J.C. PENNEY’S ANNOUNCEMENT IN NOVEMBER that it would no longer publish the semiannual big book catalog hardly came as a shocker to most industry watchers. But it’s still a little sad.

The demise of J.C. Penney’s massive title ends “a form of retail that transformed the country back in the late 1800s to early 1900s,” says Neil Stern, a retail analyst and senior partner for retail consultancy McMillan Doolittle. Big Books such as Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck & Co. provided access to goods for consumers in remote parts of the U.S., Stern notes. Ward closed its big book catalog in 1985, and Sears discontinued its 106-year-old catalog in 1993.

J.C. Penney spokesperson Tim Lyons says the big books have increasingly become a tool to browse merchandise before shopping online or in J.C. Penney stores. The general merchant plans to focus on specialty catalogs, and investing in its Website and digital services and social media.

Penney’s largest big book was more than 1,400 pages, while the last edition — the Fall/Winter book, which mailed in June — is 824 pages. By eliminating the big book, the retailer expects to reduce catalog paper use by 25% to 30% in 2010.

Stern believes that J.C. Penney holding onto the big book for as long as it did helped smooth the merchant’s transition into e-commerce. “The big book effectively helped them build that bridge” connecting catalogs to the Web.

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