Let’s Talk About Print Catalogues

10 March 2022

Catalogues have always been an essential part of the shopping experience. Ever since digital made its appearance, people say that print magazines (and print in general) are going to die. But this rumour has been going around for a while, and yet printing services are still very much front-runners. In reality, print is not dead and will never be, and some people still prefer printed catalogues.

The story of the catalogue began way back in Venice in 1498 – so they’ve been around for a very long time. Aldus Pius Manutius – an Italian scholar – published the first-ever catalogue. He founded his company “The Aldine Press” at Venice in 1495 and wanted to accurately print the first editions of many Greek and Latin classics. Despite this, things didn’t begin to pick up until 1667, when a simple English gardener, William Lucas, decided to publish a catalogue with seed prices for his clients. He created a real trend that became popular, even in colonial America.

Fast-forward to now, they’re still very much around. With the rise of digital, trends are ever-changing, but statistics say that in recent years, catalogues have increased by 170%. As physical products, catalogues can linger in consumers’ houses long after emails are deleted, which increases top-of-mind awareness among consumers.

To test the effectiveness of catalogues, Harvard Business Review partnered with a U.S. based luxury watches and jewellery e-commerce retailer with a global clientele and without physical store presence. The company generates annual revenue of $60 million and an operating profit of $12 million, with a database of approximately 28,000 customers.

Acting on the advice from Harvard Business Review, the company launched a new bi-monthly catalogue campaign featuring professional and artistically rendered product photography with high-quality printing. The company conducted the field experiment using a random 30% of its customers. Of those customers, 5% of them received neither email nor catalogues for six months, 55% of them received a weekly marketing email, and 40% of them received the new bi-monthly catalogues in addition to the weekly email marketing. To control for the effects of content, over 90% of the products were the same between emails and catalogues. The same set of photos and descriptions were also used in both media. We then tracked purchases and product inquiries across all three groups.

Results showed that the “Email + catalogue” group experienced a 15% lift in sales and a 27% lift in inquiries, compared to “Email-only” group. Compared to the control group, “Email + catalogue” group experienced 49% lift in sales and 125% lift in inquiries. In comparison, the “Email-only” group only had 28% increase in sales and 77% lift in inquiries over the control group. The sales and inquiry lifts from catalogues almost doubled those from email marketing. Furthermore, of those customers that received the catalogues and also made product inquiries, surveys by the company’s staff found that over 90% of the customers have browsed through the catalogues and kept them for an average of seven days. The open rate was much higher than that of the email campaign which was around 26%. During the six-month experimental period, customers in the email only group purchased an average of 0.3 additional products.

A quick ROI calculation indicates that a 15% increase in sales on an average order size of $6,700 due to the catalogue campaign, at approximately 30% gross margin, translates to an additional $90 profit (or $180 additional annual profit) per customer. The average cost of the mailing with front-end design cost factored in is $5, yielding a direct ROI of 600%, not to mention the additional customer engagement from increased inquiries. If this campaign is instituted across the entire customer base similar response rates would result in an incremental annual profit of over $5 million, a boost of 40% from its current profit level.

So, what is it about Catalogues that make them so successful?

We simply remember catalogues more, because we get them less. Can you recall the last Ads you saw on your Instagram feed? However, if an art exhibition was to be advertised outside of a museum, you’re pretty much guaranteed your target market. Alternatively, you can simply mail your catalogue to your current customer base. The truth is, we retain very little information we see online, whereas a great first impression can be made face-to-face or with something you can physically hold. Whenever you ask people what is their favourite thing about physically printed items, 90% of them will think about the paper feeling – the sensorial experience. Also known as the one thing that digital print can not replicate. When we take a look at retail trends and consumer psychology, we see how catalogues stand apart from the increasingly cluttered digital inboxes and social media feeds. Consumers are enticed by experiences, and unique experiences are getting harder and harder to recreate on social media.

Printed catalogues, just like other pieces of physical marketing content, play an important role in marketing strategies. Offline marketing can filter into your online marketing if done effectively. Retailers have discovered that catalogues can be used for high quality content marketing. High-touch print pieces filled with stories and images have proven to be excellent ways to convey a brand ethos and express a brand personality. 

As more products become similar and as the Internet continues to provide increased access to more products, print catalogues and their content will grow as means to differentiate brands and sustain existing customer relationships.  Great brands integrate catalogues with email marketing, social media, and other tactics into a distinctive, memorable, and valuable brand experience for their customers. 

What do you think about catalogues – Will they ever be replaced by the Digital world?



Harvard Business Review


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