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The catalog, derived from the Greek katalogos, meaning "to list," was first published in 15th century Europe and offered books and gardening supplies. By the end of the 18th century, such catalogs had proliferated in England. America's first mail-order catalog, produced in 1744 by Benjamin Franklin, also offered books.

Rural America was largely responsible for the early success of the catalog giants Aaron Montgomery Ward and Richard Sears. In 1872, Mr. Ward published a discount general merchandise catalog as a price list on a single, unillustrated sheet of paper. By 1884, Mr. Ward's catalog had expanded to 240 pages and offered 12,000 items. Mr. Sears, a railroad agent, purchased an unclaimed shipment of watches in 1886. Using a mailing list, he resold the watches for a profit and started a catalog of watches and jewelry. By 1895, Mr. Sears and his business partner, Alvah C. Roebuck, were issuing a general merchandise catalog of more than 500 pages.

Apparel offerings

During the first half of the 20th century, several apparel catalogs were launched, including Spiegel (1904), L.L. Bean (1912) and Eddie Bauer (1920), as general merchandise catalogs aimed at the rural population enjoyed strong growth. After World War II, the catalog business began to diversify, with specialty catalogs such as Spencer Gifts and Sunset House emerging to supply the middle-class market with household items and gifts.

Between the 1960s and 1980s, a confluence of socioeconomic forces led to a momentous change in catalog advertising. The increased participation of women in the workforce created dual-income households with greater discretionary income but a correspondingly greater need for convenience. Catalogs provided this convenience, while toll-free telephone numbers and credit cards simplified the ordering process.

Advances in technology enabled catalogers to better target those consumers likely to respond favorably to their particular offerings. Computers compiled mailing lists of upscale consumers from ZIP code-level census data. Department stores such as Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue began preparing multiple versions of their catalogs for selective mailing based on consumer buying habits. Even Sears, built on its general merchandise catalog, adopted these techniques in the early 1980s, producing up to 19 specialty catalogs ranging from western wear to toys.

By 1982, more than 5,000 catalogs were being published in the U.S.; the average household received 40 catalogs a year. Glossy specialty catalogs (e.g., The Sharper Image, Williams-Sonoma) that targeted niche markets were emerging as dominant and, by 1984, attracted approximately 66% of all catalog sales.

Although the industry experienced double-digit annual growth during the 1980s, it experienced a shakeout, too. Most noteworthy was the failure of old-line general merchandise catalogs. Montgomery Ward ceased catalog advertising in 1985 after several years of $50 million losses due to operational inefficiencies.

With industry sales reaching $45 billion in 1985, The Sharper Image, Spiegel, Neiman-Marcus and Marshall Field's began selling advertising space in their catalogs to defray operating costs. Meanwhile, other catalogers, such as Talbot's, Brookstone and Banana Republic, embraced storefront retailing to attract customers from among the estimated 43% of catalog-resistant U.S. households.

Catalog advertisers were also confronted with competition from TV home shopping, leading them to partner with shopping channels or shows or to produce their own "videologs." For example, Sears had an interest in QVC Network, which sold Sears products for several years.

By the early 1990s, aggressive U.S. catalogers were mailing more than 13 billion catalogs each year. In those difficult economic times, rising production and mailing costs compounded a slowdown in consumer spending. Catalogers responded to this intensely competitive environment with efforts to pinpoint, by name and address, targets for ever more specialized collections of merchandise. Lands' End issued Coming Home; Talbot's mailed books promoting dress-up clothes for children; and Sears published 50 specialty catalogs in addition to its semi-annual big book.

Catalog makeovers

To distinguish themselves from the competition and build greater reader involvement, especially among women, catalogers implemented catalog makeovers in the image of magazines. The J. Peterman catalog was perhaps the best-known example of that practice, using vivid, personal and chatty copy that often told a story about the merchandise.

In 1992, J.C. Penney Co. supplanted Sears as the U.S.' largest cataloger, thanks not to its 1,400-page big book but to its 100-plus specialty books. The venerable Sears catalog, at the time losing more than $100 million annually, was shuttered in 1993. Apparel catalogers Spiegel, Lands' End, L.L. Bean and The Limited held firm as industry leaders; however, they would soon be displaced by rapidly growing computer product catalogers such as Dell Computer, Gateway and IBM.

By the mid-1990s, catalogers faced further expansion of shopping alternatives such as TV infomercials and interactive technology. Cooperative CD-ROM catalogs were developed as "malls on disk," with multiple catalogers displaying their merchandise on a single disk.

Online catalog shopping came next. Speedy personal computers and modems allowed consumers to explore the World Wide Web. From virtually zero in 1995, online sales jumped to more than $8 billion in 1998. By 2001, the figure had reached $30 billion, according to the Direct Marketing Association. And with about 84% of catalog companies on the Web, online selling, rather than replacing paper catalogs, appeared to be aiding them. In 2000, the DMA said, the Internet generated 13% of all catalog sales.

Catalog sales reached about $110 billion in 2001, according to the DMA. Forecasts indicated continued growth to $155 billion by 2005.

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