Last Updated: November 14, 2020

Catalogs have been one of America’s favorite ways to shop for over two hundred years. In fact, garden and seed catalogs were in circulation in the United States before the Revolutionary War.

In the 1880s, more people began to break free of local stores’ narrow selection by purchasing consumer goods through catalogs. By the early 1900s, Sears, Roebuck and Company and Montgomery Ward were some of the top mail-order businesses using catalogs to reach customers across the country.

Catalog marketing is a specialized form of direct marketing that still holds an important place among the various marketing strategies used today, including social media and Internet advertising (See also Direct Marketing). Even as people purchase goods online more often, many still use the catalog as their preferred source of information about a company’s products and services.

Who Uses Catalog Marketing?

Mail-order retailers and retailers with mail-order branches utilize catalog marketing to reach a wider audience. J.C. Penney, for example, uses both its stores and its large mail-order catalog as ways to connect with customers.

Business-to-business companies also use catalog marketing. Businesses that specialize in selling to a particular type of company may not have their entire catalogs online. Instead, they print and distribute their product catalogs directly to their buyers. (See also B2B Marketing)

How to Improve Your Company's Catalog

  • Research your customers. Look at what they buy; and, whether they buy online, over the phone, through the mail, or in stores. Also examine data on their demographics.
  • Give the most visibility in your catalog to your best sellers. Look at past catalogs to see how they were presented, and improve on it.
  • Use large images for your best-sellers in your catalog, placing less visual emphasis on your less popular products. Place reminders of special offers, free shipping, and other promotions everywhere in the catalog and on the order form.
  • Send staggered mailings to make sure your catalog is in the hands of customers at a time they are not bombarded with other catalogs.
  • Revise your catalog on a regular basis. Look at what worked and what did not. Your catalog is a project that should be in a constant state of improvement.

Many companies use catalog showrooms to give consumers the chance to see a small sample of products in person. Customers then purchase from a wider range of choices in a catalog.

Catalog marketing has undergone tremendous changes since the mid-1990s, adding new channels through which it reaches its customers. In the early 2000s, retailers began to shift their focus to e-commerce, printing fewer catalogs, and restructuring their businesses to reflect consumers’ general preference to shop online. They moved their catalogs to websites, and sent out catalogs only to those who had actually purchased from them in the past.

Some business decision makers feel that catalogs give their customers options in how they purchase, and that many of their customers use the catalogs in conjunction with the Internet to make their purchases. In 2009, the Direct Marketing Association found that businesses mailed more than 17 billion catalogs, but only 1.3 percent resulted in a sale.

Who Responds to Catalog Marketing?

The typical catalog shoppers are employed women in their early 50s and with an income of about $53,000 per year, according to the 2004 Direct Marketing Association’s State of the Catalog and E-Commerce Report. They are usually married and live in the suburbs.

While this typecast of the catalog shopper is true in most cases, some customers simply prefer shopping in a catalog to buying online. Other consumers use catalogs alongside a business’ website. Customers who are not comfortable with purchasing items online or those who like to talk to a real person over the phone may just call in their orders.

How is a Catalog Marketing Plan Developed and Employed?

Businesses must first decide whether to offer a full-line catalog or a more specialized one that lays out specific categories of products and whether to mail their catelogs or choose another form of distribution. Because printing and mailing out catalogs is often expensive, they sometimes display them in their stores and showrooms instead.

Returns on Investments?

Although the return on investment for catalogs is low compared to other marketing methods, many consumers still prefer to look at a catalog instead of a website or go to a store.

Catalog design teams create and organize the catalogs for distribution. They determine which illustrations and photographs will be included, as well as decide on the layout and the exact wording of the catalog copy. (See also Art Director)

The next step in the process is distribution and tracking of catelogs as they are sent into circulation. If they distributed more than one catalog, they can determine which resulted in the most sales. Companies then compare how many sales occurred online, in their stores and through the catalog to help executives decide whether to publish a catalog again or how to change it, if necessary.

Companies that Use Catalog Marketing

  • The Orvis fishing catalog is the oldest catalog still in circulation in the U.S. It was first distributed in 1856.
  • Leon Leonwood Bean sent out his one-sheet flyer for boots in 1913. L.L. Bean is still a successful catalog marketer today.
  • J.C. Penney’s large catalog was first printed in 1962, and it still remains popular.


What Types of Careers Work with Catalog Marketing Strategies?

Marketing analysts, public relations specialists and customer service representatives are three of the most integral team members in catalog design and distribution. Managers oversee their work, but these professionals work together on the front lines to ensure that a catalog is marketed to its fullest sales potential.

Marketing Research Analyst

What do they do?

