January 26, 2015

It’s very confusing to be a retail catalog these days!



The “big book.”

After five years of relying on things like the Internet and attractive floor displays to help sell their home goods, J.C. Penney has learned its lesson. Last week, Forbes reported that the company—usually described as “struggling,” sometimes as trapped in “a death spiral”—is resurrecting an abridged version of its “Big Book” in a 120-page print catalog that will focus exclusively on “fashion home merchandise.”

The last issue of the Big Book—once a 1,000-page tome that included products from departments across the store—landed on doorsteps around the country (the world?) in March of 2010. Shortly thereafter, in 2011, Ron Johnson (“the retailer superstar credited for making Target hip”—sic—and revolutionizing the Apple Store) took over as CEO and sales in the home furnishings category plummeted from 24% of the company’s revenue to something in the single digits. So, Penney gave Johnson the boot and the new, mean-and-lean catalog will be mailed out to “select customers” in March.

The hope isn’t necessarily to secure orders through the catalogs themselves, but rather to boost online sales. Studies show that 31% of shoppers have print catalogs on hand when they make online purchases, and they also indicate that customers spend more money when they’re consulting a catalog.

Will it work? I’m skeptical, but Sam Sanders at NPR suggests, “J.C. Penney may be a part of a catalog renaissance.” We can only hope!

Just last week, the Melville House staff felt duped to discover that the Staples catalog and the OfficeDepot catalog are in fact the same catalog, and surely the press surrounding former Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael Jeffries has many among us (me among us, at least) feeling nostalgic for those strange and racy and sealed-in-plastic A&F Quarterlies. (By sheer coincidence, J.C. Penney, Staples, and Abercrombie were all included in TIME’s recent list of “Iconic Stores and Restaurants That Are Rapidly Disappearing.” Ditto Barnes & Noble, alas.)

Of course, there has been no bigger blow than Friday’s announcement that “the wacky airline catalog” SkyMall has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Despite the popularity of its products (SkyMall has sold more than 10,000 “BigFoot, the Garden Yeti” statues), changes in airline policies mean passengers simply have too many other ways to entertain themselves. So get your garden statue, your BanVino Wine Bottle Holder, your Indoor/Outdoor Dog Bed Large while the getting’s good. Chances are J.C. Penney won’t be carrying them.


Taylor Sperry is an editor at Melville House.