The Printed Holiday Toy Catalog Makes A Surprising Return

Before there was one-click pay, before there was Amazon, and about a century before the internet even existed, shopping from home was a lively industry in the United States thanks to the magical power of mail-order catalogs.

The first U.S. catalog ever apparently came care of Tiffany & Co., which had the innovative idea in 1848 that people might want a way to purchase mail-order jewelry. And they did — for a while.

Unfortunately, just as the model started to really ignite, the great inconvenience of the Civil War broke out and lowered overall U.S. demand for jewelry.

But after the war in 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago produced a popular catalog for his mail-order business. He was the first in a long time of innovators who realized that taking out the middleman and selling direct to consumer (D2C) allowed him to undercut stores on price.

But far and away the greatest hit in the history of catalogs came along shortly before the turn of the century, when Sears, Roebuck and Co. put out its first catalog. And because everything seems to come full-circle in U.S. retail, the first products the company sold were diamonds, watches and jewelry — exactly where Tiffany started.

But unlike Tiffany, Sears branched out, and by 1893, it was selling items by catalog for nearly every occasion. The underlying goal was to supply a wide array of goods for homes, businesses and farms. (Over 90 percent of the population worked in farming at the time.)

And while catalogs have since been supplanted by digital and mobile commerce channels, they continue to be influential, albeit updated for the digital age. They’re still part of the market, particularly the holiday shopping market in 2020.

Dueling Toy Books

With the bankruptcy of Toy R Us in 2017, the market didn’t only lose its dominant seller of children’s toys. It also seemed like the “big book,” the company’s beloved holiday season toy catalog, was also disappearing.

For those who missed its heyday in the 1980s and ’90s, the Toys R Us big book was a holiday staple for families nationwide. It was a comprehensive list of what was new and exciting in toys for the upcoming holiday season.

Beautifully photographed, it was dressed up to look extra festive for the kids who would excitedly flip through it, circling the items they wanted Santa to pay particular attention to that year.

But just because Toys R Us went away, the wisdom of offering a big book of the best in toys didn’t. Amazon is this year rolling out its big book of toys for 2020. So is Target. And Walmart’s holiday catalog prominently features toys as well.

A New Era of Toy Catalogs

Both Amazon and Walmart were out early with their holiday catalogs this year.

And both books ran down selections for the top toys of the year, each with a description and QR code printed alongside it. That makes it that much easier for customers to scan an item with their phones and purchase it online (or within apps) in seconds.

And now a new toy book is hitting mailboxes, as Target takes the field with its own QR code-embedded selection of top shopping picks for holiday 2020.

What appears in these catalogs is about what one would expect to see: a lot of Legos, Fisher-Price selections for younger kids and toddlers, a galaxy worth of “Star Wars” toys, and a whole lot of Disney items.

But in 2020, the toy book is more than a curatorial tool and a way to make shopping more convenient for shoppers. This year, the catalog is playing an entirely new role in history as a safety tool for consumers strongly advised to find ways to avoid crowded stores.

A Top Time for Toys

The guide for toys is also an increasingly smart place to make a play for consumer spend, as toy sales have surged this year.

As Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz noted in his company’s most recent earnings call, toy sales have been surging all year and show no signs of abating anytime soon. In fact, he told investors that demand is so great that the company is now somewhat unsure of being able to meet it.

The expectation, the CEO noted, is that parents who can’t purchase exotic family vacations this year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions will splurge on toys during the holiday season instead.

“Based on … the low retail inventories and the early start of the holiday shopping season, we expect net sales to grow in the fourth quarter,” Kreiz said.

And it’s not just kids who are getting toys. Homebound adults — including parents — are looking for ways to entertain themselves. For instance, Lego sales jumped 14 percent year over year in 2020’s first half, while the company’s operating profit increased 11 percent to $622 million.

Nintendo’s operating profit also surged 428 percent in its most recent quarter, built on big sales of the Switch and Switch Lite consoles and the “Animal Crossing” game.

Meanwhile, Barbie gross sales rose 29 percent in Q3 to $532.2 million, the brand’s biggest quarterly sales since 2003. And board game and puzzle sales have surged by triple digits in percentage terms since lockdowns started going into effect worldwide in March.

Deprived of the option of putting an exotic family vacation under the tree, it looks like many parents are going to fill that hole with boxes filled with toys. And that means the good old-fashioned toy catalog is suddenly super relevant to retailers looking to capture that expanding spend.