Catalogs Are Better Than Social Media? Wait, Didn't We <i>Dump</i> Catalogs For Social?

If printed catalogs are dead, someone should tell E-Commerce customers. On Tuesday (Jan. 8), personalization vendor Baynote released the results of a holiday survey of online consumers that found paper catalogs still have a bigger influence on buying than social media sites Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. And that's not just among geezers who grew up with the Sears Wish Book—online customers age 18 to 24 also rated catalogs higher than anything except Facebook, where it's essentially neck-and-neck.

Part of that may be a novelty factor—glossy printed material isn't so much a part of young consumers' lives today. But that only explains why catalogs might have some influence, not as-big-as-Facebook influence. Given that many chains completely dumped their catalog efforts in favor of social efforts in recent years, this is a genuinely annoying result.

The survey was of 1,000 online shoppers polled between November 26 (the Monday after Black Friday) and December 5, evenly split between female and male shoppers. All the respondents owned smartphones and had already spent $250 on holiday purchases, so they were reasonably serious E-Commerce and M-Commerce shoppers.

Among other things, Baynote's survey asked how often smartphone- and tablet-equipped shoppers made purchases online, and how often those customers browsed Web sites to compare prices, check product ratings and make purchase decisions in advance of buying. None of those results was especially surprising.

But the catalog results certainly were. Sixty percent of those 18-to-24-year-old customers said they were influenced by catalogs at least "once in a while," compared with 52 percent for Facebook, 45 percent for Pinterest and 34 percent for Twitter. Facebook pulled ahead of catalogs with this group among those who said they were influenced "always," "frequently" or "sometimes."

For all other age groups, catalogs blew social media out of the water.

This is not the way it's supposed to be. Catalogs are supposed to be dead, right?

"I think as an individual business unit, they are dead," said Baynote Marketing VP Dan Darnell. "But I'm not buying from the catalog, per se. A few customers in the older demographic are still dialing the number to order, but most are going to the Web site or the store."

In other words, it's a cross-channel play: shop in-catalog, buy online or in-store. It just happens to be a channel that big chains have largely abandoned.

This isn't the first time we've seen an anomalous result from killing catalogs. After JCPenney stopped issuing catalogs two years ago, the chain discovered it took a noticeable hit to E-Commerce sales. Apparently, catalogs were driving a lot more customers online than expected.

But the catalog effect is clearly a lot bigger and more widespread than most retailers have assumed.But the effect Baynote spotted is clearly a lot bigger and more widespread than most retailers have assumed. As Darnell pointed out, catalogs have advantages beyond the fact that they're large and glossy and provide a different experience than shopping on a screen. A catalog arrives in the mail (no spam filter), and even just to throw it out a customer still has to handle it, which means looking at a colorful cover. If that customer turns the first page, the catalog has done its job.

As for teenagers sitting and paging through catalogs—yeah, we've seen that, too. The transition from paper to screen hasn't been nearly as clean as everyone thought. Or maybe it has just doubled back on itself.

Unfortunately, how exactly retailers can make use of this insight about catalogs is unclear. If catalogs (especially apparel catalogs) are such good influencers because of their beautiful design, does dropping in clunky-looking QR codes make any sense? If it's the high-touch look and feel of process printing that makes the difference, is there any point in smartphone or tablet apps that act as "enhanced" viewports: hold the device over the page and see a less colorful, slightly grainier but possibly interactive image? That's edging away from what makes paper different.

Turns out that turning pages is still a powerful marketing mechanism. And trying to over-link it to loyalty or E-Commerce could be as counterproductive as dismissing paper entirely, especially because customers already are doing a good job demonstrating how counterproductive typical retail-chain catalog strategies have been.

The core problem is still that customers will do what they do. Retailers want them to shop in-store or online; customers shop both places, with paper catalogs, social media, ads and other media also in the mix. Then they buy where they please—which can include behaviors like filling a shopping cart while shopping with a smartphone, then not completing the transaction but instead using it as a shopping list for buying in-store or in front of a PC screen, where they perceive the security to be better for sending along payment-card information.

(Never mind whether it's actually more secure. If some customers perceive it that way, that's what matters.)

Some vendors are trying to take the catalog and modernize it for a mobile world, but it looks like the dead-tree versions have a wee bit more life left in them than we thought.

That leads us to one of the questions we wish the Baynote study had asked but didn't: How often do customers switch channels between shopping and buying? That type of behavior really muddles channel metrics, because it doesn't fit into the channel models that retailers expect. But it's the ultimate, inevitable destination of merged-channel.