Skip links

The Ultimate Guide to Catalog Mailers: Boost Your Marketing Strategy

Part of our series where we seek to uncover the most effective formats for your specific marketing objectives.


The Catalog, Defined

Taking a look at the term “catalog” we can understand the original purpose of a catalog mailer:

Catalog (noun) [kat-lawg, -og] – a list of the contents of a library, according to any various systems [such as alphabetically, numerically, or chronologically]

For the intents of our mail format series, catalogs are a comprehensive collection of all a business’ products in one place according to a system that makes sense for the products (most commonly by category and product number). That being said, a catalog in the print world can take the form of really any size piece, as long as it’s a collection of a brand’s products. Here we will discuss the booklet format of a printed catalog. The can be can be perfect bound or saddle stitched, oblong in shape, or standard publication dimensions.

Some standard sizes include:

  • Multi-page 8.5 x 11″ – 9 x 12″
  • Multi-page 5.5 x 8.5″ (mails at letter postage rates)

A New Strategy Behind Print Cataloging

If we consider the history of catalogs it’s no wonder we’re in the midst of a shift in the medium. The first catalog was produced in 1498 in Venice; six centuries ago, a catalog might have been the ONLY means to display all your products for potential buyers, without actually getting them into your brick and mortar shop. Things only got easier for retailers with the invention of the telephone which allowed for quick ordering via catalogs.

But now we find ourselves in a time where all of a retailer’s items are cataloged in digital space, at the ready whenever a buyer beckons—and taking up no space when they don’t. So where does this leave print catalogs?

Although the catalog is often taking a back seat to other purchasing methods, it still can play a substantial role in the buyer’s decision making process.

Best Uses for Catalogs

Clearly a list of products or services are necessary to have need of a catalog, which is why the retail industry favors this print platform.

Many retailers are taking a fresh approach to cataloging to keep up with the rapidly changing retail landscape. The large trend we’ve seen, starting with big names like J.C. Penney’s and Patagonia, is a value-added, editorial approach.

So what once was an order-driving vehicle has now become a platform for thought-leadership in support of the decision making process. What extra value can a print catalog provide that a website cannot?

  • Catalogs show up on your buyers’ doorstep, whereas the buyer must actively seek out “digital catalogs.”
  • The physicality of print catalogs disrupts the recipient. They must decide what they want to do with it, which means they have to at least glance at it and register the brand name.
  • Print catalogs provide the space you need to guide your buyer on an emotional journey you’ve prepared for them through the flow of the pages. There is only so much you can do to lead a website viewer to the experience you want for them.
  • Print catalogs stick around for a while and reach whoever happens upon them. In fact 11% are read by more than one family member (DMA 2013 Statistical Fact Book).

The Stats: How Catalogs are Used by Recipients

  • Generally larger and heavier than the rest of the mail in the mailbox, catalogs are perceived as valuable, proven by the reported percentage of people who hold onto them – 14.7%, according to the 2013 DMA Statistical Fact Book. That beats magazines and newspapers (10.3%), which recipients opt into
  • Catalogs were found to be almost as “useful” as, and more interesting than, newspapers and magazines (DMA 2013 Statistical Fact Book).
  • The average American spends $850 a year on purchases because of catalogs. (FGI Research, “Catalogs: The Consumers’ Point of View“)
  • 7% of catalog recipients surveyed said they would STOP doing business with a company altogether if they cancelled their print catalogs. 7% may seem small, but you know what they say – it’s easier to maintain a current customer than it is to acquire new ones. (FGI Research, “Catalogs: The Consumers’ Point of View“)

Top Takeaways

  • Catalogs are an orderly collection of all of a business’s products and services. If you’re selling commodities, catalogs are an effective option.
  • Catalogs are a supporting tool in a buyer’s decision making process. The buyer will likely take their research online after having their interest peaked by an item in a print catalog. For this reason, integrating your print catalog with other channels where the purchase is likely to take place is hugely important.
  • Print catalogs are making a comeback, but are taking on new formats (ex. magazine style articles, high emphasis on quality photos).

Finding the right format is about understanding your objective: if your buyer needs a little help imagining themselves using your product or your brand requires room to develop its story, the new kind of catalog—editorialized and chock full of inspiring photos—may be right for your marketing mix.