Salaries of Careers in Catalog Marketing

Career Type:25th PercentileMedian75th Percentile
Marketing Specialist$43,930$60,250$84,690
Public Relations Specialists$39,560$53,190$72,840
Customer Service Representatives$24,220$30,610$39,010

Marketing research analysts collect data on consumers in various regions with the aim to uncover potential new markets. A main part of the job includes designing and implementing polls, surveys, focus groups and questionnaires to gather information about a business’ customers. When they work with catalogs, marketing research analysts may compare how well customers received previous catalogs compared to the most recent one. They might also examine demographic and sales data to further customize catalogs to individual types of consumers.

In addition, marketing analysts play an important role in helping companies determine pricing strategies and which groups are most likely to purchase particular products or services. They forecast demand, sales and marketing trends. Analysts turn the data they have gathered into simple and usable reports that executives can use to make marketing decisions as well.

Education and Skills

Employers typically require at least a bachelor’s degree in public relations, marketing, communications, math, statistics or business administration to be a marketing analyst. Social science degrees are also helpful in order to help analysts understand how customers make decisions. Senior positions may require a master’s degree in business administration or marketing.

Critical, analytical and detail-oriented thinking skills are important for analysts to have as they collect, record, and interpret data from several sources. Interpersonal and communications skills are also vital to this position as analysts regularly collaborate and negotiate with clients, department managers, colleagues and the general public.

Public Relations Specialists

What do they do?

Public relations specialists strive to cultivate and maintain positive reputations for their employers and clients. They write media releases, devise public relations programs, and pinpoint potential new markets and determine how to best connect with them. Specialists in nonprofit organizations help their employers raise funds through special events, direct mailings, and other methods of fundraising.

When using catalog marketing to reach customers, public relations specialists may identify sub-groups that would use a catalog to purchase products. It is important to determine how to best reach those customers and decide on the exact message the catalog should send.

Finally, public relations specialists may decide if a catalog marketing campaign or other marketing efforts align with organizations’ public relations efforts.

Education and Skills

Like marketing research analysts, public relations specialists usually need a bachelor’s degree, in public relations, English, communications, journalism, or business. Many specialists receive further training on the job, and some employers offer formal training or mentorship programs.

Communication and interpersonal skills are of great importance to public relations specialists. They must initiate and maintain beneficial relationships with the media, colleagues, employers and clients. It is imperative that they are good problem-solvers and organizers as they often work with more than one client simultaneously and show tact when sorting out public relations predicaments.

Customer Service Representatives

What do they do?

When a customer phones a call center to order a product from a catalog, the first human contact he or she has with the company is with a customer service representative. While this position is an entry-level position, it provides the ground knowledge needed to be promoted to higher-level sales, promotions, marketing and advertising positions.

Customer service representatives listen to what customers want. They take orders and manage billing and payments, make changes to consumer accounts, handle returns and complaints and take records of customer interactions. Furthermore, customer service representatives are also excellent problem-solvers who try to find an answer to customers’ questions or refer them to management for further support.

Education and Skills

A high school diploma is usually all that is needed to land a customer service representative position as employers typically train on the job. However, some employers require representatives to have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and may require a degree for promotions.

It is important for customer service representatives to demonstrate good communication and interpersonal skills. They must also be able to listen carefully and speak precisely and clearly.

In addition to using a computer and phone, some representatives contact customers through live chat features on company websites. They will email customers to deliver solutions to problems, confirm shipments, perform account changes, and other transaction information. This requires representatives to have excellent writing skills.

How can a marketing school help you succeed?

Our Recommended Schools

  1. Grand Canyon University (GCU)

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    Explore the bond between business and consumer behavior with a degree in marketing.

Marketing programs provide a focused marketing education that can help you stand out among other job candidates. You will learn how customers think and make decisions in your consumer behavior courses, for instance. (See also Consumer Psychology)

As you research catelog marketing techniques, you can take classes to learn how to design layouts, create product descriptions, and implement special catalog promotions that will appeal to your targeted audience. Additionally, in brand development courses, you will learn to improve and cultivate a brand from inception to completion so that customers want to buy your product.

Lastly, your college has connections with marketing firms that offer practical work experience in the field through jobs, internships and externships. Networking through campus job fairs, listservs, career help websites, other students and your professors will help you add quality work experience to your resume.

Attributes, Skills and Education Required to Employ Catalog Marketing

Marketing professionals who utilize catalog marketing have a strong desire to improve upon their past work. They constantly analyze the success or failures of their catalogs, do research into the desires and demographics of their markets, and try to individualize customers’ experience when using the catalog in print or online.

It is important to identify trends and patterns from multiple data sources and draw conclusions about the best way to proceed to increase sales. Marketing and public relations specialists and customer service representatives should be creative thinkers who continually try to understand their customers and meet their needs through catalog marketing programs.

Finally, these professions require individuals to be friendly, patient and good communicators. They interact with the public, colleagues and clients regularly, and learn how their consumers think as well as what they want through extensive research and analysis. Catalog marketing professionals can then tailor their catalogs to specific groups of consumers to increase sales.