Digital-first brands are turning to print catalogs to boost holiday sales

Print isn’t dead after all. This holiday shopping season, direct-to-consumer fashion brands are sending out ink-on-paper direct-mail catalogs to get shoppers’ attention while distinguishing themselves from Amazon.

In most cases, this isn’t a new idea. The brands have done print mailers or incorporating them into their marketing for seasons, so it’s become a proven tactic.

Walmart-owned Bonobos, for one, sends catalogs to customers on a regular basis; it produced seven this year and 10 in 2016. Bonobos co-president and former CMO Micky Onvural said new customers obtained through the catalog spend 15 percent more than those who don’t. What’s more, one in four customers who visit a Bonobos Guideshop references the catalog or brings it in for advice on featured styles.

For the holidays, the retailer will increase the catalog’s circulation to promote new and seasonal products.

“It’s about marrying brand, product and business simultaneously,” said Onvural. “You can capture someone’s undivided attention with a catalog and bring the Bonobos brand to life in a way you can’t digitally.”

A spread in Cuyana’s Holiday 2017 catalog

A print catalog is expensive, but can pay off, said Forerunner Ventures founder Kirsten Green, at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in September. “It’s an ROI consideration. The best companies understand the spend and the productivity that results.”

San-Francisco based fashion brand Cuyana has sent out four print catalogs per year for the past three years. Eighty percent of the catalogs go to prospective customers — women who shop brands with like prices and aesthetics, and have an average household income of more than $150,000 per year — while 20 percent go to current shoppers of the brand. Co-founder Shilpa Shah said it’s the brand’s single biggest marketing expense.

The magazine, which resembles an art magazine, is considered a branding play, she said. Two to four photographers work on each issue to produce the featured large-format imagery. Captions are spare. “We designed it to story-tell; it’s very beautiful to look at, and shopping is a secondary part of the experience,” she said.

It’s been effective. In 2016, Cuyana increased the total circulation of its catalog by 50-65 percent, which led to a 200 percent increase in revenue from first-time customers. To build on that success, Shah and co-founder Karla Gallardo increased circulation of the fall and holiday 2017 catalogs by another 50 percent.  

A page in the Anine Bing Winter 2017 catalog

Despite growing up digital, 66 percent of millennials — Cuyana’s target customers — say they open the direct mail they receive, according to a 2017 study by Experian marketing service. (The percentage is on par with the larger population.) What’s more, millennial respondents, on average, said they’d responded to a direct mail campaign within the prior 2.4 months, less than the average response time for all survey respondents.

Print cuts through the noise, said Shah. “When everything becomes as ubiquitous as an Amazon, how do you break through with your message and your meaning?” she asked. “Millennials value authenticity and a good customer experience. Common paid ads don’t feel authentic.”

According to the Data & Marketing Association, 9.8 billion catalogs were mailed to shoppers in 2016, and 100.7 million adults made a catalog purchase. The number of total direct-mail pieces has declined since 2005, but brands still find them useful.

Lunya, a sleepwear and loungewear company, released its first catalog in September. Driven by the traffic it drove to the site (Lunya would not release numbers), distribution of the follow-up — an eight-page holiday-focused booklet, which will be sent this week — will be ramped up by 76 percent.

“It’s a great way to tell our story, and create a tactile and emotional connection with the customer in her home, where she wears our product,” said Ashley Merrill, Lunya’s founder and CEO.

A page in the Lunya Holiday 2017 catalog

Women’s fashion brand Anine Bing is taking distributing a 12-page holiday catalog that includes a gift guide, full-page imagery and letter from the founder to active customers. It’s also including a catalog with orders placed this week through late December.

Other direct-to-consumer brands embracing print catalogs include San Francisco-based Marine Layer, known for soft basics, and Bando, a seller of gifts and accessories.

“There is something special and intimate about receiving something in the mail, especially when it comes from a digital-first brand that’s not sending out a catalog every two or three weeks, like the mall brands of the past,” said Dana Schwartz, founder of The Hours agency. “They’re instead choosing to send something thoughtful and purposeful to their subscribers that’s more about connecting community than anything else.”

Many traditional retailers that have done away with their catalogs in the past have relaunched them in the past three years; Sears just announced the comeback of its Wish Book in October. Neiman Marcus, on the other hand, has released its version, The Christmas Book, for the past 91 years. In today’s digital-focused world, they’re a novelty retailers across the board can use to their advantage.

“How do you win today?” asked Shah. “You have to leverage all of the things Amazon doesn’t have. Amazon isn’t doing this, so it’s one thing we want to keep in our arsenal.”

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