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December 17th, 2017

Insight

Catalogs buy us our dreams

Ana Veciana-Suarez

By Ana Veciana-Suarez

Published December 17, 2014

One of my great joys during the holiday season -- along with the (mostly) merry family reunions -- is skipping to the mailbox every evening to retrieve the dazzling array of catalogs that arrive daily. They are as much fun to study as the greeting card photographs of nieces and nephews and cousins.

How quaint, no?

Before the Internet, before Zappos and Amazon Prime, before ship-to-store and free returns, there were print catalogs. Thin books and heavy tomes, full-color run or the more pedestrian black-and-white: all worlds on display. Of course, there are not nearly as many catalogs as there once were. The number mailed in the United States fell again last year, to 11.8 billion, the lowest level since the Direct Marketing Association has been keeping track, and down from a peak of 19.6 billion in 2007. There's also the unfortunate matter of haters who toss catalogs in the trash without bothering to browse. In a study, 44 percent of consumers actually said they wanted fewer in the mail. Blasphemy!

But those retailers that have stuck with print even as business has migrated to the web know there's a certain appeal to turning a page. Or to saving the catalog for a leisurely escape from the mundane. I'm firmly in the camp that's happy with the quantity and quality she gets delivered to her physical inbox. In this digital era of one-click shopping, we catalog fans hold steady to our seasonal fix. Oh yes, we do. Though catalogs are delivered throughout the year, Christmastime seems to be when the publishing elves are busiest. They arrive by the dozen, catalogs do, a herd of hope and happiness.

Analysts at the management consulting firm Kurt Salmon recently wrote an article about the phenomenon of catalogs in a digital world. They concluded that the concept was evolving to meet our changing retail needs. Once a prime source of actual transactions, catalogs are now "a potent source of inspiration." About 86 percent of women ages 18 to 30 buy an item online after first seeing it in a catalog. No surprise there.

Few things soothe me as much as sitting down in the corner of the sofa to thumb through one of these colorful books, legs tucked under my butt, coffee mug at the ready. I know it sounds hopelessly old-fashioned. And it probably is -- which may be why I like catalogs so much. There's something delightfully slow and thoughtful in the act of examining items on a glossy page instead of a blinking screen. I spend too much time in front of the latter and too little with the former.

I like browsing the Pottery Barn and the Pier 1 Imports catalogs, the Williams Sonoma, the Crate and Barrel, and the Restoration Hardware ones, too. And yes, I'll admit to a fascination with Victoria's Secret. I peruse pages for the home decor I will never display and the body I will never own. Maybe it's an ingrained habit, like preferring conversation instead of texting, or a yearning for another life, like thinking I'm going to throw out my smartphone one day.

But really, does the reason even matter? Catalogs simply speak to me.

My neighbor and I, for example, trade them like women once swapped recipes over picket fences.

"Wouldn't you like that duvet on your bed?" she'll ask starry-eyed.

"Sure thing," I'll reply, sighing. "When I win the lottery."

After all, paging through catalogs, circling items we hanker for, is the safest way to traffic in dreams.

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Ana Veciana-Suarez is a family columnist for The Miami Herald.

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