Is Amazon's Use of Mail Catalogs a Trend or an Anomaly?

| November 09, 2020

As digital avenues have become more popular among today’s consumers (and as a result among marketers and advertisers), an interesting trend has emerged over the last few years. Direct mail – flyers, coupons, postcards, catalogs, etc. – has seen a resurgence in its effectiveness and its ability to connect brands with consumers, grab their attention, and drive purchases and engagements.

Recent research has shown that consumers are engaging with direct mail marketing materials at much higher rates than with digital marketing assets, and that those engagements are leading to higher response rates and purchases. Mail catalogs in particular have seen a huge boost in their overall response rate, reportedly increasing by 170% from 2004 to 2018 according to the Association of National Advertisers. And rather surprisingly, mail catalogs seem to be popular with Millennials despite their digital upbringings.

Perhaps it’s because there were nearly 294 billion emails sent per day in 2019, with that number projected to steadily grow over the next several years. Or maybe it’s because consumers are starting to feel a little creeped out by the hyper-personalized digital ads they’re receiving as they visit their favorite websites and social media platforms. Regardless of why consumers continue to embrace physical catalogs, (digital fatigue, privacy concerns, nostalgia, or something else entirely), an increasing number of retailers are taking notice and taking action.

Mail catalogs are in the midst of a renaissance

Mail catalogs were once bastions of the pre-digital, brick-and-mortar retail marketing world (think Sears and Toys ‘R Us), and after a lull period it seems they’re once again, back in style. In fact, there are now scores of websites dedicated to helping consumers sign up to receive mail catalogs (seriously, search “free retail catalogs” in Google sometime), which explains why savvy multichannel retailers – including QuickPivot clients Annie Selke, Allen Edmonds, MacKenzie-Childs, and Orvis – have made them key components in their cross-channel strategies.

“For our retail clients, mail catalogs have been an important part of each of their marketing strategies for many years,” said Stefanie Sparrow, client engagement manager at QuickPivot. “Even as they’ve expanded into and found success with digital marketing channels, their catalog efforts – which the QuickPivot Customer Data Platform helps them manage, monitor, and analyze – have continued to help drive sales and boost customer engagement.”

Mail catalogs have now become so effective that even online-only retailers are sending them to their customers, the most notable of which is none other than e-commerce giant – and alleged harbinger of the Retail Apocalypse – Amazon. There’s no brand over the last 20 years that better embodies the rise of the digital age than Amazon, yet in 2018 it introduced a printed mail catalog for holiday toys that was successful and well-received enough to return in 2019 and again in 2020. But is Amazon’s holiday toy catalog simply an example of an innovative company experimenting with its marketing strategy, or does it indicate that mail catalogs may truly have a place in an increasingly digital world?

Research shows that mail catalogs can help boost sales and engagement

Recent research from Harvard Business Review (HBR) indicates that Amazon and the other aforementioned retailers are acting on much more than a hunch when it comes to mail catalogs, and that mail catalogs will likely have long-term staying power.

In partnership with an anonymous U.S.-based, e-commerce-only luxury watches and jeweler retailer with a global client base, HBR conducted a research experiment to understand the impact of mail catalogs on consumer behavior. The experiment featured three groups of at-random participants from the anonymous retailers’ U.S.-based customers, categorized as:

  1. “Email-only”: those receiving a weekly marketing email (55% of total participants)
  2. “Email + catalog”: those receiving a weekly marketing email and newly launched bi-monthly mail catalog (40% of participants)
  3. “Control group”: those receiving no weekly marketing email or bi-monthly catalog (5% of total participants)

At the end of the six-month period, the experiment found that the “Email + catalog” group of customers experienced a 49% sales increase and a 125% boost to product inquiries over the “Control group.” In comparison, the “Email-only" group experienced a 28% increase in sales and a 77% boost to product inquiries over the “Control group.” And when measured against each other, the “Email + catalog” group reported a 15% increase in sales and a 27% increase in product inquiries compared to the “Email-only” group.

Additionally, the HBR experiment surveyed 500 random customers from both the “Email-only” group and the “Email + catalog” group to find out how easy it was for them to imagine themselves wearing one of the products and how vivid the product descriptions were in the emails and catalogs. Customers in the “Email + catalog” group gave an average rating of 5.6 (on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being very easily imagined/very vivid), while those in the “Email-only” group gave an average rating of 4.3.

What does the popularity of mail catalogs mean for today’s marketers?

There is one clear and obvious takeaway from the HBR experiment: mail catalogs are extremely effective at capturing the attention of modern consumers and translating that attention into increased sales and engagements. HBR’s finding, combined with the success that’s been seen by QuickPivot’s retail users and the recent documented increase in the popularity of catalogs, makes us comfortable concluding that mail catalogs are once again, and will continue to be, viable marketing tools for retailers.

However, it’s important to recognize that mail catalogs, and direct mail in general, should be just one aspect of a retailer’s overarching cross-channel marketing strategy. In 2020, effective marketing requires that all your channels – direct and digital – work together to send your customers down a path to purchase. Both Amazon’s mail catalog and that of the anonymous retailer from the HBR experiment are excellent examples of this because, in both cases, customers aren’t actually able to purchase any items directly from the catalogs. Instead, the catalogs act as a means to get customers to visit a digital channel (in this case their respective websites), where they can then continue browsing product options and make a purchase.

Mail catalogs were long-associated with brick-and-mortar retail and what was thought to be a bygone era of marketing, but their proven effectiveness and resurgence makes it clear that the direct mail marketing channel should not be ignored. That’s why the QuickPivot Customer Data Platform is specifically designed to help marketers build and execute cross-channel marketing campaigns, and includes features for direct mail integration and even print on-demand.

So if you’re interested in learning how simplifying your direct mail efforts can boost the effectiveness of your marketing efforts and drive sales, reach out to us today.

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