Where the Consumer Is King

In praise of mail-order catalogs

We’re three weeks into November, the biggest shopping day of the year is fast approaching, and I’ve only received a paltry 23 catalogs in my mailbox this month. Like newspapers and magazines, it seems that old-fashioned mail-order catalogs will soon be as extinct as the PalmPilot.

Thousands of hands have been wrung over the death of newspapers and the threat to democracy that poses. A smaller number of people are no doubt worrying about the death of magazines and the shaky future of perfume strips. No one seems all that concerned that at some point during the next 10 or 20 years, Pottery Barn is going to stop sending us its unsolicited but incredibly informative guides to contemporary middle-class decorating trends. Can America survive without systematic, lavishly illustrated coverage of artisanal wall lanterns and fringed hand-loom rugs?

The 2010 edition of the National Directory of Mail-Order Catalogs is 1900 pages long, and features more than 13,000 consumer and business-to-business 
catalogs. IKEA is printing 198 million copies of its 2010 catalog. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, 17 billion catalogs were mailed in 2008, 
and for companies that rely on direct sales, catalogs still drive more business than the web does. “There will be some paper version for as long as I'm in the business,” Steve Fuller, chief marketing officer for L.L. Bean, told the Journal.

Others, however, are already cutting back. Earlier this year, Macys, Inc. stopped sending out its Bloomingdale’s By Mail catalog in order to concentrate resources on the Bloomingdales.com website. Williams-Sonoma, Inc., which also owns Pottery Barn and West Elm in addition to its own eponymous chain, is reducing its total catalog pages by half in 2011. J. Crew is sending out its catalog to 27 percent fewer households. Over the long term, paper costs and postal rates are only going to increase. A growing number of consumers are choosing to opt out of mailings via services like Catalog Choice.

Certainly online shopping is more efficient. But that’s the problem. Shopping at Amazon is a largely functional experience. You go there to buy stuff, or to check prices, or to learn more about products from other customers rather than copywriters. Leafing through a good print catalog is aspirational. In the final decades of the 19th century, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog helped reinforce the notion that America was moving from an age of scarcity to one of abundance and prosperity. The Fall 1900 edition was 1120 dense pages long. It contained more than a hundred makes of shotguns, rifles, and revolvers, the bulk of which were “new” or “improved” or “celebrated.” Clearly it was a great time to be alive, with so many wonderful inventions and contrivances at hand to make your life easier, more interesting, more fun.

Throughout the 20th century, catalogs continued to be the material life’s most engaging ambassadors. TV commercials were noisy and insistent. Magazines like Cosmopolitan and Playboy did a pretty good job of showing their readers how they could create identities, lifestyles, and meaning for themselves largely through the purchase of consumer goods, but they diluted their messages with sex quizzes, short stories, and photographs of naked women.

Catalogs, on the other hand, stay focused. Every inch of every page is devoted to selling a vision of an idealized life where whatever you happen to want—coziness, elegance, quality, tradition, value, usefulness, whatever—can be shipped to you overnight. They present us with an improbable world of cashmere baseball hats and monogrammable doormats, where the spoons are “tarnish-resistant” and “designed by noted Italian architects” and the bomber jackets are “named for the indigenous people of Seattle.” In the catalog world, no shoe is merely lined in leather; it’s “fully lined in soft glove leather.” And even something as mundane and easily attainable as a piece of fruit somehow acquires the aura of a wondrously decadent indulgence.

Critics might claim that catalogs inspire a kind of frantic, mindless hyper-consumerism, but really what they do—the effective ones, anyway—is teach a kind of mindfulness. They encourage us to pay attention, close attention, with no stinting on the adjectives, to the stuff we furnish our lives with. When we need a winter boot, are we willing to settle for whatever the sales guy at Shoe Barn wants to sell us, or are we going to hold out for a “uniquely insulated boot” that features a layer of “durable 24-oz Mackinaw Wool [sandwiched] between an outer layer of rugged oil-tanned leather and a full inner layer of soft water-repellant leather”?

The beauty of the catalog is that while its sales pitch is relentless, it’s a quiet, meditative kind of relentlessness. It’s hard to drift off into reveries about how much better the perfect overnight bag could make your life while shopping at Amazon or Zappos. There’s too much filtering to do, too much waiting for the screen to refresh, too many tiny product shots fighting for your attention at once. Slowly making one’s way through the serene, uncluttered pages of the latest Design Within Reach catalog, however, it’s easy to start thinking that all that really stands between you and true happiness is a sofa that takes advantage of “recent technical advances” and yet nonetheless evokes the “soft, less machined brand of modernism [that] first arose in the United States in the 1930s.” Or hell, maybe even a $60 stainless steel tape dispenser that functions like “desktop architecture” would do the trick. More than any other advertising medium, a catalog enlists you to sell yourself.

At this point, catalogs are also one of the last forms of truly mass media. Outside of the Google home page and maybe a handful of the most frequently broadcast TV commercials, what else reaches as many households as the IKEA catalog does? What else unites us like our shared knowledge of the Pottery Barn catalog which, while bands break up, TV shows get cancelled, and magazine subscriptions lapse, just keeps showing up in our mailboxes, year after year, with the same jute rugs and Manhattan armchairs that were there nearly two decades ago, a beacon of barely noticed familiarity in an ever-changing world? For the last ten years, it went straight into the recycling bin, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to miss it when it's gone.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Xeones||

    I smell a bailout!

  • BakedPenguin||

    Well, if they let Montgomery Ward and Sears sell the same stuff as they did in 1895, they'd be in great shape. I bet lots of people would buy opium and pistols from them.

