Consumer Shopping Survey: Part II

In the first installment of our three-part series covering CATALOG AGE’s Consumer Shopping Survey (see the August issue), we looked at the demographics of catalog shoppers and how much they typically spend. This month, we’re going to look at what they generally spend that money on. Just as important, we’ll see how satisfied — or dissatisfied — they’ve been with catalog shopping in general.

What they buy

In the Consumer Shopping Survey conducted by CATALOG AGE two years ago, women’s apparel was far and away the most popular type of merchandise bought from catalogs. Guess what? It still is. But the percentage of catalog shoppers who bought women’s clothing has dropped nearly 17%. In our previous survey, 64.4% of the catalog shoppers had bought women’s apparel by mail during the past year. This time, only 53.6% of the catalog shoppers had done so.

In fact, fewer catalog shoppers made purchases in nearly every major product category in 2000 than in 1998. The exception was gifts: 45.8% of the catalog shoppers last year bought gifts by mail, up ever so slightly from 44.7% of the catalog shoppers in ’98.

But the percentage of catalog shoppers buying men’s apparel tumbled from 45.5% in 1998 to 34.5% in 2000. The percentage of those buying home decor from catalogs plummeted from 36.0% to 25.5%; children’s products, from 36.0% to 17.3%; music and movies, 28.5% to 19.5%.

Yet despite the decline of shoppers in most of the merchandise categories, overall shopping by catalog rose. Of the 1,004 consumers surveyed, 49.6% made at least one catalog purchase last year. That’s up 7.1% from the 46.3% of respondents to the original Consumer Shopping Survey. Apparently while more people are shopping by mail, they are limiting themselves to fewer merchandise categories.

Breaking out the type of purchases by gender, men were still the predominant purchasers of computer-related equipment: 23.7% of the male shoppers had made a computer purchase, compared with 10.9% of the female shoppers. Women made far more home decor and gift purchases, though. Of the female shoppers surveyed, 28.1% had made a home decor purchase, compared with 16.7% of the men, and 49.2% had bought gift items, vs. 34.2% of the men.

Purchases of men’s clothing were much more common among those in the higher income brackets. While only 19.6% of the catalog shoppers with household income of less than $25,0000 bought men’s apparel from a catalog, 31.6% of those in the $25,000-$40,000 bracket did, as did a full half of those with household income of at least $85,000.

Purchases of children’s merchandise followed the same trend: 12.5% of those in the lowest income bracket bought children’s products by catalog, compared with 31% of those in the highest income bracket.

But those with income of less than $25,000 were the most likely to buy music and movies from catalogs: 25.0%, compared with 13.8% of those with income of more than $85,000.

What they’re buying — online

Looking at the types of merchandise bought by online shoppers, again we see a decline in most of the product categories. While 46.2% of the online shoppers surveyed two years ago had bought computer equipment or accessories online during the previous year, only 28.7% of those surveyed this time had done so. Likewise, while 35.5% of the online shoppers surveyed bought books via the Web in 2000, 45.2% had in 1998.

The decline in computer products and perhaps even books likely results from the greater acceptance and penetration of online shopping. Among the participants in the earlier Consumer Shopping Survey, only 10% had made an online purchase during the previous year. This time around, 26.4% had — an increase of 164.0%.

What’s more, even two years ago, buying via the Web was largely the provenance of tech-savvy, younger men. The change in Web demographics is reflected in the merchandise category that saw the most marked surge in online buyers: women’s apparel. In our earlier survey, only 15.4% of the online buyers had purchased women’s clothing online. This time around, 21.9% had.

Although only 7.9% of the Web shoppers had bought children’s merchandise online, a sizable 20.5% of Web shoppers ages 26-35 — in other words, those most likely to have young children at home — had. And in fact, 14.5% of online shoppers with children at home did buy children’s merchandise online, compared with 4.9% of those without children at home.

If you’re still not sure that older consumers are shopping online, consider this: The online shoppers surveyed who were over the age of 50 were the most likely to buy books via the Web. More than one-third — 39.3% — had purchased books online, compared with 35.8% of those ages 36-50 and 28.6% of those ages 18-35. And while 26.9% of the online shoppers ages 18-35 had bought computer gear online, so had 27.1% of those over the age of 50, and 31.6% of those ages 36-50.

