Welcome Back, JCPenney Catalog

back-in-time-jcpenney-catalogWelcome back, JCPenney catalog. A part of all our direct-to-customer retail lives is coming back, according to a report in Wall Street Journal.

According to WSJ, the 120-page book will feature items from JCPenney’s home department and will be sent to select customers in March. It will be the first JCPenney has mailed a catalog since 2010 (not counting the its look book experiments).

So… long live the catalog. Rumors of the catalog’s demise was greatly exaggerated. Catalogs may have shrunk in size, and the role of the catalog may have changed in an omnichannel world. In anything, JCPenneys’ announcement is a message that catalogs are about to make a comeback (Catalog purists, please feel free to say catalogs never went away, hence there is no comeback!).

The big question: What would JCPenney be today if it never discontinued its catalog operation? If Doc Brown drove his Delorean time machine 88 mph and the flux capacitor allowed him to go back to a 2009 Plano, TX, would he be able to tell JCPenney CEO Myron (Mike) Ullman how catalogs are going to change… and urge him not to retire?

Nice pants! A page from the 1990 JCPenney catalog. Courtesy of Wishbook on Flickr.

Clearly, in 2009, JCPenney decided to dump its big book for all the wrong reasons. Company spokesman Tim Lyons told Multichannel Merchant in 2009 that the catalogs had increasingly become a tool to browse merchandise before shopping online or in JCPenney stores.

Which, precisely, is why omnichannel retailers are now adding catalogs to their arsenal of marketing tools.

But at the time, JCPenney figured it didn’t need to spend money mailing catalogs when it could spend a fraction of that cost on email marketing to drive customers to the web and stores.

In 2010, JCPenney got out of the mail order business altogether. It decided on the lookbooks for the same reasons as stated above: Why print catalogs when you can create something smaller – and less-expensive – to drive online and store traffic.

And in 2011, before the Ron Johnson era began at JCPenney, the merchant closed its catalog outlet centers, as well as its in-store catalog centers (Keep in mind, JCPenney was doing buy online, pick-up in store before it was cool!).

JCPenney will never be the same company it was when I visited Plano on a scorching summer day in 2006 (why did I agree to go to Texas in July?). Nor should it be. Merchants need to constantly change with the times, as they did in 2006 when they broke down their silos, and with their customers’ needs.

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