Sunday, November 22, 2009

Are Catalogs Still Effective?: An L.L. Bean Case Study

We're fast approaching the season for holiday shopping. The places I first think to shop are the internet (especially if I need to do some research on a product) and browsing in local brick and mortar stores. However, the current L.L. Bean catalog appeared in my mailbox last week and got me thinking about whether catalogs are still relevant and effective for modern consumers.

L.L. Bean, a well-known company that has been around for quite sometime, started off only selling their particular kind of shoes, ideal for nasty weather and keep toes warm and dry. They have expanded their products over the years to include outdoor apparel and accessories, casual and classic clothing, and are famous for their monogrammed totes and back-packs. Though they have retail stores, it seems that the bulk of their sales, historically, happen through their catalog (and more recently their online catalog option).

I think L.L. Bean is successful because they provide high-quality products and have developed a loyal group of customers. In fact, I know of the company, because my aunt and uncle have always been fans of their products. I also think they maintain their relationship with customers through their catalogs.

Having a catalog appear in your mail box every several months can be annoying if unsolicited or from a company you have no intention of continuing a relationship with. However, if a company with a good reputation and a more subtle approach seeks your attention, it's not so off-putting. L.L. Bean catalogs have a piece of artwork on the front, rather than a celebrity or star product. They are organized so that you can easily flip to the section you're interested in, and they're not overly sales-pitchy.

I like catalogs because they allow you to browse from your couch in a way that the internet can't. The internet, for the most part, only shows you items directly related to what you typed into a search box. A catalog can put things in front of you that may enhance your daily life, but you didn't know you needed (which is a great benefit to the catalog company). In general, I won't buy clothing items from a catalog, but I certainly have looked up items on the internet for more details, after a catalog introduced them to me.

Catalogs are not dead yet. For certain companies, like L.L. Bean, they have a way of keeping products in the consumer's field of vision and drive loyalty and sales. They are expensive to produce, and not appropriate for every company, but some can certainly still make them work to their advantage.

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