Throw out the catalogs?

Media and merchandising giant Disney has just announced they’re discontinuing their print catalog business and going 100% e-Commerce to “save money.”

Meanwhile, Amazon is going into the print catalog business with offerings in  home improvement, kitchen, and electronics.

Who’s right?

Before I answer, here are two anecdotes about how powerful print catalogs can be.

1. In India, the Ikea catalog is so popular that it is sold by book stores and street vendors in big cities.

2. The print catalog probably did more to create consumer culture than any other single device.

Before TV, before radio, and before the proliferation of mass market magazines, it was the catalog that educated people about how they could improve their lives with products they had previously not even known existed.

But that was then and this is now. And India is not an advanced economy yet.

So maybe Disney is right and catalogs are old hat and destined for the dustbin of history.

No way!

In fact, Disney discontinuing of its catalog is one of the most boneheaded moves in the history of marketing.

Katie Muldoon, a veteran catalog marketing expert and consultant, makes the case that print catalogs – intelligently executed – are likely to become even more valuable to marketers as the years go on.


Consumers love them. Here are some of the reasons Muldoon points out:

1. “Catalogs are free”
2. They reach people who are not Internet-friendly (a group numbering the the hundreds of millions worldwide, including many in the US and other developed countries.)
3. “Catalogs make it easy to dream”  Customers are able to flip through a print catalog and comfortably scan scores of products in just a  minute. You just can’t do that online.
4. “Catalogs are portable” This is such an obvious point, but it’s often overlooked.

The best Internet ad in the world evaporates like an ice cube on a hot stove the second your prospect clicks to the next thing on his browser or in his e-mail program. Catalogs and other physical print, audio, and audio live on and can be taken to the beach, in the car, put on the nightstand – anywhere the prospect likes to consume information.

Talk about prime time.

Yes, producing physical ads like catalogs and direct mail sales letters is exponentially more expensive than writing an e-mail (or a blog entry) and pushing send.

And that’s the side of the equation that Disney is incorrectly focusing on.

Maybe its catalog business is poorly managed. Maybe the operation is overblown and needs adapting. But to throw the whole thing out? That’s the very definition of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The Internet and printed media work beautifully together. For starters, you can use the Internet to qualify prospects to mail to and you can use print to reinforce your Internet campaigns and close sales and create  customers you otherwise would have missed.

However you slice it, it boils down to closer contact with your customers. more sales and a much stronger business.

At a bare minimum, every Internet marketer should experiment with mailing to its list of proven buyers. My most successful client and students do and it’s always on my own business agenda to put more physical stuff in the hands of people I want to sell to.

Speaking of catalogs, I just received a fantastic one in the mail from a company called Magellan’s.

Part of the pain of traveling is not having the right gear and this little catalog is packed with things to make traveling easier. I see myself placing an order for a couple of hundreds of dollars worth of stuff today. It’s also a great place to buy meaningful gifts for your favorite road warriors. (The print catalog is better than the web site.)

Notice. Magellan just got thousands of dollars worth of “pass along” advertising absolutely free because they mailed me a catalog. Granted this is not the kind of thing that happens every day, but it shows the potential that Disney is amputating by throwing in the towel on their print catalog.

You can read about Disney’s decision to kill its print catalog and the dubious reasons they give for it here:

Just because they’re big, doesn’t mean they’re smart.

What do you think?

– Ken McCarthy

P.S. For over 25 years I’ve been sharing the simple but powerful things that matter in business with my clients.

If you’d like direction for your business that will work today, tomorrow and twenty years from now, visit us at the System Club.

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22 Responses to Throw out the catalogs?

  1. Tom Bice February 23, 2006 at 9:33 am #

    You are right. Catalogs are not a thing of the past, and are still needed and wanted by consumers. Disney will regret their decision and come back out with their catalogs. What would happen if all magazines and newspapers decided to save money on paper and printing costs and put everything online. How much revenue would that cost them in lost sales?

  2. Jim Calaman February 23, 2006 at 9:50 am #

    I agree. Disney is crazy. Many catalogs are kept by families for years and some are now collectibles and passed from generation to generation which increases brand loyalty. Many people do not shop on the intenet yet so they will miss out on those sales.

  3. Sean Woodruff February 23, 2006 at 9:51 am #

    Sounds like an opportunity for an enterprising entrepreneur to make an exclusive licensing deal with Disney to run a Disney catalog.

  4. Chuck "SKy" Masterson February 23, 2006 at 10:01 am #

    Disney doesn’t make many mistakes. And their “feed-back loop” is a strong one. If customers ask for cataloges, then likely the decision will be reversed. They may have just decided that there was no good way to gauge demand except by stopping production. Most of what they do is a customer based decision. I’ve heard they run a pretty good ship. Or else my sources are wrong.

