Why the Analog Catalog Still Drives Digital Sales

Photograph by Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo

Holidays bring out the traditionalist in all of us, and old-fashioned page views—the glossy paper kind—will be big for retailers this season. In spite of Web stores, shopping tools, and apps, paper catalogs are still surprisingly effective at selling stuff.

More than half of online shoppers said they browse catalogs and almost one-third of people making an Internet purchase have a catalog on hand when they click “Buy,” according to a new survey by Kurt Salmon, a global retail consultancy. A whopping 86 percent of the survey’s respondents bought an item after first seeing it in a catalog.

When it comes to browsing, or looking for inspiration, catalogs outdo the Web, especially for people who like particular stores or brands, says Michael Dart, head of Kurt Salmon’s private equity practice. The Internet can actually be too efficient. Someone in the market for a coffee table, for instance, can immediately find a wide range of options—without flipping past pages of rugs, vases, or bookshelves. It encourages shoppers to buy what they want, without inspiring them to buy what they didn’t know they wanted. Without catalogs, scores of backyards would be lacking a lifelike Garden Yeti Statue ($125).

Catalogs are also effective across a range of ages. Shoppers between the ages of 18 and 24 are just as likely to use one as those between 45 and 54. Artemis Berry, vice president at, the digital group of the National Retail Foundation, says catalogs are staying relevant in part because retailers are getting better at distributing them. Deep data have ensured that Victoria’s Secret isn’t canvassing the homes of single men, for example. Catalogs have also gotten more interesting: Williams-Sonoma includes recipes; so does Crate and Barrel.

Anyone who remembers Sears or Spiegel knows that catalogs are not what they once were. Last year, about 12 billion catalogs went out in the U.S.—roughly 100 per household, but down drastically from recent levels. In the past decade, the share of people who intended to shop for holiday gifts via glossy paper slid from 21 percent to 13 percent, according to the National Retail Foundation. Of course, one no longer needs a mailbox to harvest a pile of product porn; there are apps for that.

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