The shopping experience

Catalog service has gotten better during the past two years — and it’s gotten worse. That’s all you can conclude from comparing the most recent survey responses to those of two years earlier.

Of the catalog shoppers surveyed in 2000, 32.7% rated their catalog experience as “more satisfying” than shopping in a store. That’s a 10% improvement from 1998, when 29.7% of catalog shoppers said the same.

But 10.6% of the shoppers in the recent survey described their catalog experience as “less satisfying” than shopping in a store. That’s nearly 25% more than in 1998.

Those over the age of 50 were happiest with their catalog experiences: 39.2% rated them as “more satisfying.” Those picky baby-boomers, ages 36-50, were most likely to be dissatisfied: 11.9% preferred shopping in a store.

And an appreciable 39.3% of those with annual household income of less than $25,000 found catalog shopping more satisfying than store shopping, compared with 30.4% of those with income of $25,000-$40,000, 29.9% of those with income of $40,000-$85,000, and 31.0% of those with income of more than $85,000.

Then again, 12.5% of those in the lowest income bracket found catalog shopping less satisfying than retail shopping, as did 12.1% of those in the highest bracket.

Of those dissatisfied catalog shoppers, what was their beef? More than one-third (35.8%) said that the merchandise was not what they’d expected, making that the top complaint. Nearly as many (30.2%) said that delivery charges were too high. “Delivery took too long” was cited by 22.6%, and 7.5% said that customer service wasn’t helpful. Nearly one-third had other complaints, including items being out of stock and the inability to touch or see the products first-hand.


In December 2000, on behalf of Catalog Age magazine, Market Research Institute completed 1,004 telephone interviews with consumers throughout the United States. A complied list of households in all 50 states was sorted on an nth-name basis. The proportion of names selected from each state was based on the proportion of the national population represented by that state. Of the 1,004 people surveyed, 49.6% had made at least one catalog purchase last year, and 26.4% had made at least one online purchase.

‘Would you say you receive…’

Men Women Those who made 1-6 catalog purchases last year Those who made at least 7 catalog purchases last year
Too many catalogs 48.2% 48.7% 44.6% 58.1%
Not enough catalogs 6.1% 6.8% 7.4% 4.7%
The right amount of catalogs 45.6% 44.5% 48.0% 37.2%

Most frequently purchased catalog products

by household income

Income less than $25,000
Women’s apparel 53.6%
Gifts 44.6%
Music/movies 25.0%
Income $25,000-$40,000
Women’s apparel 53.2%
Gifts 45.6%
Books 32.9%
Income $41,000-$85,000
Women’s apparel 51.0%
Gifts 49.7%
Men’s apparel 32.5%
Income more than $85,000
Women’s apparel 60.3%
Gifts 56.9%
Men’s apparel 50.0%

Mean number of catalogs received each week

Men 3.25
Women 4.17
Income less than $25,000 2.25
Income $25,000-$40,000 3.39
Income $41,000-$85,000 3.94
Income more than $85,000 4.97
Those who made 1-6 catalog purchases 2.87
Those who made at least 7 catalog purchases 6.53

‘Are the catalogs you receive targeted to the products you are likely to buy?’

Men Women Those who made 1-6 catalog purchases Those who made at least 7 catalog purchases
Most of the time 48.2% 58.3% 54.6% 59.5%
Sometimes 43.9% 37.2% 39.7% 36.5%
Never 7.9% 4.4% 5.7% 4.1%

How catalog shopping compares to retail shopping

Men Women 18-35 36-50 Older than 50
More satisfying than retail 38.6% 31.0% 21.9% 26.9% 39.2%
About the same as retail 55.3% 57.0% 69.8% 61.2% 50.2%
Less satisfying than retail 6.1% 12.0% 8.2% 11.9% 10.6%

Products purchased most frequently online

by age

18-35 years old
Gifts 36.5%
Books 28.6%
Computer-related equipment 26.9%
36-50 years old
Gifts 37.9%
Books 35.8%
Computer-related equipment 31.6%
At least 51 years old
Books 39.3%
Computer-related equipment 27.1%
Gifts 19.6%
Women’s apparel 19.6%

Next month: In the final installment in our Consumer Shopping Survey series, we’ll examine why consumers shop by catalog and the Internet — and just as important, why they don’t.

Did you miss the first part of our Consumer Shopping Survey?

You can find it — along with other articles from past issues — on the Catalog Age Website at

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