Why catalogs thrive in a paperless age

Print media may be suffering a decline, but there's one genre within the industry that's still thriving: catalogs.

As the Wall Street Journal reports today, catalogs -- 17 billion of which were mailed last year -- will likely be around forever, because people appreciate being able to hold and look closely at photos of products they may buy.

Here's the funny thing, though: the Direct Marketing Association has found that currently, only 1.3% of the catalogs that end up in Americans' mailboxes generate a sale. (I can't say I'm surprised -- trying to think of the last time someone I knew shopped via catalog takes me all the way back to fourth grade, when my mom would call in three Squall jacket orders to Lands' End for my brothers and me.)

If a single store or an e-commerce website displayed such dismal sales potential, you can bet any company would shut it down in a hurry. So why do retailers persist in putting pamphlets out?

Because as the catalog has lost its luster as a sales vehicle, it has gained some ground as a marketing tool -- one that has several advantages over Internet shopping.

First of all, catalogs are experiences, as mentioned above -- but beyond giving people a tactile browsing tool, they also give companies control over how each item is seen. Witness: this gray top from Anthropologie seems a lot more tempting in this catalog cover photo than it is on that colorless mannequin, right?

Then there's the edited nature of the book -- it's the clearheaded answer to the cluttered Internet-shopping space. You're not sitting down and pricing pairs of slim-cut, dark-rinse jeans against each other on the web arms of several different stores. You're consuming carefully selected clothing that doesn't have to compete with that of retailers positioned just a click away.

Catalogs also eliminate the company's need to compete with your actual shopping priorities, something they have to do on their own websites, which group goods by type -- tops, dresses, shoes. Rather than taking a no-nonsense route to whatever your closet is missing, you encounter outfits assembled head to toe for maximum dreaminess -- and maximum sales appeal. That's something website categories guard against.

Oh, and speaking of categories, guess what most websites have and most catalogs don't? A little section labeled 'Sale.'

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