RIP: what can we learn from the demise of H&M’s paper catalogue?

Earlier this month, H&M published a press release announcing the imminent cancellation of their catalogue service. The H&M catalogue, published in six of the megabrand’s 72 markets, dated back to the Swedish mail-order business Rowells acquired by H&M back in 1980.

Among H&M’s stated reasons for the publication’s retraction is the brand’s commitment to sustainability. The press release also cited recent changes in consumer habits:

“As shopping patterns change and customers nowadays choose to shop online instead, we have decided to say goodbye to our catalogue. With more than 4,400 H&M-stores in 72 markets across the world and online shopping in 48 markets, we still offer fashion fans plenty of fashion inspiration in other channels that are more relevant to today’s consumers.”

H&M’s decision reflects the continuing industry-wide pivot towards digital marketing channels. IKEA reduced mail-outs of its famous print catalogue by 50% in 2018, while multi-brand kitchenware giant Williams Sonoma has been steadily reducing its spend on print marketing for years in favour of online channels – a policy that, according to CEO Laura Alber, has worked well for the company.

The general consensus among these businesses is that the former purpose of print catalogues – to introduce customers to new products, as well as valuable product information – is now being fulfilled online by the core ecommerce website.

But this isn’t to say that print marketing is completely dead. Research from the US Postal Service indicates that print ads and catalogues hold customer attention for longer than digital equivalents, and are better at stimulating areas of the brain related to desire and aspiration. And, in late 2018, Amazon released its first print catalogue covering toy products – a move mirrored in the same year by both eBay and Target. These investments indicate that print catalogues aren’t necessarily out of place in modern retail – but it does suggest that their role in the customer journey is evolving.

Where catalogue browsers once ordered their desired products over the phone or in-store, these days they are more likely to head online to convert. Even Argos, with its archetypal catalogue-based business model, is developing visual search technology that will allow customers to progress directly from viewing their paper catalogue to browsing their online store.

As a result, the print catalogue has become just another touchpoint in the ever-complexifying multichannel path to purchase. Far from opposing digital transformation, Amazon, Argos et al. are using print marketing as a physical gateway to their online channels.

But whether a brand chooses to lean into or away from print marketing, developing truly valuable online content that assists conversion (including informative product descriptions and buying guides) will inevitably be crucial to the performance of that business model. As the multichannel customer journey becomes more and more dependent on digital, with an increasing proportion of conversions taking place online, optimising website content has never been more vital.

To find out more about ecommerce content best practice, read our Quill Quality Score 100 report: the first independent investigation into the quality of website content in UK ecommerce.

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