Catalogs as Portal: Why You Should Keep On Mailing

Amid the rush of new media and marketing channels, some multichannel merchants consider catalogs an increasingly less important part of the marketing mix. But while catalog purchasing may decline as online becomes more popular (and as shopping as a leisure activity continues to grow), merchants, particularly those who target women, should begin to view catalogs as the “portal” to their stores and their merchandise.

The marketing firm for which I’m the managing director, Frank About Women, recently conducted a study entitled “Shopping Methods & Mindsets.” Among its findings is that the vast majority of women who receive catalogs are actively engaged with them.

Eighty-nine percent of the participants revealed that they do more than just browse through the catalogs they receive in the mail. They circle or “tab” the items that they want, fold over the corners of pages, and tear pages out. A hearty majority–69%–saves their catalogs to look through again. Women, in fact, would welcome more than “pretty pictures” in their catalogs. Sixty-one percent endorsed the statement “I wish catalogs were more like my favorite magazines, by offering information, tips, ideas, etc.”

Many women, in fact, view catalogs as much as a source of entertainment and inspiration as they do an actual buying tool. Women claim to love perusing catalogs almost like reading a woman’s magazine, looking for ideas for everything from decorating, to fashion, to that extra special gift.

More than one-third of women surveyed greet their catalogs with enthusiasm, stating they are the first things they look at when they get their mail. Seventy-five percent of women find catalog browsing really enjoyable, fun, and relaxing, with 74% agreeing that they get excited when a new catalog arrives.

Women also appreciated the variety of items (25%) and sizes (11%) offered. A catalog’s overall look and design made it a favorite for 19% of those surveyed, with beautiful/interesting/cool photography and imagery cited by 18%. Twenty percent lauded the quality of items in the catalogs deemed favorites, but only 8% and 6% respectively named return policy or lowest prices as a factor in identifying favorites.

Another reason women said that they enjoyed browsing through catalogs was that it gave them the opportunity to find just the right thing when they were not quite sure exactly what they are looking for. Once they had identified the perfect item, however, women reported that they were increasingly likely to do the actual purchasing online or at a brick-and-mortar store. Purchasing online is seen to offer advantages in the areas of “time saving” and “budget management,” whereas the in-store experience is equated with having more control over the whole purchasing process.

Catalogs that received the highest ratings among women included Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and J. Crew. All were seen as doing the best job of presenting the merchandise in an inspiring and attractive way, while providing them with new ideas for home and fashion.

Catalogs seem to take on an even more important role in the lives of busy women around the holiday season. Whereas during the rest of the year, women say that they are more likely to do the actual purchasing online or at an actual store, during the holiday season catalogs are seen as the perfect solution to getting all the gift shopping out of the way with a minimum of hassle.

Specifically, women say that they will use catalogs for some of their holiday shopping because it saves them from having to face the crowds at the malls (43%, or because they are so busy doing other things that they just don’t have time to go shopping (28%). It also lets them send things directly to distant friends and relatives without having to managing the wrapping and posting part of the process. Even when catalog browsers are not converted into immediate catalog shoppers, all is not lost. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed who do not end up buying from the catalog completed the purchase from either the company’s Website (31%) or its retail store (25%). Only 20% mentioned identifying merchandise they liked, then seeking a less expensive alternative from a store. Eleven percent were purely inspiration seekers, who browsed for ideas but rarely completed a purchase.

Nonetheless, women still prefer the multidimensional sights and sounds of brick-and-mortar shopping malls for their “retail therapy.” When they have plenty of time to browse, or just want to escape and relax, more many women nothing is quite as good as going to the stores and experiencing the merchandise first hand. In fact, when given the option as to which form of shopping they find most relaxing if they have the time, 64% said that a trip to the mall is definitely the preferred option. Leisurely browsing, gift shopping, and shopping on a budget are still best done in stores, according to the majority of women surveyed.

Obstacles to completing the purchase from a catalog included:

• I cannot be sure if the item will fit me properly 28%
• Paying for shipping and handling costs 21%
• Having to mail items back to return them 18%
• Not enough sale/clearance items, discounts, coupons 8%
• I cannot touch what I am buying 8%
• I cannot be sure if the items will look the same once I get them 8%
• I do not get the instant gratification I get from shopping in a store 4%
• I cannot be sure if the items are high quality 3%

Retailers would be well served to find ways to make their catalogs as exciting and involving as possible, not just as a way to show all the items available, but as an idea provider and a source of instant inspiration. After all, where women are concerned, shopping isn’t just about finding the right item, it is about the whole experience. An important part of that experience is the first step, which is often browsing through a good catalog over a cup of tea or coffee.

Janie Curtis is managing director of Frank About Women (, a Winston-Salem, NC-based marketing agency specializing in helping companies target female consumers that is part of the Interpublic Group of Cos.

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