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Why brands like Nordstrom and Zappos are revisiting print marketing

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For the last few years, digital has dominated marketing and advertising budgets. But as the digital space becomes more crowded, big-name retailers like Nordstrom and Zappos are adding print to their marketing mixes, hoping to stand out among competitors and reach more shoppers.

This year, 122-year-old fashion retailer Nordstrom re-launched its anniversary sale catalog after phasing out the print publication back in 2019. Similarly, Amazon-owned online retailer Zappos is ramping up print efforts by launching its first print catalog as part of its back-to-school marketing efforts. 

Seemingly, these retailers are inching into somewhat of a print renaissance, especially as the digital landscape becomes increasingly crowded, expensive and — thanks to recent data privacy regulations — harder to measure. 

“You only get a certain amount of money,” said Joe Cano, chief merchandising officer and chief marketing officer at Zappos. “So we’re testing out all of these things to see what is going to be the biggest bang for our buck to our consumers, and what do they actually want.”

Nordstrom and Zappos aren’t alone in investing in print marketing efforts. Since 2018, Amazon has been mailing a printed holiday toy catalog to customers. Lifestyle clothing label Madhappy launched a print magazine earlier this month. And lifestyle brand Frances Valentine launched its print catalog in 2020, just before the pandemic. (Read more about this over on Meanwhile, earlier this year, Digiday reported that digital clutter is driving brands to reconsider the value of print newspaper advertising.

“Print here, it’s a useful medium depending on what a brand or business needs to do,” said Ben James, chief innovation officer at GALE, a Stagwell-owned business agency. “It’s not a catchall for a bygone era, but actually something that can be used to meaningfully connect with people as we move into the future.”

Both Nordstrom and Zappos declined to outline specifics around print and marketing spend. In Q1 of this year, Zappos spent more than $55 million on media, up from the $43 million spent during the same period last year, according to Vivvix, including paid social data from Pathmatics. Also in Q1 of this year, Nordstrom spent nearly $54 million on media, significantly up from the $32 million spent in the same quarter last year, according to Vivvix. 

Call it a pendulum swing, at least for Nordstrom. Back in 2018, the fashion retailer was sending up to 12 catalogs or print magazines per year. By 2019, the retailer started dialing back on those efforts as digital usage surged. Nordstrom’s focus on digital continued to grow, thanks in part to the Covid-19 pandemic, before it picked print efforts back up this year.

“When we think about how we communicate with customers, it really comes down to meeting them where they are,” said Deniz Anders, chief marketing officer at Nordstrom. “As customers, again, started to spend more time on digital, we did start doing less in print.”

Zappos’ experimentation with print media started in 2019, with the retailer expanding those efforts to this year’s back-to-school catalog. There are also plans for a holiday catalog, and Zappos will continue to invest in print marketing in the future. For now, the online retailer is using QR codes to measure how many people are engaging with the catalog, what they’re buying and how much traffic the catalog is driving.

Over the last few years, digital marketing and ad spend has been steadily increasing, accounting for 58.3% of global ad spend, according to Dentsu’s Global Ad Spend Forecast 2023. But with mounting data privacy changes and an increasingly crowded digital marketplace, the glory days of quick and digital customer acquisition may soon be numbered, per previous Digiday reporting. Meaning retailers, like Nordstrom and Zappos, are getting serious about investing in other channels like print marketing not only to boost brand awareness, but also to reach offline shoppers.

“Print is definitely more expensive but they are seeing a higher ROI because they can send to a more targeted group of people who are more likely to buy,” Tyler Moore, director of integrated strategy at ad agency The Escape Pod, said in an email. 

That’s not to say either retailer is significantly pulling back on digital marketing efforts, but both are shifting their marketing mixes so that print efforts work in tandem with digital marketing.

“We definitely are not pulling back completely on that. But we want to make sure that we’re meeting our customers kind of where they are at,” said Cano.

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