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 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.