Direct Mail vs. Catalogs…Is “Print” in Your Future?

If you are thinking about expanding your marketing program to include a print or direct mail strategy, this article is for you. A “print” strategy can help grow your business by driving new (and current) customers to your website. Direct mail will complement your ecommerce business by giving you another channel of distribution.

How do you get started? And, how do you decide between testing a catalog (including a Slim-Jim), postcard, flyer, or other direct mail program? For example, does it make sense to start with a direct mail test then move to a catalog format later? These are all good questions which I would like to address.

The type of mailing piece you decide to test initially depends on several factors. A primary consideration is the size of your product line, i.e., the number of SKU’s (Stock Keeping Units) available for sale. The quantity you want to print, and mail, is another important consideration. The size of your customer database is a factor, too. And, of course, the size of your budget.

To produce and mail a catalog, you need to have a minimum of 250 (300 is better) different merchandise offerings. The number of merchandise offers (as opposed to the number of SKUs) in a catalog is what drives the revenue. A catalog is like real estate … every square inch of space needs to produce a return on investment. An “offer” is defined as a product. An SKU could be a different color, size, etc.  Product breadth, depth and assortment are critical factors contributing to the success of a catalog program. Here are my minimum requirements for starting a catalog:

  1. 250 to 300 different merchandise offerings.
  2. Print run minimum of 100,000.
  3. 32 pages or more.
  4. Minimum of 5,000 customers on your house file.

Another important consideration is trim size. Standard trim sizes range from 6” x 9” for smaller Slim Jim formats up to 8” x 10-1/2” for full size catalogs and everything in between. Reducing the width or height of your catalog can save on paper and sometimes on postage cost, therefore, you should work with your printer on format options.

If you can’t meet the minimum requirements for starting a catalog, don’t worry, you can still test a “print” program. Direct mail and postcards are a good alternative. This media can be used effectively to remain in touch with your customers and to drive traffic to your website. Multiple items can be featured using direct mail, i.e., a flyer or solo mailing.

Costs do vary depending on the mailing format you select. Here is a cost comparison:



This chart shows the relative cost differences between a catalog vs. a postcard vs. a Slim-Jim. The number of square inches of selling space varies greatly. And so does the cost. This can help you decide which alternative is best for testing a “print” program strategy.

There are certain requirements for each of these mailing formats. For example, when mailing a postcard, it is best to feature only one or two products with a strong promotional offer. Selling space is limited, therefore, it is important to get the readers attention quickly. Catalogs are more for browsing. Direct mail is another format option.

I hope this information will help you think more about starting a mailing program. There are alternatives. The biggest bang-for-the-buck will come from a catalog format if you can meet the basic requirements. If not, direct mail and postcards are an excellent alternative. Be sure to define your objectives clearly and let us help you make the right choice.