Summer (or Autumn?) Reading
When I first started covering this business back in 1986, I didn’t know what a catalog was — seriously. At least, not the kind we talk about from cover to cover in this magazine.
My parents never received any catalogs in the mail in the Long Island suburb where I grew up, only store fliers. At least, I never saw any catalogs. And although later in life we’ve all become big catalog shoppers, we were strictly a retail-shopping family back in those days.
So I spent the better part of my first year as associate editor at my former catalog biz publication reading up on just how this complex business worked at the time. Over the years, I immersed myself in the catalog-cum-multichannel business, and hardly a day passed when I didn’t spit out the words “catalog” and “catalogers” at least three dozen times.
Fast-forward to the present, and I feel like I’ve come full circle. Part of me wonders what this business is all about these days. For one, we’ve had serious corporate consolidation during this first decade of the 2000s. Nowadays, heavily financed firms, such as Golden Gate Capital and Redcats Group, profitably operate strings of catalog/multichannel companies.
What’s more, a growing number of companies are de-emphasizing catalogs in favor of retail (J. Crew, J. Jill, Banana Republic) or the Internet (Bloomingdale’s, Dell, Tiger Direct) or both.
Yes, little of this is brand-new, but what we at Catalog Success routinely refer to as the “catalog/multichannel” business is clearly transitioning. Heavy emphasis on the print catalog is waning.
Extinct Business Model?
That’s not to say the print catalog as we know it is going extinct. Check out Joe Keenan’s feature on pg. 27 and you’ll see for yourself. But it’s the prospecting and ordering model that’s changing. The catalog used to be a one-stop shop. Consumers received it in the mail, browsed through it, pulled out the order form, filled it out and mailed it in. It remained a one-stop shop when toll-free numbers supplanted order forms some 20 years ago.
But as computers and the Internet have become mainstream, more consumers have embraced online shopping. And the Web lumps traditional catalogers with retailers, dot-coms and even vendors. Consumers still like receiving catalogs, but they use them more as reference tools today.
Factor in virtually unaffordable postage and paper, mounting pressure from environmental groups, and list fatigue, and you have to ask: Is the catalog business as we once knew it in its autumn?
Perhaps not. In a poll question we ran in June on our Web site, “Do you still consider the catalog trade a unique business form in and of itself?” a majority of you said yes. Which tells me that I still do understand what this business is … at least for now.