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Retailers take another look at printed catalogs

Catalogs are getting a new lease on life as retailers try to battle email fatigue and other factors. (Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

In one TV commercial from this year's Toys R Us holiday campaign, a mom sweats through her cycling workout while her suspiciously helpful daughter tries to stir up a breeze.

"I'm just gonna leave this right here," the girl says, covering the stationary bike's display with her impromptu fan—an old-school mail-order catalog.

The Toys R Us catalog appears in several of the toy merchant's holiday ads, which coach kids that "the naughty list is not an option."

In a time of explosive growth for online buying, retailers and shoppers are showing renewed interest in a humble purchasing device that uses paper instead of pixels.

For the first time since 2011, Sears Holdings sent out the Sears Wish Book, a holiday tradition for generations of children. Although this year's catalog has the heft of a magazine rather than the phone-book size the department store chain produced when it was a retail juggernaut, the offerings are more extensive and searchable online.

Neiman Marcus Group, in the 2017 edition of its venerable Christmas Book, used a social media contest for 1,500 photos capturing happy moments to be featured in a cover collage. And home furnishings retailer Wayfair.com started mailing full-line catalogs last year.

Lauren von Bernuth, a Los Angeles boxing trainer, said the Sears and Neiman Marcus catalogs bring back pleasant memories of looking through them.

"It's nice to just put the phone down for once and have a physical object in your hands," Von Bernuth said. Amazon.com "just doesn't have that Christmas vibe."

Fewer catalogs are in the mail these days, 9.8 billion in 2016 compared with the 2007 peak of 19.6 billion, but consumers are paying more attention to them than ever, according to research by the Data & Marketing Association and the U.S. Postal Service.

"The ability to stand out in that physical mailbox is easier than it was 10 years ago," said Neil O'Keefe, senior vice president of content and marketing for the DMA. "Marketers are taking advantage of that and they are beginning to see a positive response."

In 2016, the response to catalogs increased 23 percent from the year before, O'Keefe said.

Companies are using print catalogs to cut through email clutter and social media saturation, said Denise Lee Yohn, a retail brands expert. The catalogs help "differentiate brands and sustain existing customer relationships," she said.

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