  5. David Rothwell February 23, 2006 at 10:27 am #

    I hadn’t seen this so it’s interesting news. I agree with Ken that print is nowhere near yet replaceable. Any ebooks I buy, I always print them out so I can take them anywhere and highlight and annotate them – this gives me a great audit trail for repeat readings. Also, it’s a loyalty thing (and recency, like Ken has alluded to in “what have you done for me recently?”). My kids adore getting free magazines in the post *with their own name on* from firms like Lego, and it keeps the relationship alive and ongoing. Nice post Ken!

  6. Carole Rule February 23, 2006 at 10:55 am #

    I feel you are right. I know personally I have several old catalogs that may be years old but I can drag them out and use the old order blank or address if I think of something in them. They also carry things your local store doesn’t because they do not sell well locally. I’d as soon get a catalog as to get a new magazine with all their irritating pull out cards.

  7. David Morgan February 23, 2006 at 10:56 am #

    Hi Ken,
    What they must be missing is that orders within a channel are not always created by that channel. You can flick through a catalogue and then drop into the shop or go online to buy. Their decision seems strange. Maybe an accountant got too close.

  8. Nick Snyder, Sr. February 23, 2006 at 11:14 am #

    IMHO – Disney is being smart…
    What may be at work here is a method of boosting their catalog marketing and sales. With a groundswell of clamor about their “decision” – they will actually increase consumer demand, and therefore catalog sales with this smart marketing move. I fully expect Disney to “yield” to the likely ‘grass-roots’ consumer demand… with a serious change in some of their methodologies currently in place. I’d say, congratulations on using a great marketing tactic! (Scarcity)

  9. Dorothy E. Harrell February 23, 2006 at 11:16 am #

    I remember well looking at the Sears catalog my Grandmother had, way back when. It also was the model for all my “paper dolls” I copied from the models in it. She always kept them until a new one came out and then I was allowed to cut “dolls” out of the out-of-date ones. This will mark the “end of an era” if they discontinue them-sad! Tell me it’s not so, Disney!

  10. Ken McCarthy February 23, 2006 at 11:28 am #

    Here’s something important that Disney is missing.

    People don’t ask for direct mail. And they generally don’t spontaneously ask for catalogs either. But these two channels generate hundreds of billions of dollars in sales per year. .

    Disney is turning their catalog question into an yes/no decision instead of a “how can we adapt?”

    These are generally pretty bright guys and gals, but they are profoundly missing the boat here.

    I’m going to post some ideas next week on this topic from Don Libey, a name familiar to System Club grads.

    He’s a former catalog entrepreneur and CEO of several large scale catalog companies.
    Now he takes an investment banking role in the industry.

    He has a take on the future of catalogs that’s well worth a close look. And his thinking is relevant to all of us whether we have or plan to have catalogs
    or not.

  11. Ken McCarthy February 23, 2006 at 11:31 am #


    You posted as I wrote mine.

    Hey, it could work!

    Bottom line: They need to adapt the channel, not turn it off.


  12. THE Web Copy Guy February 23, 2006 at 12:48 pm #

    Like Dorothy said, “tell me it’s not so, Disney!” It seems the bigger the company, the dumber they become. If their catalog wasn’t generating a profitable ROI, perhaps, they should have hired a better team of catalog copywriters. Because they’re pulling the plug on this, it’s a good thing to wonder what kind of impact this will have on their brand, positioning and future revenues.

    While there’s only one Disney, let’s face it, they don’t have a 100% market share when it comes to the entertainmnet/vacation industry. As a result, if their name isn’t consistently infront of their target audience, others will gladly assume the new role.

  13. Larry Cox February 23, 2006 at 1:05 pm #

    As I was reading this, my beautiful wife mentioned that she wants to be sure to pick up a J.C. Penny’s catalog this afternoon when we go to the mall. We live in a rural area and the nearest mall is an hour’s drive away. We do most of our shopping on the Internet—-yet she still wants that catalog.

  14. Wes Hopper February 23, 2006 at 1:09 pm #

    This topic really resonated with me because of my experience with Land’s End. My wife and I buy a lot of our clothes from them, but even though I spend my whole day on line, I order from their printed catalog. I find the web site hard to browse and the low res pictures don’t do the products justice. There’s another issue that Disney may be missing – printed catalogs encourage impulse buying.

  15. Stan Converse February 23, 2006 at 1:11 pm #

    It’s a proven fact: Marketers can double or triple sales of their products by getting marketing materials into prospects’ hands IN HARD COPY.

    Whether it’s a catalog, sales letter, “magalog,” or even a PDF file that you explicitly instruct the prospect to print out and read offline – it just makes sense, for all the reasons stated here – and more.

