The return of the J.C. Penney print catalog demonstrates that print is not nearly as dead as naysayers may have led you to believe. And, similar to what Billy Crystal’s character says in the movie Princess Bride, it's not even mostly dead. In fact, print is showing its continuing value in audience engagement.
At 120 pages, the new J.C. Penney catalog is substantially smaller and lighter than the old "Big Book" version, which often hit 1,000 pages before it was phased out in 2009, NPR's Sam Sanders writes in a Jan. 20 article.
The decision to bring back the revamped catalog, which will debut in March, centers around what customers want: A print book to hold in their hands.
"Our research has shown that our customers, particularly when it comes to looking at home merchandise, still prefer to browse a traditional print piece, but then go online to order the item or go into our store," J.C. Penney spokeswoman Kate Boultas told NPR.
That speaks to the integration of print and digital and the advantages of both. Online shopping can be cumbersome and inefficient, especially on smaller devices or with spotty network connections, but the print catalog delivers consistently, and customers can quickly riffle back and forth through pages to compare products. They may no longer fill out an order form and snail-mail it, but that print catalog provides a simple, vivid, tactile shopping experience. Plus, they aren't distracted by Facebook notifications, interesting links and email. The Web is a mosaic of distractions, all competing for users' attention.
J.C. Penney is not the lone wolf in the uprising of catalog publishing. According to the Direct Marketing Association, the number of catalogs increased in 2014, up to 11.9 billion. While that's only a slight uptick, it's the first increase since 2006.
Books on the Rise
Books are on an upward trajectory as well. A recent article by Frank Catalano on Geekwire takes a look at some reasons real books are rebounding. According to Nielson BookScan, readers bought 2.4% more books in 2014 than in the previous year.
Catalano's article outlines studies that show that people process printed materials differently on a page than on a screen, are more easily distracted by other online offerings, find it difficult to return to context online, and enjoy the sensation, weight and even the smell of a physical book.
The 'Bookbook': More Than Just Funny
The importance of a print catalog is certainly not lost on IKEA, whose yearly print catalog is the Swedish retailer's main marketing tool. Ikea took a page from Apple's book, so to speak, in September with a parody video extolling the virtues of the "bookbook," its own 2015 catalog. The video went viral and now has more than 16 million views on YouTube.
"It's not a digital book, or an e-book," Ikea's Jörgen Eghammer says in the video. "It's a bookbook."
The production, narrated by Eghammer, presents the 328-page catalog as an amazing new invention, with no cables, fully charged, and an eternal battery life. And, he points out, no lag.
"At Ikea, we feel that technology this life-enhancing should be in the hands of everyone," he says with a winning smile. "So the 2015 Ikea catalog is free."
Ikea’s parody has spawned others, including a clever piggyback video promoting a comic bookbook.
The Ikea video may be a parody -- and a brilliant one at that -- but within the humor are real points: you can share your catalog with anyone; you don't have to worry about power; and you can scroll through all the pages at the same speed. Just like the J.C. Penney catalog. Just like a book, or a magazine, or a journal.
That said, you can also integrate your Ikea catalog with a digital version, using augmented reality via a mobile device's camera to virtually place furniture from the catalog into your home or office to see how it might appear. This is part of the future of print catalogs, to find ways to integrate with technology to create a package deal.
Print and Digital: Comrades, Not Competitors
As mentioned in my Increase Catalog Sales by Combining Print and Mobile article, combining print and digital is the ultimate catalog sales tool. Printed catalogs are tangible and easy to flip through, and digital apps give your catalog content mobility and trackability. You can use your print publications to draw people to your website, blog and social media, and you can use your online platforms to highlight your physical magazines or journals; for example, by publishing an article in a digital magazine that gets an expanded treatment in print.
Print is doing more than hanging on. It's making a comeback, because people still want to read the printed word on the printed page, in a physical space. They also still want their digital content. Print and digital are different, but integrating the two can bring out the best of both.