After killing it five years ago, J.C. Penney Co. is bringing back its iconic print catalog. Why? The company is now “armed with data showing that many of its online sales came from shoppers inspired by what they saw in print,” according to the Wall Street Journal, who first reported the story.

Before doing away with its print catalog in 2009, J.C. Penney sent out three “Big Books” annually, some with over 1,000 pages. Additionally, the company sent 70 smaller catalogs focused on niche markets like school uniforms, kitchen products and window coverings. Penney launched its catalog in 1963 and enthusiastically embraced the medium.

By 2010, the company sent none. They’re now admitting that stopping the catalogs was a big mistake that lost them countless customers.

Here are some lessons from J.C. Penney’s mistake that may also be applied to some marketers at small businesses that are traditional and online retailers.

Online and in-store sales often originate offline and away from the store

J.C. Penney learned that what they thought were online sales were actually catalog shoppers using the website to place their orders. “We lost a lot of customers,” Penney’s CEO Mike Ullman confesses.

Lesson: Your business isn’t where you are; your business is wherever your customers are.

Print has unique strengths hard to replicate online

Bonobos, a men’s retailer with roots in the web, started using print catalogs in March 2013. “We found that the catalog allowed us to tell a fuller narrative about the brand and our products in a way that we were struggling to do online.” Craig Elbert, Bonobo’s vice president of marketing told

Lesson: Different forms of marketing, and different types of media, all have different strengths and weaknesses. There’s no “one-and-done” when it comes to serving customers.

Customers may say they don’t like catalogs, but then act differently

Some 44% of consumers say they want to get fewer of them in the mail, but according to direct retail consultancy Kurt Salmon, 31% of shoppers have a catalog with them when they make an online purchase.

Lesson: It’s not enough to communicate with customers online and at a physical location. Reaching out to your most loyal customers should use multiple channels.

New catalog formats are more like magazines than catalogs

Restoration Hardware mails 13 different lifestyle catalogs that appear as lush as any coffee table magazine. While the volume of the publications (in total, 3,300 pages) have drawn complaints from customers, the company’s sales have increased since introducing the new approach.

Lesson: Direct marketing with print catalogs is no longer about cramming as many products onto a page as possible. The catalog needs to provide the same experience a customer has when visiting the store or website.

Focus on narrow niches, not the “Big Book”

J.C. Penney is focusing its return to catalogs on just one category: Home Goods. That’s the category that accounts for 40% of sales and it’s the category in which they lost a significant number of customers after doing away with catalogs.

Lesson: Print direct marketing works best when narrowly directed to the customers with an affinity for the products promoted.

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