By Brianna Ahearn, contributing writer
The 1980s and the 1990s saw the department store catalog in its golden days, however, digital soon replaced a large number of retailers' paper catalogs, in particular from J.C. Penney. With the internet, it was easier to shop than ever, and by ending paper catalogs, retailers saved on printing and shipping fees. While some retailers such as Pottery Barn, West Elm and Ikea, still send out catalogs, department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney moved their inventory showcase to online. J.C. Penney officially retired their Big Book in 2009, but now five years later, they're bringing back the catalog. In late January, The Wall Street Journal and other sources such as NPR reported on the return of the Big Book.
J.C. Penney first ventured into the catalog business in 1963, sending three “Big Books” annually to customers nationwide. Contained within the glossy pages were pages upon pages of homeware items, luxury goods, toys, jewelry and more. The catalog business was one of the cornerstones for J.C. Penney, and when Sears stopped publishing their own main catalog in 1993, J.C. Penney took up the helm as one of the biggest largest catalog retailers in the industry. The department store would also send out smaller catalogs for some of its popular product categories such as kitchen items. Eventually these catalogs were phased out in later years.
The Internet made catalogs seem obsolete when it was it news, but now catalogs seem to be experiencing a renaissance. Research from the Direct Mail Association shows that catalog mailings still remain above 10 billion, with 11.9 mailed in 2013, and The Kurt Salmon Review examined how effective an old-fashioned print catalog is on digital sales. The research by Kurt Salmon showed that catalogs help drive digital sales, with 58% of shoppers saying they browse catalogs for ideas, and 31% of shoppers indicating they have a retail catalog handy when they make a purchase online. The data revealed by the researchers demonstrates that in the world of omnichannel retail, a catalog is valuable to consumers and could impact sales. Kurt Salmon also found that the average online order was 6% lower than orders placed through a direct mail catalog. Whether J.C. Penney resurrects the “Big Book” or not, it should see the catalog help its sales.
J.C. Penney is trying to recover its business after suffering significant losses, which saw its revenue plummet to $17.8 billion in 2011, down from $20 billion five years earlier. Retail experts look at a regime change as the reason for the loss. Ron Johnson, formerly of Apple, had been hired as CEO. Upon taking control, Johnson got rid of coupons and implemented a new pricing structure, with “Every Day” prices instead of sales prices, and “Best Price” days for certain days of the month, as well as changing all prices to remove 7s and 9's. In the years that followed, J.C. Penney saw the company President, Michael Francis, leave his position, and in 2013, Johnson was fired. This year, J.C. Penney announced they would be closing over 30 stores and laying off a workforce of over 2,250 employees. The company is set to release their Q4 earnings this week.