I know at least one person who’s breathing a sigh of relief that the Christmas shopping season is finally over: Our mail carrier.
The faithful Gilly tells us that our address gets more catalogs than any other home on his route. We don’t doubt him. Since the middle of last summer, we seem to have attracted the attention of every mail-order seller in the USA. The burden — for poor Gilly — must be staggering.
It wasn’t long ago that marketing pundits were predicting the end of ink-on-paper selling … a quaint practice deemed unlikely to outlast the lure of the Internet. Nope. The onslaught seemed greater than ever in 2015, as retail-by-mailers apparently concurred that their last, best hope of ending the year in the black was to try to lure the Hansons into ordering their heart’s desires.
There has not been one day since last summer when our mailbox did not reveal at least one catalog. On a number of afternoons, we’ve lugged more than a dozen back up the driveway to the house, along with our daily ration of credit-card invitations, fund-raising pleas, Herberger’s flyers and — of course — bills.
These aren’t sleazy, low-budget productions, either: With copious full-color photos and printing quality that equals art books, these catalog publishers are playing for keeps. From Hawaiian surfboard shorts to 24-carat fountain pens, from exotic garden seeds and otherworldly tools to those grabby gadgets for octogenarians, the exotic merchandise they purvey to our modest Moorhead household seems diabolically designed to tantalize the imagination, tease the senses and tempt the sturdiest resolve to keep that plastic in our pockets.
Why us? A couple reasons come to mind. First, we’ve lived at this address for 31 years, giving corporate America plenty of time to add us to every single mailing list in America.
Second, the man of the house is a power user of King Arthur Flour and what seems like every product in its recipe-infused, mouthwatering baking supply catalogs. Big Data has us slotted into a prime category: “direct-mail responsive.”
And third, we belong to that prized over-50 demographic that grew up with the Montgomery Ward, Sears and J.C. Penney catalogs.
Montgomery Ward was the Never Never Land of my childhood. Growing up in North Dakota villages far from the consumer wonderlands of cities — or even larger towns that could boast their own Johnson Store and Gambles Hardware — my first vision of the delights to be coveted in the great, big world beyond was formed by the great Chicago mail-order merchant.
Founded long before North Dakota’s statehood, America’s original mail-order peddler quickly became the lifeline that brought all kinds of costly goods into rural homes like ours. While more urban children might press their noses to department-store windows, Dewald’s Fairway in Streeter, N.D., just couldn’t hold a candle. Instead, those annual fall and spring catalogs, thicker than a good-sized brick, held all the allure of the postwar American prosperity we avidly followed on TV.
And then there was Ward’s magical Christmas Wish Book.
By the time I was old enough to long for a Betsy McCall doll, Mr. Potato Head, Lincoln Logs and an Easy Bake oven, Ward’s Christmas book defined all childish desires. It arrived long, long before the holiday season. From the moment it landed, my little brother and I became greedy little power shoppers, thoughtfully weighing dizzying options as our “wants” inflated and our modest “needs” slid to the far side of our imaginations.
Montgomery Ward’s heyday came to an end approximately at the same time shopping centers overtook Main Streets of home-owned stores and Big Box retailers infiltrated even the most rural outposts. The Ward catalog died in 1985. Sears and J.C. Penney soldier on, but the thrill is pretty much gone … especially now that the Internet has opened the doors to absolutely every merchant selling every single thing that can be imagined.
But Catalogs 2.0, the rejuvenated specialty sales books that crowd our mailbox, continue to thrive in full flower. It always seems unlikely to Russ and me, as we pull our weekly Land’s End or Duluth Trading from the mail, that this expensive retail selling channel can generate sales in excess of what it costs to print and mail … but apparently its bottom line is still in the black.
The Harvard Business Review reports that direct mail advertising still generates a better response rate than email, but direct mail costs about 100 times as much. About four in 100 who receive their sales literature via mail carrier (including, but not limited to, catalogs) are said to take action on its offers. Yet the catalogs’ rate of return (in the same study) is $12.18 per dollar spent, compared to $5.26 per dollar in other sales channels.
And who are the most desirable catalog shoppers today? Why, you guessed it, people just like us: Over 50, living in small- and medium-sized cities … young enough to lug 5 daily pounds of mail from the curb to the kitchen, but old enough to still remember finding that glossy Montgomery Ward wish book in the mailbox, promising to bring any dream and temptation the planet, right to our own front door.