When I think about shopping in the 16th and 17th century, my Hollywood tainted imagination starts stirring up images of trading posts owned by old men with white hair, general stores that smell like horses, and markets on the streets.
*Mail Order traditionally, was the process of selecting an item through a catalog, sending the company your order along with cash for the product plus shipping through post. You would receive your product by post in the following weeks.
The first catalog was published in Venice in 1498, even before the Gregorian Calendar was issued.
The instigation of this surge was due to the technological advances in the printing press and the growth of booksellers (why yes, there is a causal relationship there).
The first mass produced mail-order catalogs were created for the retail sale of books. I use the term “mass produced” lightly. At this point in history, printing was still pretty expensive and manual. The price of books and the price of creating and printing catalogs was high.
Truth is, in 1845 Tiffany and Co. released a catalog called the “Blue Book” making it the first mail order catalog in North America. Second up was the “Eaton’s Catalog” that was printed and mailed in Canada in 1875.
The rise in consumerism after both World Wars had a positive impact on the use and distribution of catalogs. After the First World War, the dynamics of retail in North America began to change. The end of the First World War marked a rise in consumerism. Industries established during the war encouraged rapid technological innovation in electrical and household appliances, as men went to serve, women were moved in to the work place and needed products that made “home life” easier (i.e. packaged foods, notably Kraft Dinner sales sky rocketed in this period), and advertising progressed.
People also began to have more leisure time. Increased lesuire time was a strategic move on part of Henry Ford who wanted his workers to go spend money and buy things after work. For Mr. Ford, leisure time gave the average worker an opportunity to “find uses for consumer products, including automobiles.”
Post World War Two marked an even larger rise in consumerism. The industry spurned by the Second World War pulled North America out of the Great Depression, and increased average wages and disposable income for young people. They were ready to spend money.
There were three factors at work to help spread the use and distribution of catalogs.  Increased leisure time that allowed workers the time to buy;  the growth of industry created more high-paying jobs; and  concurrently, an increase in wage and disposable income. This gavemore people greater spending power.
Essentially, the societal changes catalyzed by the First World War and the increase of spending power catalyzed by the Second World War created greater demand for goods. This demand created a related increase in the demand, use, and popularity of mail-order catalogs.
This did not mean that the power of mail-order catalogs diminished. No sir, the 1980’s was a sort of catalog golden era. Companies such as Sears, JCrew,Lands End, Talbots, and L L Bean were all banking in cash with the success of their retail catalog business.
In 1988 sales by catalog or mail were estimated at $164 billion.
In the 1990’s the retail landscape began to change. The catalog businesses slowly transitioned away from a catalog heavy business model. Sears published its last general catalog in 1993. However, they published seasonal catalogs and continue to do so today.
You might think this change in landscape was due to a decrease in mail-order sales. Not true. Sales couldn’t be higher. From 1990 to 1996 mail-order sales grew at a rapid rate — 9.9% per year. To put it in context this was about 2 time the average growth of in-store sales.
These companies have also questioned traditional catalog design and added fantastic new flare to their pages. They move away from the properly organized catalog to smaller more inspirational catalogs with magazine-style product photos and personalized content that is unique to each user.
“Small, mid-size and premium brands alike are discovering that a high-impact direct-mail piece—from full-size catalogs to postcards—has become an effective means of ushering customers to their sites and has become an excellent path to this offline target audience.” (Source)
It’s no surprise that popular retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s frequently send past customers catalogs to supplement greater in-store sales.
Catalogs also usher in higher paying customers, Craig Elbert, Vice President Marketing for Bonobos says customers who come to the website after first viewing the catalog spend 1.5 times more than a new shopper coming in with no catalog.
In my research I was flooded with private stories about companies who had pulled their catalog after the 2007 Great Recession to save money, only to notice a dramatic fall in sales — independent of the decrease in general consumption at the time. A jewellery company stopped printing and including their catalog in their shipped packages — they noticed a significant drop in sales. Or this individual who has created an extremely successful business exclusively around mail-orders, essentially leveraging a channel that everyone had abandoned because it was “uncool”.
Analysis done by the Direct Marketing Association on 2012 data: direct mail (i.e. catalogs and flyers) have a 1.1 to 1.4% response rate. Considerably higher when compared to these response rates: email (0.03%), banner ads (0.04%), and paid search (0.22%). This difference is significant. In 2013 theDirect Mail Association found that 65% of consumers of all ages have a made a purchase as a result of direct mail.
With catalogs you need to spend $47.61 U.S. to land an order. You have to $53.85 for email and $99.47 for paid search!
Direct mail is free from the noise and uncomfortable competition for attention, especially when compared to the bombardment of email and digital ads users currently experience online.