Whenever I think about shopping, I almost automatically head to Amazon to browse, and I know I’m not the only one.
The site has revolutionized American retail and, these days, it’s almost impossible to avoid it. In fact, today’s consumers now spend over half of their holiday budgets online—and nearly half of those purchases are with Amazon.
The online retailer’s free Prime shipping program further encourages these consumer choices: during the fourth quarter of 2018, more than one billion Amazon items shipped for free with Prime—in the U.S. alone. And, as the extent of the environmental and human toll of these habits becomes more evident (cheap, single-use items qualify for free shipping and Amazon warehouses are reportedly unsafe for workers) many shoppers are beginning to seek out more ethical alternatives.
And yet, Amazon has clearly made shopping simpler and easier. Alexa even delivers last-minute eggnog recipes and queues up classics like “All I Want for Christmas is You.” But the allure of the nostalgic, dog-eared holiday catalog lives on. For two years now, in a nod to the way we’ve shopped for the holidays for over a century, Amazon has produced a toy catalog for the digital age: no prices, just QR codes that connect to item listings.
The humble mail-order catalog was once as disruptive as Amazon: it triggered a retail revolution in modern consumerism. And it’s clearly still powerful. As direct mail marketing continues to hold its own against its digital descendants, the Amazon toy catalog suggests it’s not yet time to rule catalogs out. Much as indie bookstores have continued to thrive in the Amazon era, modern-day catalogs are yet another sign that e-commerce may not entirely disrupt our consumer traditions.
This may be, in part, because mail-order catalogs have a surprisingly powerful hold in our cultural imagination. Catalog brands are woven into the stories we tell about American life in the 20th century (and, clearly, beyond).
As a nod to the catalogs of holidays past, we’ve rounded up four stories about the catalog heavyweights we used to go to for holiday gift-giving in the decades before Amazon—and even e-commerce—existed. After all, these companies have become fond fixtures in the consumer landscape and part of warmly remembered holidays past in ways that Amazon can only hope to be.