    But I do like the assertion that this is actually a shrewd, calculated move on Disney’s part to INCREASE demand for their catalogues – thereby ultimately boosting catalog sales.

  16. Gerard LeBlond February 23, 2006 at 1:56 pm #

    Last month I heard a postal worker call catalogs “junk mail”.

    I looked in disbelief at a different postal worker that was selling me stamps and I asked her: “Did I just here him call mail ‘junk’?”

    She nodded her head in affirmation and I replied: “I can’t believe he said that out loud.”

    The cashier said: “I know, the post master is in ear-shot.”

    She didn’t refute his statement and seemed to be more concerned about his postal career than his mindset in handling the items entrusted to his care and attention.

    But this attitude amongst postal workers is not surprising though the real person who should decide on what is junk mail and what is not is the recipient of the mail that’s a different issue altogether.

    But, on the subject of the value of catalogs in direct response selling let’s consider:

    The Sears Catalog…

    The Whole Earth Catalog…

    The L.L. Bean Catalog…

    These are classics and they work because they give people what they want… information about specific products, along with prices and a way to get those items.

    Even during the day of the internet, catalogs have their place.

    First, they can be held and examined. Second, they can be stored for future reference or ordering. Third, they reach a part of the market that may not use or rely on the internet for ordering info.

    If you want to see some great catalogs that work like gang busters check out: Bissinger’s Chocolate Catalog; American Girl Catalog and The Harry and David Catalog.

  17. Jose Dominguez February 23, 2006 at 5:23 pm #

    How To Give More Shelf Life To Your Catalog
    Disney desperately needed to revamp their catalog content. Most catalogs are merely “wish books” that get tossed immediately or right after they are scanned. Disney’s wasn’t much different. Land’s End used to put well written articles in them which gave them more shelf life in my house. Why they stopped doing that is a mystery. Disney could give their catalogs more shelf life by inserting interesting and interactive copy such as little known Disney history or facts; stories, puzzles or word searches for kids; a Q & A section, or implement a catalog membership that offered an ongoing discount like Costco…

  18. Melinda February 23, 2006 at 7:17 pm #

    I agree with Jose about adapting the catalogue instead of ditching it altogether. As someone who shops online frequently, I find that I rely heavily on the corresponding catalogue to locate items that I want to buy. Because most ‘online shopping’ sites are difficult to browse casually, I browse the catalogue, make some decisions, and then go to the website.

    When left to browse a store-based site without a catalogue, I often give up and leave the site because it’s just too hard. I also spend more money when I shop online than when I go into the store, so if I (and others like me) don’t like online browsing, then that should be perceived as an impediment to our relationship.

  19. Daniel Taylor February 23, 2006 at 11:03 pm #

    Yes, Ken, catalog makes me dream better, also a good idea generator. Everytime I want some ideas on interior design, I grab the Ikea catalog.

    More often than not, we keep nice, colorful and thick catalog for future reference. Much like a swipe file for direct marketers.

  20. Nick D February 24, 2006 at 12:41 pm #

    It’s indeed a strange move, to say the least.

    Actually, I do recommend to my clients to
    keep going with their offline promotions, even
    if their sales process will be entirelly online.

    Maybe Disney’s managers did base their decision
    on good reasons with cant know. But with my humble
    knowledge and if hypothetically I’ll be in their shoes
    I will not just only maintain the offline catalogs,
    but I would add some more twists.
    One thing I would start doing imediatly would be
    to insert in the catalog package a demo or short version
    CD, which of course will contain links to order pages
    or for email announcements or whatever plans I have.

    We will see what happens next…

  21. David Houk February 26, 2006 at 1:35 pm #

    I love catalogs!
    I belong to 2 book clubs – I get the catalog, read it over & over in my leisure.Once I make my selections I order on line.
    Even though they both have good web sites – I can’t see them while I watch TV, sit on hold,
    while eating or most impotantly
    while in the restroom(where I do my most important decision making)
    Online only marketing is very limiting & time consuming.
    Also, I will look at a nice catalog in the mail from a company I may not know about but would never go to their website.Even if I know the company how often is anyone going to check for new items?

  22. Adam April 24, 2006 at 1:33 pm #

    We don’t have the information to pass judgement on Disney’s decision. If the catalog isn’t pulling it’s weight then Disney should shut it down.

    The tough part of this is determining exactly what the catalog is doing for you. For example, if people are getting the catalog in the mail and it prompts them to visit stores and go to the website to place orders, then the catalog is doing more for you then is showing up on pure catalog results.

    Disney has a reputation for underestimating things like this. For years they were afraid to distribute their films on video because they felt it would deplete their movie library. Now it’s their main product and revenue driver.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if they are underestimating the value of their catalog, particularly during Christmas.

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