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Catalog Themes In Keeping With the Times

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Products and promotions reveal the realities of today's shoppers.

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For me, the holiday kicked off weeks before Black Friday and Cyber Monday. By Veterans Day, at least 40 catalogs had landed in my mailbox -- pushing holiday toys, Christmas sweaters, and even delicacies from a deli in Ann Arbor.

What ever happened to the Internet making print obsolete?

Despite my personal deluge, the Internet does overshadow catalog sales, and has for years, according to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). In 2008, catalogs gathered $137.7 billion in sales compared to $480.8 billion for the Internet.

In a report co-produced by the DMA and the United States Postal Service, 19.5 billion catalogs were dropped in 2008, following a peak of 19.6 billion in 2007.

J.C. Penney (JCP) this month pulled the plug on its massive "Big Book" catalog, something Sears (SHLD) did back in 1993, as it became clear that people didn't shop as much from these mammoth doorstops.

According to Experian Marketing Services, the giant credit-card processing/global information services company, almost half of all purchases from catalogs are made during the last two calendar months of the year. Women shop more from them than men do, and households without children make more purchases.

While catalogs no longer qualify as quintessential Americana, they've morphed into look-books that drive carefully selected shoppers to websites and stores.

Their covers still reflect the mood of the times. The National Retail Federation estimates sales will be down by 1% this holiday season, and catalogs and companion websites don't seem as celebratory and frivolous as in previous years.

Cover themes of hearth, home, and family traditions proliferate. Pottery Barn Kids' catalog is blandly titled "Holiday Traditions" and features two children with a plate of cookies for Santa. Pottery Barn (WSM) proper is equally circumspect with its wreath cover and "Comfort & Joy" title.

Back to Basics Toys presents the most basic of all toys on its cover, Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. The more upscale merchant, Nordstrom (JWN), hits the same traditional tone with its holiday catalog, but in a more subtle way, using an illustration of birds peering out of a snow-brushed birdhouse to suggest nesting at home.

Discounting, another tried and true marketing theme of troubled times, is also a rampant theme on the catalogs I've received so far. (See also Retailers Gird for Battle with Black Friday Deals)

While free-shipping offers are routine, devoting the entire cover to a free-shipping pitch, as Chefs Catalog did by ceding its Holiday 2009 cover space to the words "Free Shipping on Orders of $99 or More" pretty much sums up what matters most to many shoppers this year.

Williams-Sonoma Home (WSM) touts on its cover savings of up to $100 on cashmere, while UK clothier Boden has a buy three items, get one for $1 offer on its front page. L.L. Bean is plugging a free $10 gift card with a purchase of $25.

The catalog that took me most aback this year comes from a surprising new entrant to the field. CVS (CVS), which usually goes with newspaper-stock weekly fliers, has produced a shiny, bright red, 86-page, perfect-bound catalog/gift guide for the holidays.

Headlined, "Seasons to Save," it has plenty of coupons and typical drugstore fare. But CVS also puts itself in the holiday-gift derby with this catalog, which promotes, of all things, Grey Goose Vodka and Ketel One gift sets, plush robe and slipper sets, patterned dog sweaters, a telescope, and a "genuine leather jacket" for $19.99.

When CVS (CVS) promotes $20 leather jackets in glossy, upscale-looking catalogs, that's a clear sign of a changing shopper and a new holiday retail environment.

(For more on the holiday outlook as it pertains to investors, see UPS, FedEx See Brighter Holidays.)
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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