Amazon's Holiday Catalog Is Its Latest Multichannel Move

Ecommerce hasn't killed the print guide yet

Amazon appears to be covering all bases. The retailer known for transforming online shopping is now taking a page from the traditional playbook: catalogs.

The once online-only merchant is planning to launch a holiday toy catalog this year, according to Bloomberg. Catalogs will be mailed to US households and be available at Whole Foods Market stores.

What may seem like an off-brand move isn't that unusual. In fact, catalogs never really died despite the rise of ecommerce. Online furniture and home goods merchant Wayfair debuted a print catalog in 2016. Urban Outfitters, Williams-Sonoma and their associated brands still mail them. However, Williams-Sonoma's chief financial officer Julie Whalen said in a Q1 2018 earnings call that the retailer was now spending more than 50% of its ad budget on digital and is "continuing to optimize [its] catalog spend."

They make sense for some lifestyle brands, though. Print catalogs can convey luxury, as evidenced by Restoration Hardware's famously glossy tomes that clock in at more than 2,000 pages. 

Catalogs are also a way to cut through the digital noise. According to an annual survey by the United States Postal Service (USPS), 46% of US consumers said they read catalogs in 2017, more than double the amount who threw them away (21%). Some 11% set them aside to read later. While shoppers can browse endless product pages online, it can be nice to thumb through a selection of items that are often more contextualized.

Catalogs also appeal to a sense of nostalgia. Last year Sears revived its “Wish Book” for the holiday season, the first time since 2011. And Amazon is stepping in to fill the role that used to belong to Toys "R" Us, which produced its "Big Book" catalog every year.

Based on consumer shopping surveys, though, catalogs function more like branding tools than sales vehicles. In National Retail Federation (NRF) surveys throughout 2018, catalogs ranked last among US consumers when buying gifts for holidays like Father's Day, St. Patrick's Day and Easter.

In a Periscope survey of US internet users last October about Black Friday shopping behavior, only 4.1% said they were primarily going to buy through catalogs. However, 12.5% were going to research Black Friday deals via catalogs (and newspaper ads), which was higher than using in-store methods, TV or tablets.

The popularity of catalogs during the holidays was also apparent in a September 2017 IFTTT survey about channel preferences for holiday deals. US internet users ranked email highest (37.9%), but catalogs and direct mail (23.0%) beat out social media (12.4%), in-store ads (11.6%), text messages (7.8%) and app notifications (7.4%). 

According to Multichannel Merchant, 84.2% of retailers said they would be using catalogs as a marketing tool in 2018. Branding was cited as the No. 1 goal, rating 8.86 on a scale of one to 10. Next on the list was driving digital traffic and helping customer retention (tied with a score of 8.14).