Editor'a Take: A Reason to Recall Catalog Showrooms
As a career business journalist, my first job out of college was back in the early '80s as an assistant editor with Catalog Showroom Business. This business magazine went belly-up by the late '80s. So, too, did much of the catalog showroom industry over the next decade or so. Oddly enough, all these years later, I see some common bonds between that business and the tri-channel retailing business of today, which I'll get to in a moment.
First, for those of you who might not remember it, the relatively small catalog showroom industry, once led by the likes of Service Merchandise, Best Products and Consumers Distributing, consisted of fairly common-looking, single-level department stores usually located in strip centers or malls. For the most part, these chains — some national, though most were regional — carried jewelry, gifts, consumer electronics and sporting goods, though no clothing.
Just inside these stores, you came upon a stand or table housing a stack of small clipboards with order forms attached to them. Usually you'd also see a laminated, Sears Wishbook-like big-book catalog. You were to help yourself to a clipboard and walk around the store with it. There, you'd usually find just one of most of the products the retailer sold — in a showroom style display. If you wanted something, you wrote down the SKU number on the order form. Once you were done with your shopping, you went to an order desk, usually found in the back of the store. There, they'd take your clipboard, go into the back stockroom and bring out your merchandise.
These companies typically mailed seasonal catalogs to consumers who lived within a given radius of their store showrooms. By and large, customers were well trained to do their homework — they'd look over their catalogs at home and decide what they wanted, then drive to the store. They were supposed to rip out the order forms from the catalogs and bring them along, ready to give the forms to the order desk clerks. Or they could just pick up a clipboard, browse the showroom, then choose. To the best of my recollection, you couldn't just mail in the order form and get your order shipped direct, but I may be wrong about that.
I started covering what we then called the mail order catalog business in 1986, only three years removed from that first job, and was quickly reminded that the two industries had almost nothing in common beyond their differing uses of catalogs.
Flash-forward to the present, and I feel like I'm witnessing the modern equivalent of the bygone catalog showroom business. Brick-and-mortar retailers have adapted many practices that are similar to those catalog and internet retailers have used for years. You won't find clipboards in stores, but retailers are targeting customers with catalogs and store fliers better than they have in the past.
Retailers' websites, once in sync with typical teaser fliers, are now more advanced and make it easier for consumers to shop at home. Most of all, more retailers may soon show less in their stores, relying on consumers to shop direct using in-home catalogs or in-store computer kiosks. Sears, for instance, has had computer terminals set up in its Lands' End sections for several years now.
At the same time, while catalog and online marketers without stores have found more sophisticated ways to track and market to customers and prospects, rising postage has led them to mail fewer catalogs and more coupons and postcards — not unlike retailers.
So it seems like retailers are taking a page from catalogers and online merchants and, to an extent, vice versa, all in the interests of getting consumers to open their wallets once again and shop in any manner they wish.
Back in the day, catalog showroom retailers seemed to take pages out of everybody's books. Although that form of retailing will never come back, it consisted of a number of elements from today's current or re-emerging practices, all of which brought that page of history back to mind.