan.  Let’s face it, not even the most beautifully executed catalog in retail history will do much good if placed in the wrong hands.

In his speech at the NEMOA conference last month Andy James from New Pig spoke about terminology and how we think about our customers.  Sometimes the way that we ‘target’ our audience is impersonal.  Below is a picture from his presentation that demonstrates our failings.  If you unleash a catalog drop like the one below, you may or may not find some new customers, but either way you are sure to find some wrong ones; we call these non-buyers.

  Triggered Activities

So, the question is what should you do if your mail file is not targeted enough; if your catalog is not getting to the right shoppers?   The most practical thing to do would be to test your mail file by measuring your ROI.  In this situation sometimes it is worth spending a little extra to contact a specialist.  However, for those who are not in a situation to invest in a consultant, here are some ideas that will help you become more aware of who is in your customer base and if they should be there:

1.)    Incert personalized tracking codes to individual catalogs and document to which household they are sent to

2.)    Use different phone lines and URLs on your catalogs to see who is ordering from where

3.)    Use promotions and promotion codes to track investment

4.)    Hold off on a mail drop and then measure the difference between sales.  If your sales are the same, it might be time to reconsider your mail list.

5.)    Segment your house file and run traceable promotions and see which segment is stronger.

6.)    Cross reference your social media files with your housefiles and longtime purchasers


If you are thinking about discontinuing your catalog due to a budget decrease, then consider switching to a slimjim size to mail at the letter rate.  This saves you on paper and postage!  And, most importantly, it will buy you the time you need to narrow down your customer base.  Once your ROI increases, then perhaps you can add a full size catalog into the mix.  Slimjims are also great to use as tests to revamp your circulation list. Say, a catalog before a catalog to make sure that your master holiday catalog is going to the right place.

If your sales are low and you absolutely HAVE to cut back your budget, don’t cut out your catalog.  There is too much research in favor of catalogs.  Try instead to be strategic with your approach.  Multichannel marketing sure does come in handy in situations like these.  If you go through your file and take out customers who have made multiple purchases before and who have an e-mail on file, you could focus on some e-mail marketing with them based on their previous purchases.  This is a great opportunity to interact intimately with your valued customers while cutting back on your circulation. If sales go up then consider doing a small mailing (say a slimjim as stated above) to these customers and compare your ROI to that of the e-mail campaign.

There are many ways to get around budget restraints without killing your catalog completely.  Another suggestion, which is also useful in personalizing your circulation list, is to create a digital edition of your catalog, which people must sign up for and of which is distributed monthly.  Add these customers to your mailing list and begin to focus on your direct mail campaigning.   Keep in mind that studies do not show the same significant ROI from digital editions as from catalogs.  Your goal should ultimately be on restructuring your direct mail campaign to work consecutively with your other marketing mediums.

According to an article written by Erin Dostal published in Direct Marketing news, “marketers who still fully embrace…print catalogs and direct mail have an opportunity to stand out to consumers bombarded by digital pitches.”  Whatever you decide to do ask yourself one question:  How important is brand loyalty to you?  Are you willing to give up the face of your company simply because hype has pushed your focus towards digital marketing?  With a little refocusing and preplanning, you should be able to overcome budget constraints and narrow your circulation list.  Why turn our backs on fact. Catalogs equal s brand loyalty, equals long term customers, equals larger sales over a longer span of time.  If you give your catalog the attention it deserves instead of just ‘giving up,’ I guarantee you will see great changes within your organization.