How Catalogs Became "Style Guides"

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embedPhoto: Courtesy of J.Crew.
Kids these days — they just don't know the simple pleasure of coming home to a stuffed mailbox, settling down with a glass of milk, and spending the afternoon dream-shopping for ringer tees and Dickies pants from the Delia's catalog or roll-neck sweaters and chinos in every shade of ecru from J.Crew. Except, actually, they totally do. Catalogs may no longer be a shopping destination — the last time we actually called an 800 number or filled out an order form stapled to the center of the magazine, we were probably wearing a tattoo choker necklace and these shoes. But, that doesn't mean fashion brands have stopped sending them, despite the massive costs, and the fact that most people just shop online. So, why do brands still do it?

As The Wall Street Journal reports, brands now see catalogs as bait, not as shopping tools themselves. That's why the ones you see in your mailbox have gotten skimpier — they're not meant to be a clearinghouse featuring every product for sale, just those super-special bejeweled baseball caps or limited-edition Nikes that'll drive you to the website to shop. Meanwhile, as the catalogs get smaller, their production standards raise. Anthropologie, Madewell, and many other catalogs feature top-of-the-line models, and far-flung European locales in their shoots — a far cry from the flat studio shots with no-name models in catalogs of yore.

And, the strategy is paying off. J.Crew's catalogs — ahem, Style Guides, as the brand calls them — have reached a level of beauty and editorial cohesion that have made them cult collectibles. They've also been instrumental in attracting a more high-fashion audience — and in changing the way mainstream mall shoppers dress. How many women were seduced to wear printed pants, a twinset, and a ball cap to work by all those tousle-haired, glowy-faced models?

Boden, a UK retailer reports that its shoppers typically spend 15 to 20 minutes with its catalogs, versus eight seconds with its emails. And, Williams-Sonoma finds its catalogs are so powerful at driving shopping, it devotes over half its marketing budget to producing and mailing them — not to mention, maintaining a database of 2,000 privately owned houses to serve as photo-shoot locations. So, we're glad catalogs are still around, even in their updated forms. Now, will somebody please, please get around to reviving the magalog? (WSJ)