The Real Driver of Catalog Circulation

Stephen Lett is a catalog consultant and marketing expert.

by Stephen Lett

The future of omnichannel marketing includes catalogs. Therefore, we’re beginning to see an increase in catalog circulation. Here are a few noteworthy quotes from a recent article by Michael Dart and Greg Ellis from Kurt Salmon Consulting.

  • “Lands’ End presented a pop-up survey to customers placing orders on its website asking if they had first looked at the catalog. Seventy-five percent of them said ‘yes.'”
  • “The power of the printed page — 86 percent of consumers have bought an item after first seeing it in a catalog.”
  • “Catalogs are effective not only at getting people to spend money compared to online-only customers, but those who use catalogs return more often.”

This spring, Lett Direct, Inc., conducted its annual circulation survey that included 100 catalog companies. The results of the survey can be found in the chart below:

Survey results chart

Note that 32 percent of the catalog companies surveyed plan to increase circulation this year. This is on top of a 44 percent increase in circulation last year. Approximately 55 percent plan to keep circulation about the same. The number of companies planning to reduce circulation decreased from 17 percent in 2013 to 13 percent this year.

Print catalog circulation is starting to increase for a number of reasons. First, mailing a catalog drives business to the internet. We know that up to 80 percent of all orders placed online were the result of mailing a catalog. Second, the lifetime value (LTV) of a catalog buyer is higher than other channels. For example, if a consumer goes to a search engine for a particular item, they might buy it at the right price, but it doesn’t mean they’ll buy again. However, if the order originates via a catalog, the consumer is more inclined to make repeat purchases.

The consumer is more of a “shopper” when they order from a catalog vs. an “item buyer” when they purchase online without the aid of a catalog. However, the cost to acquire a new buyer online can be less than acquiring a buyer from a print catalog. That’s why LTV becomes so important. It’s not about the initial order, but rather the number of orders the customer will generate over time. Catalog businesses cannot survive on one-time purchasers.

Prospecting with a print catalog is an effective and targeted way to reach potential buyers. Outside prospect lists and/or modeled names from one or more of the cooperative databases allow catalogers the benefit of mailing to prospects most likely to purchase. While the internet is pretty sophisticated, prospecting with a print catalog is more of a rifle shot that zeroes in on the targeted audience of proven mail order catalog buyers.

Remember, a buyer is someone who purchases once and a customer is someone who purchases more than once. Both the internet and catalogs bring in buyers, but the catalog is generally more effective at producing customers. Catalog circulation in terms of quantity mailed and number of drops is critical to building your business.


Stephen R. Lett is the President of Lett Direct, Inc., a catalog consulting firm specializing in circulation planning, forecasting, and analysis since 1995. Mr. Lett spent the first 25 years of his career with leading catalog companies; both business-to-business and consumer. He is the author of the book, Strategic Catalog Marketing. He can be reached at 302-539-7257 or by email at steve@lettdirect.com.

About the Author: Jim Gibbs

Vice President of Sales & Marketing at The Dingley Press. Jim has been with Dingley since 2002 and lives in Maine near our Lisbon, Maine plant location.