industry insider | Apr 20, 2021 |
The home industry is newly obsessed with catalogs. Here’s why

You don’t know Polly Wong, but you’ve gotten her mail. Wong is the president of Belardi Wong, a direct mail agency that helps brands—especially home brands—reach their customers through good old-fashioned catalogs, pamphlets and inserts. Surprisingly, in the year 2021, when you can 3D-print a tape dispenser and do an interior design project over Zoom, the business of mail is booming.

“My business partner and I would sit in airport bars for years and talk about how to future-proof our business [as] everything’s moving to digital,” Wong tells Business of Home. As it turns out, they shouldn’t have worried. “We have now launched over 200 D2C brands into the mail over the past five years. Everybody wants to be in the mail.”

“Everybody” is a fairly accurate description of Belardi Wong’s clientele in the home world. Wong told me her company has an 80 percent market share in the category, and its customer list certainly backs that up, ranging from retail powerhouses like Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, Arhaus and Serena & Lily to blue-chip D2Cs like Brooklinen, Parachute and Framebridge. (Yes, Belardi Wong even works with the most famous—or infamous, depending on whom you ask—catalog merchant in home, RH.)

Why is a centuries-old method of communication still thriving in the digital age? For one, in an increasingly ephemeral world, there’s an opportunity to stand out simply by coming at customers with a physical piece of paper. “One hundred percent of consumers see the mail we send them,” says Wong. “Even to recycle it, you’ve got to touch it.”

That's not particularly new. But a big driver of the mail surge that has emerged in the past few years is the rapidly rising cost of ads on Facebook and Google. A catalog with postage, says Wong, costs a company roughly 60 cents to ship, whereas a single click generated by a digital ad can easily cost a home brand $4. “Incredibly, you can mail four to six catalogs to a highly targeted audience for the cost of one click,” says Wong. “Digital marketing has become so expensive that it’s actually more reasonable to mail catalogs.”

The skyrocketing cost of digital ads has sent many companies, even digitally native startups, to explore analog marketing solutions like the mail. When they get there, they tend to discover that catalogs are every bit as data-driven as Instagram ads. Wong describes a dizzyingly complex system of targeting that matches ripe potential customers (for example, new homeowners) with the right piece of mail, then seeks to track the results by linking the data to their online shopping habits.

“In the springtime, one of the variables we add to the customer file is whether or not somebody has bought outdoor furniture in the past—we might send a dedicated outdoor furniture catalog to somebody who has,” she says. “But if we’re sending to somebody who has never bought outdoor furniture for this brand, we might send them a catalog with outdoor furniture on the cover, but the inside of the catalog shows the full range of the product.”

All of this postal matchmaking is done under a complicated system of privacy protections, in which the owners of centralized lists keep track of fine-grained details on consumers but anonymize them before sharing with agencies like Belardi Wong.

(In case you’re wondering: You get catalogs you never asked for because, at some point, when you bought something, you didn’t read the fine print on a brand’s privacy agreement, and they sold your info to a list. Also, Wong says home brands absolutely do send catalogs to interior designers specifically—though they’re notoriously difficult customers to track because they’re often shipping to multiple addresses or making purchases on a client’s credit card instead of their own.)

Wong’s company works across a variety of industries, and most of the factors driving the catalog surge apply whether you’re selling shoes or sofas. But the home industry, she says, stands apart for its large, high-production-value catalogs. In fashion, direct mail is now aiming to push customers to make a quick purchase, usually online—so clothing catalogs have gotten leaner. In home, says Wong, the sales process can take months and months. As a result, brands seek to deliver a more aspirational message to customers.

“Home is where we still see lots of pages and big dimensions. It’s aspirational and inspirational, and they have more lifestyle photography,” she says. “It’s not your mother’s catalog anymore, it’s not the J.C. Penney look. There’s more storytelling, more white space, less item density, less product copy. Catalogs are more like lookbooks now.”

Another unique driver for the home catalog boom, says Wong, is simply the vibrance of the underlying market. “The affluent consumer was at home spending a ton of money last year, and she was spending more money on home than anywhere else,” she says. “Our home clients are acquiring new customers profitably because the results are so strong in the affluent consumer category. We expect home to continue to be strong this year—we’re going to have a huge new mover and homeowner season. Last year was an amazing year for home; we think this year will be, as well.”

Homepage photo: naftizin/©Adobe Stock

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