RIP, Victoria’s Secret Catalog … But Long Live Catalogs!

The news came out a few weeks ago: Victoria’s Secret – one of the most iconic catalogs of the last few decades – will be discontinued sometime this year.

The news came out a few weeks ago:  Victoria’s Secret – one of the most iconic catalogs of the last few decades – will be discontinued sometime this year.

VictSecretB_01Parent company L Brands cited high costs and a need to simplify its brand, but let’s face it, it’s also about the internet, especially mobile, and how it’s more and more the preferred channel for many customers.

That’s why this move isn’t that big a deal. One factor identified by the company was that testing revealed that eliminating the catalog mailings in a few areas had little to no effect on sales. As creative director Carol Worthington-Levy told me, “test-test-test.”

I’ve been thinking of other catalogs that show up on my desk every day at Who’s Mailing What! and how they differentiate themselves in the marketplace. What makes them special? Why do they stick with print?

Here are a few ideas about what works for catalogers today.

1. Photography & Paper
Patagonia_01Patagonia is an apparel and gear brand that has long relied on matching spectacular photography with the merchandise it sells in its catalogs. The paper even feels good, kind of satiny in my hands  – the same paper that makes those images looks so good. Patagonia even published a coffee table book, Unexpected, that featured photos from the catalog over the years.

2. Social Awareness
Penzey_03A lot of catalogs use content (more on that later), but not many express a viewpoint or advocate for a cause. Uline is one I can think of right away, with a new issue addressed every few months. Another one is Penzey’s, the spice catalog. In this example, it ran stories of people involved in Milwaukee’s public transit struggles around recipes and the ingredients they required.

3. Transparency
Lush_01Lush is a cosmetics retailer that at the front of the catalog announces its commitment to using responsible packaging, buying ethically, and opposing animal testing. Each product listing includes its ingredients.

4. Fun
I’ve always liked catalogs selling products that are good for a little laugh, but this heavy card stock paper football game from Zoro, the tool supplier, really caught my eye. It’s more elaborate than what I ever did as a kid, and it has the company brand on it. Nicely done.

5. Curation
TravelsmithCurate_01You can sell clothing or other merchandise, so how about championing your expertise? Lots of style guides do this, laying out the trends for a new season, or maybe putting together a wardrobe. TravelSmith here talks about how its team starts a year in advance to select materials and styles for its apparel.

6. Content
Design_01I never miss an opportunity to look at how catalogers use content, and there are too many to easily name. And, I’ve already mentioned Patagonia and Penzey’s. is another catalog that’s much more like a magazine.

This is a great example from Design Within Reach, the furniture brand. A recent issue of the catalog featured a collection based on the work of George Nelson. Besides articles about the late designer, the stories behind individual items are told.

Somewhere along the line, after changing how lingerie is sold in several retail channels, the economic rationale for Victoria’s Secret’s continued existence as a printed catalog ended. But with so many exciting developments under way, like programmatic print, and augmented reality, the age of the catalog is far from over.