Thursday, 19 November 2009

The “big book” isn’t dead yet

The headline of the press release was innocuous enough: “JCPenney Transforms Catalog Strategy to Better Serve Customer Preferences”. But beneath the corporate-speak came the real news: The Stateside department store retailer is discontinuing its twice-a-year “big book” general-merchandise catalogue to focus on the web and speciality mailings. The fall/winter 2009 edition will be the last. It will also be the last major consumer big-book catalogue in the US. Montgomery Ward ceased publishing its big book in the mid-1980s; Spiegel and Sears retired theirs in the 1990s.

So the big book is dead in the US; long live the big book in the UK?

Without a doubt, the traditional UK big books aren’t as big as they used to be. And the Big Six are now owned by just two companies: Shop Direct Group has commandeered Littlewoods, Great Universal, Empire, and Kays (transforming the latter three into near-identical triplets), while Freemans Grattan Holdings owns—wait for it—both Freemans and Grattan. The Big Six have moved from their agency roots, though the ability to pay for products in weekly or monthly instalments remains part of their appeal to lower-income consumers and those ineligible for major credit cards.

Of course, those brands could still offer payment plans as online-only entities or while substituting smaller, niche catalogues for their comprehensive editions. And in fact Shop Direct this summer rebranded its Littlewoods Direct fascia (which unlike the core Littlewoods brand did not allow for weekly payments) as Very. The website, which has a prominent social-networking component, is Very’s core sales vehicle; the first print catalogue under the new name was nothing more than a compilation of tiny photos and SKU numbers of every item available on the website, designed solely to drive readers to

The second edition of the Very catalogue, however, did revert back to a more traditional big-book form: in situ photos, a variety of page layouts, 676 pages versus 354, the listing of the call centre phone number as well as the website URL, an index, size guides. Which suggests that the UK is not ready to abandon the big books just yet.

Another sign that the extinction of the big book in the UK isn’t yet imminent: The past few years have seen a few new entrants. Supermarket giants Tesco and Asda both launched comprehensive catalogues of their nonfood, nonapparel offering in the past few years. These catalogues follow the Argos big-book model, and not just in appearance (smaller trim size, boxy layouts). For all three brands, you can have products delivered to you or you can pick them in-store (though not all Asda and Tesco supermarkets allow for store pickup of direct orders just yet).

Why, though, do the Brits still favour comprehensive print catalogues while the Yanks apparently don’t? A few thoughts:

* The US is a much more diverse population and therefore has more need of speciality catalogues. The BNP’s fear-mongering to the contrary, 92.1 percent of the UK population is white, according to the 2001 census, and of that group, according to the CIA World Factbook, nearly 84 percent are of English ethnicity. Indians are the largest minority group, with 1.8 percent of the population. In the States, according to projections from the US Census Bureau, 68 percent of the population are non-Hispanic whites, with Hispanics of all races accounting for 15 percent, African Americans 12 percent, and Asians 5 percent. When you’re speaking to a less homogenous audience, you need to create more-specialised marketing to best target their distinct preferences and needs. For example, Spanish-language versions of mailings make good sense for many Stateside marketers.

And that’s just barebones ethnic diversity. The US is also more diverse than the UK when it comes to geography and climate: If the fall-winter edition of a big-book catalogue features 50 pages of snow boots, anoraks, ice scrapers, and portable heaters, that’s 50 pages of content irrelevant to recipients in southern states.

* Digital marketing in the US is more advanced than in the UK, making it a more viable substitute for traditional print catalogues than in Britain. No, I’m not suggesting that digital can replace print full stop. But because US websites have been quicker to adopt features such as customer reviews, live chat, product recommendation engines, video demonstrations, and the like, they have become more of a primary resource for shoppers than the print catalogues. In response to this quicker evolution of ecommerce in the States, print catalogues over there have morphed more dramatically into traffic drivers. (For examples, see “Which is the tail and which is the dog?”.)

* The Brits love their traditions more than the Yanks. Despite the advent of satellite TV with its 500 channels of choice, and regardless of the fact that the monarchy is all but powerless, Brits still sit themselves in front of the telly after their Christmas dinner to watch the Queen’s Speech. It serves no real need and has no real effect on anyone’s life, but the British won’t give it up. So we shouldn’t be surprised that two-thirds of all UK households still have an Argos catalogue in their home at any given time. For most UK shoppers, it—and other big books—still works just fine, thank you.--SC


  1. Sherry, with Quelle going bust we had a major Big Book casualty this year. I would agree that catalogues still have both an audience and impact. However one executive at Otto Group simply put it like this: Print is going to be a "premium" service, no longer the major sales vehicle of a general retailer.

    If you digg deeper into sales-data, you will find that Big Books may still be very profitable compared with specialty catalogues. But the bulk of orders will not result from the big book alone. In the past, about 70 % of sales came from the big book directly. Today it is only (if at all) 20 % of all catalog sales, the major part being the result of solicitations with specialty catalogs, direct mail etc.

    Kevin Hillstrom ( has given me some valuable advice: When the majority of catalog-driven sales are no longer via telephone+fax+postcard combined but via web-sales, you can start to reduce the size, frequency and circulation of your catalogs.

    I am glad to see that Very returns to the fine art of creating decent catalogs. The first issue was a shame. A decent catalogue is much about drama, pacing, creating the kind of impulse-shopping the web so far is missing. But we should be careful to not develop a nostalgic fascination for a sales tool.

  2. Martin--I do agree with you by and large, though we have to keep the target market in mind too. I'm often surprised to hear how many cataloguers still receive a lion's share of their orders and payments by post.

    Bill LaPierre spoke about the shifting role of print at ECMOD this year, advising that the print catalogue should now be primarily a traffic driver for the web:

    Thanks for your feedback, Martin! Hope all is well.