Dan Nielsen

Something arrived in my USPS mailbox that delivered a flashback to a marketing technique I thought had been retired.

Amazon mailed me a 90-page catalog. It was addressed to “Current Resident.” At my house, that means me. Unless it’s something my wife wants to look at.

In recent years, we’ve received a smattering of thin, relatively emaciated catalogs from businesses like Duluth Trading and Fingerhut. I’ve worn Duluth clothing in years past. But I still don’t know why parts of my hand would need a hut, and I’ve never purchased anything from that company.

This new catalog from Amazon is much heftier than those recent competitors.

It instantly made me think of the massive catalogs from Sears, JC Penney and Montgomery Ward that used to be in every American home. Those things were two or three inches thick and weighed several pounds.

The old Sears and Roebuck catalog at various points in its long history advertised everything from bottle openers to outboard motors to entire kit houses. I recall the JC Penney catalog focusing much more sharply on clothing and linens. Both annual mail-order behemoths included plenty of items intended for children.

Sears in 1933 began publishing an annual Christmas Book, a separate catalog that typically was an inch-thick tome dripping with sweaters, bicycles, hunting rifles and countless of toys. JC Penney soon followed suit.

As I should have guessed from the seasonal timing, Amazon’s paper catalog includes 76 pages of toys. It also features several pages of activities like color-by-number and stickers, three pages of children’s clothing, one page of child-themed bedding and a partridge in a pear tree.

Just kidding about the partridge, but there is a stylized drawing of a pine tree on page three. And one of the stickers is some sort of cartoon bird.

Anyway, I was struck by Amazon’s swivel from its 100-percent online business model to this foray into the direct-mailed paper catalog scene. I was sure the internet had killed paper catalogs and buried them six feet under.

The once-mighty retail paper catalog industry counted among its customers J.Crew, The Sharper Image, Witmark, Billabong, and American Science and Surplus. Many other companies used catalogs to tout mail-order offerings.

Amazon’s business model is the direct descendant of the mail-order catalog. CEO Jeff Bezos just used new technology to improve on the concept. Instead of paper, Amazon uses countless programmers and technicians, thousands of computer servers, endless miles of fiber-optic cable and who knows how many megawatts of electric power.

Consumers used to page through paper catalogs searching for needs and wants. Now consumers scroll through listings on a web page.

Electronic shopping offers many advantages over print catalogs. But there’s still something delightfully spontaneous about leafing through a paper catalog. Tapping a phone screen, by comparison, feels sterile. With a paper catalog, there are no low batteries and no waiting for images to load. And if you aren’t quite ready to buy, you can fold over a corner of the page to mark the spot.

Amazon’s paper catalog lacks one thing that is essential for comparison shopping: Prices.

The company’s print catalog is merely a teaser, designed to deliver shoppers to the website. Shoppers aim their smartphone camera at a QR code on the paper page, then take a photo of the printed picture of the item they’re interested in, and the item then appears on the smartphone screen. Only then can a shopper see the price.

Old catalogs prominently displayed item prices, because that was the whole point: Image plus price equals decision to buy.

Amazon’s new catalog provides images of the items, but forces shoppers through electronic hoops to view price. The decision to buy isn’t as fast as in the Golden Age of the catalog — but other parts of the shopping process move more quickly.

Back then, once you decided to buy, you had to use a pen to fill in a paper order form, write a paper check, address an envelope, lick a stamp, and wait a couple of weeks for items to arrive.

In our modern electronic world, once you decide to buy, all you need to do is click on your smartphone screen a couple of times and wait a day or two for the items to arrive.

Amazon is experimenting with the priceless paper catalog to see if it can generate additional sales.

I wonder if the experiment will result in a long-term strategic use of paper — or just a stop-gap technique to reach house-bound but toy-hungry children during the coronavirus pandemic.

Only time will tell if the catalog makes some kind of lasting return to the marketplace. Will today’s children, raised on a diet of online shopping, have any interest in paging through 90 paper pages of toy listings? Or will the Amazon experiment prove to be a flop among kids accustomed to swiping and scrolling?

Older folks like me feel a pang of nostalgia when we pull the Amazon catalog out of our mailboxes.

But today’s kids have no memory of those giant JC Penney and Sears catalogs. The idea probably seems quaint to them, as outdated as biplanes and glass thermometers that need to be inserted under the tongue.

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