A mock-up of a spread from the Spoonflower catalog.
Photo courtesy of Spoonflower.
If you’ve noticed a recent decline in the number of catalogs in your mailbox, you’re not alone. Many companies across the United States are scaling back direct mail programs. The total number of catalogs mailed annually has been in steady decline since its peak in 2007, when 19.6 billion catalogs were mailed, according to the Data & Marketing Association. The most recent data shows that in 2017, companies mailed only 9.4 billion catalogs, a drop of more than 50%.
Many craft companies have contributed to that reduction by taking their marketing online. And yet some in the craft industry are ramping up catalog production. What’s motivating their various approaches? We surveyed a handful of companies to find out how marketing is evolving in the digital age, and how catalogs are staying relevant.
Going digital for the environment Dharma Trading
For more than 50 years, customers have come to Dharma Trading Co. for their fiber art and clothing design needs. For most of that time, the company sent out both spring and fall catalogs, but about 15 years ago they re-evaluated their process, says Vice President David Goff. Their busiest time is summer when customers are creating work for sale at craft fairs; sending a catalog in the quiet season stopped making sense.
Dharma dropped their fall catalog and was pleased to find that customers stuck around. This year they continued to evaluate, and for the 2020 catalog, Goff says a number of factors steered them to go digital, including the environment. “We started feeling like in 2020, with the prevalence of the digital age, it was irresponsible of us to use 150,000 pounds of paper each year just to print this book.” Printing was also expensive, and approximately 95 percent of orders already came through the website.
In early March 2020, Dharma released their first all-digital catalog as a PDF on their website. “We wanted to move into the future, and not be afraid and hold on to practices that we’ve been doing for 50 years just because we’ve been doing them for 50 years,” says Goff. The move to digital means they can list many more products than would fit into a print catalog, he says.
And the digital approach solved the problem of inaccurate pricing in print: “The prices were changing so quickly that as soon as we issued the catalog, the prices were out of date.” In the current digital catalog, no prices are listed; instead, customers browse the catalog and then find current pricing at the website, where it can be updated daily. The company has been working on a long-term project that links all product listings in the digital catalog to their corresponding web pages.
“Not having a physical book is definitely different,” says Goff. “But we don’t want to be afraid. We’re giving it a try… and hopefully, customers will not reject it.”
Catalogs that inspire at Crafts Group
Formerly known as Crafts Americana, Crafts Group is the publisher of Connecting Threads (serving quilters) and KnitPicks (serving knitters). “For every brand, you need a critical mass to make catalog marketing efficient,” says Matt Petkun, president and CEO of Crafts Group. He says the company serves a large audience, showing up in their homes an average of eight times a year.
Petkun says many of their customers don’t buy through the catalogs; the catalogs inspire visits to the corresponding websites, where purchases are made.
“A lot of our customers refer to our catalogs as a magazine,” says Petkun. “That’s how they view it; we’re part of their crafting journey.”
Crafts Group is not making meaningful changes to their catalog plan; they’re extra-busy right now, especially with Connecting Threads, where a large amount of current business is fabric for mask-making.
It’s the crochet world where Crafts Group is mixing things up under the direction of Chief Marketing Officer Ursula Morgan, former CEO of Creativebug. She’s spearheading WeCrochet, a dedicated community website, and an accompanying quarterly magazine that’s both digital and printed “on the most beautiful paper,” she says, “all about the celebration of the yarn itself.” Morgan says today’s consumers interact with brands, and crafting in general, with more emphasis on education and community. WeCrochet is meant to nurture that community. (The company released the digital version of WeCrochet early this quarter, before the print edition was available, to “let our audience get their inspiration/entertainment early,” says Morgan.)
Stories + DIY features at Spoonflower
Spoonflower, the company that designed the print-on-demand fabric industry, recently published the 11th edition of its quarterly magazine. “It is a bit more evolved from shopping from a catalog,” says Sarah Ward, senior vice president of marketing, in that it contains lots of inspirational stories and DIY features. Usually a print production, the recent issue is all-digital. The company made that decision three or four months ago (they have to commit to paper stock about three months in advance).
The company has 1.8 million designs in its marketplace, and there’s no way they can include them all in a catalog; instead, the magazine features about 200 designers in each issue, and the recent digital edition is completely shoppable with direct links to products on the website. Ward says the digital experiment is similar in scope to the usual print magazine, with an emphasis on mindfulness about the audience’s ability to stay focused.
“We try to be tight, we try to be quick, we try to be poignant, and we try to be as essential as possible,” says Ward.
Spoonflower has always had an ethos of eco-consciousness, says Ward. “We’re trying to lean into…our commitment to being eco-friendly.” A key question they’re waiting to see answered is, “Can we generate enough digital and virtual conversation about a publication when it’s not in paper form?” If yes, the company plans to continue on the digital path, segmenting issues into topics. (The first digital issue, offered via the Issuu platform, was all fabric by the yard and DIY projects; the next will focus on home decor).
Annie’s embraces segmentation
Started as a direct mail company in the 1970s, Annie’s has seen its catalog circulation decline since the 1990s, impacted by the evolution of online shopping. They still send catalogs about once a month throughout the year, changing the size of mailings depending on the season, says Jon Rosswurm, new customer acquisition director. While the company has recently increased its online marketing spending, it has also boosted the circulation of print catalogs.
“Our merchandising department, the people who stay in tune with what is selling…they do a really good job of selecting products for our customers,” says Rosswurm. In addition to trendspotting, the team is targeting younger audiences with Annie’s Signature Designs — crochet patterns for wearables which are released a couple of times a year.
In February 2019, Annie’s split their single catalog into multiple offerings, creating Annie’s Crochet & Knit and Annie’s Quilt & Sew. Rosswurm says that while there’s overlap between the audiences, “it’s better when the front cover and the contents of the catalogs speak to the individual buyer. When you send them a catalog…and it feels like home to them, the response rate and AOV (average order value) both increase.” Rosswurm says Annie’s will continue to experiment with audience segmentation and personalization, with the aim of further boosting circulation.
Jenni Grover is the founder of the School of Creative Resilience, where she teaches people how to tap into their innate creativity, grow it as a resource, and use it to boost resilience and joy. She currently offers digital courses, in-person workshops, and consulting services. Jenni is also Vice President of the Chicago Modern Quilt Guild.