Amazon’s Holiday Toy Catalog Is Advertising Parents Actually Want

“They’re emulating a proven method of doing business, which is the catalog, but using their muscle to engage at a particular time when there are just fewer retailers now that sell toys,” says Richard Gottlieb, CEO of research firm Global Toy Experts. Gottlieb was impressed with Amazon’s catalog, though he far preferred eBay’s catalog, full of weird and wild and expensive one-of-a-kind toys, which launched this season as well.

Amazon and eBay are joining the many other ecommerce companies still finding that print catalogs have value in the digital era. Catalogs are harder to ignore than the clutter of online ads, one footwear startup founder told Digiday earlier this year, explaining that his company gets a slightly higher return on direct mail versus digital-only marketing. Companies can also use data to target catalogs to customers they know are likely to spend more money. And they are a traditional way for families to compile gift wishlists.

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“I’m old enough to remember the Sears catalog,” says Gottlieb. “I remember laying on the floor just going through it. I didn’t get much anything out of it. But you know, marking things, studying it in detail. It was wonderful and a wonderful way to communicate with your parents what you want.”

People really want and love catalogs. Take a glance at the reviews for the Kindle version on Amazon’s website. Plenty of customers posted bad reviews, not because they didn’t like the catalog but because they were annoyed that they didn’t get one.

“Why can’t we get a book and why didn’t we get one? We have been prime members for years, have 4 kids, buy lots of toys, and no book. And we can’t order one,” reads the top-rated review right now. “Would love to have the toy catalog delivered through the mail. The children love looking at it and circling what they like. I dont use Kindle. I’ve been a prime member for many years and did not get one,” reads another. A review from November 15 is even more direct: “Disappointed that I didn’t and can not now get a hard copy in the mail even though I have two small children and spend a ton on toys through Amazon Prime. I AM YOUR TARGET MARKET. Speaking of Target – I’ll be doing my toy shopping there because I am THAT petty.”

The disappointment those Amazon reviewers felt speaks to the reason catalogs have worked so well. They’re convenient, above all. Enjoyable, even. And this time of year, when millions of Americans are going to buy toys, it’s easier for children to thumb through a physical catalog that feels like a big book of wonders than a notoriously hard-to-navigate website.

Kids, especially, don’t have a great way to discover toys on the actual Amazon website. Even its dedicated toy section divided by age group is confusing to navigate. And while the site does have a wishlist feature, parents might not trust their kid to trawl through Amazon’s website on their account, since they could accidentally push one button and buy something. A print catalog is a way for Amazon to directly get its offering in front of children, while also giving parents a little bit more control over the process.

The toy catalog is a familiar marketing throwback in an otherwise rapidly evolving industry. Pasierb notes that with the growth in streaming entertainment for kids, the kinds of ads children see have changed. “Unboxing videos, the online kind of stuff is for a lot of our toy companies as important or now more important than traditional television advertising. A lot of our companies that no longer do traditional TV advertising do almost all exclusively digital,” says Pasierb. The highest-paid YouTube celebrity this year, according to Forbes, was a 7-year-old boy making unboxing videos of toys, earning an estimated $22 million in 12 months.

“[These kinds of ads] are entertainment in their own right,” says Lennett. “A lot of these kids, I don’t think they know the difference between watching a show—a real show—versus watching another kid playing with a toy on YouTube.”

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