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Why This Retailer Still Insists on Printing a 12-Pound Catalog While most companies have shifted their catalogs online, some continue to go the printed route.

By John Jannarone

This story originally appeared on CNBC

You'll be calling this company "Perspiration Hardware" after struggling to pick up its latest catalog.

Weighing in at a whopping 12 pounds each, UPS packages containing Restoration Hardware's annual catalogs have landed with a thud on doorsteps around the country over the last several weeks. The 3,300 pages of the so-called source books feature everything from "salvaged wood" dining tables to reproductions of 19th-century Italian gas streetlights.

While online shopping has become increasingly important to Restoration Hardware, the company has steadily bulked up on print since sending its first 84-page catalog out in 2001. Restoration Hardware contends that a website alone cannot do justice to its brand because customers don't get an immediate sense of its vast product selection. "Our source books ... cannot yet be replaced by the Internet," CEO Gary Friedman said on an investor call earlier this week.

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Restoration Hardware is one of a small number of retailers including apparel firms Vineyard Vines and Bills Khakis that have embraced print catalogs while most companies scaled back.

Catalog mailings peaked at 19.6 billion in 2007 and fell steadily to about 12 billion in 2013, according to the Direct Marketing Association. Part of that decline was surely due to the recession, which saw many retailers fold and others slash costs.

Size matters for this XXXL retail catalog
Restoration Hardward catalogs on display as print catalogs begin to make a comeback.
Image credit: Adam Jeffery | CNBC

But even healthier retailers have cut their catalog distribution. Luxury department store chain Neiman Marcus sent out 40 million catalogs in 2013, a 9 percent decrease from 2012. "With the growth of Internet revenues, we have reduced catalog circulation in recent years and would expect flat to declining catalog circulation in the foreseeable future," Neiman Marcus said in a regulatory filing.

Likewise, J. Crew has started saving paper. The company sent out 30.6 million catalogs in fiscal 2013, down from a peak of 55 million in 2005, according to public filings. Total pages are also down to 3.7 billion in 2013 from a peak of 6.1 billion. Heather McAuliffe, a spokeswoman for J. Crew declined to comment.

Restoration Hardware has unique characteristics that help explain its unusual strategy. The company has thousands of products available, but most of the time they can't be picked up in stores. Instead, it has adopted a showroom model where it occupies large spaces and displays as many pieces as possible without keeping any inventory for sale. Similarly, a chunky catalog gives customers a way to browse the vast majority of Restoration Hardware's products and then buy at their leisure.

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But what about all those dead trees? Restoration Hardware concedes that a small fraction, "less than one-tenth of a percent," of recipients have griped about the amount of paper used in the catalogs. The company points out it uses only "forest certified" paper and is the founding sponsor of the Verso Forest Certification Grant, which "provides funding to sustainably manage and harvest forests." The company adds that "from a business perspective, the response has been very, very good."

Indeed, Restoration Hardware told investors it expects its revenue growth to accelerate in the second half of 2014 as a result of the source book. The company posted comparable-store sales growth of 18 percent in the first quarter, one of the highest among any major company in the retail sector.

Restoration Hardware is one the few retail stocks to perform well in 2014. The stock has risen 20 percent so far this year, far outpacing the broader market.

The catalog magic also seems to work for some niche fashion companies. Vineyard Vines, which sells high-end preppy attire, says it sees a direct impact from catalog shipments. "Within days of a catalog drop there is a revenue spike for all business channels," a spokeswoman for the company told CNBC.

Vineyard Vines, known for pastel-colored trousers popular on the East Coast, has been issuing catalogs since 1998. The company sends about 10 versions of a catalog a year of varying page ranges, but continues to increase the number of recipients. "It is the No. 1 marketing tool for driving a consistent increase in sales," the spokeswoman said.

Some companies have taken a long time to discover the power of catalogs. Bills Khakis, which was inspired by World War II-era trousers, launched a website in 1997 but only started sending catalogs in 2012.

Surprisingly, some Bills Khakis customers don't like using the Internet to shop from home. "We still experience a high amount of call volume. Approximately 30 percent to 40 percent of our orders are called in depending on the season," the company told CNBC.

For a big catalog investment to pay off, it probably needs to make a serious impression on consumers. And it appears that Restoration Hardware has achieved that status. As Matt Nemer of Wells Fargo said, "the overall heft of the source books is unlike any other catalog."

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