  • T||

    I get a metric f*ckton of catalogs. Some of them are handy in that they bring to my attention things I otherwise would have missed, like my Lee Valley catalogs. But mostly it's trash.

  • ||

    It's your wife's fault.

  • ||

    Victoria Secret catalogs -- they even smell good.

  • Wilford Brimley||

    Beato, I've been, uh, reading some of your material here. I gotta be honest with you: you make a pretty strong case. I mean, just imagine. An army of men in wool pants running through the neighborhood handing out pottery catalogs, door to door.

    Well, it's my job. And I'm pretty damn serious about it. In addition to being a postmaster, I'm a general. And we both know, it's the job of a general to, by God, get things done. So maybe you can understand why I get a little irritated when someone calls me away from my golf.

    Sure, you're sorry. I think we got a stack of mail out at the desk that belongs to you. Now, you want that mail, don't you, Mr. Beato?

  • ||

    OATMEAL! It fills you up right.

  • ||

    I still get Cabela's, Dr. Foster and Smith, and some toy catalogs. All of those have been triggered by me ordering online.

  • monk||

    What will I read when I am taking a shit?

  • ||

    And what will you use when you're done? Those glossy pages are silky smooth on a bare bottom.

  • Attorney||

    I'm partial to the Vermont Country Store and all their weird old-geezer stuff.

  • Spartacus||

    Me too. And you can have my Oriental Trading Co. catalog when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.

  • jesse||

    I wish my name was beato, teehee.

  • ||

    I mail-order a LOT. But I ALWAYS throw away my catalogs without reading them.

    Look, mail-order companies, if I need what you have to offer, I will FIND you. I will also find the coupon codes you tried to send me published on some third-party website. Spare me the dead trees.

  • Jeff P||

    Home Treads, which features helpful gadgets for old people, began selling sex toys. Buy granny duster slippers, a door snake, and a vibrating egg all in one spot.

  • ||

    Holy shit dude, my 85 year old Grandmother called me about that catalog telling me that they had some stuff she wanted to order,then she turned the page and found (her words, not mine) "goddamned dildos". Then she said, "I don't want any shit they're selling." I almost drove off the road laughing.

  • TallDave||

    No.

    No we cannot.

    "Please comment in English?" WTF?

  • Kant feel Pietzsche||

    They make pretty good kindling for my fireplace

  • ||

    My grandmother still says "Does Eaton's tell Sears their business?" when she's telling you to mind your own. The fact that Eaton's has been out of business for 10 years is irrelevant to her.

    I'm also reasonably certain she still orders our Christmas presents from the Sears catalog.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Marge: Well, if Macy's and Gimbel's could learn to get along...

    Agnes Skinner: Gimbel's went out of business. You're Gimbel's!

  • bob||

    Boy, there is nothing like unsolicited shit to make me feel nostalgic

  • Agent Provacateur||

    I'm also reasonably certain she still orders our Christmas presents from the Sears catalog.

    I was wondering if you received hog wire,fertilizer spreaders and t-posts but they offer tools,work clothing and baby stuff in their limited catalogues.The farm stuff seems to have gone the way of Ted Williams branded shotguns and outboard motors.

  • Mo||

    From what I've read, catalogs aren't going away, but are considered an enhancement to their web presences. People get the catalogs, see something they like and order online. Don't worry Greg, you'll still get you J. Peterman catalog.

  • Spartacus||

    This is pretty much what we do. We make nearly all our selections for christmas presents from catalogs, but do all our ordering online. I like the print catalogs much better than a web site for browsing.

  • highnumber||

    Almost all the business the local Penzey's store gets from us is due to their catalog. It's quite inspirational.

  • ||

    I loved going to Penzey's when I lived near one. Shopping for top-notch spices when you can actually see and smell them is wonderful.

  • A.G. Pym||

    Am I the only person on the continent that has never, ever seen an IKEA catalog, nor a store, nor even (to my knowledge) a piece of furniture sold by them? We in the Inland Northwest are shunned by most of the "iconic" brands. (We have a Macy's, but only because they boght out Bon Marche).

  • lfb||

    Laissez Faire Books still publishes their catalogue but we ratcheted up the publication to a magazine size, full color glossy and use half of the publication as a magazine and half as a catalogue. We send one issue free to anyone who wants it, otherwise we send to recent customers or anyone who subscribed to 4 issues for $10.

    Our policy was to change it into a magazine with information articles and not just book promotions to give customers an additional reason to actually read the publication. We make it available on line for free but don't plan to stop mailing it in the foreseeable future.

  • Mike Laursen||

    The future ain't gonna be so black and white. Print newspapers and catalogs will still be around for a long time. More folks will read such stuff on e-readers, but paper will survive, too.

  • Mike Laursen||

    One big reason that journalists can't figure out how to survive in the new Internet-connected world, is that they've got this idea in their heads that people buy newspapers to read their news stories.

    I worked in a newspaper circulation department for years, where I learned that most readers subscribe to the paper for the ads, the crossword puzzle, the comics, blah, blah, blah...

  • Tim Starr||

    Most of the big catalog retailers are moving heavily into email marketing, which is much cheaper to deliver.

  • ||

    I dunno Greg, I do some pretty aspirational Amazon shopping. Is it the Sears catalog of my youth? no, but I don't know if I could choose which is better.

    email marketing sucks. I rarely actually check my physical mail, but I even more rarely read the email marketing. Most companies need to give me more controls about how often they can email me.

    by the way, what a delightfully pointless article.

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    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on.

  • battery||

    nor a store, nor even (to my knowledge) a piece of furniture sold by them? We in the Inland Northwest are shunned by most of the "iconic" brands. (We have a Macy's, but only because they boght out Bon Marche)

  • www.cassidysgiftsnmor.com||

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