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Turning a page, J.C. Penney to revive its catalog

J.C. Penney (JCP) has spent the last year returning to the comforts many of its customers grew to love, such as coupons and sales. Now, another old-fashioned feature is set to return: The store's catalog.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to reintroduce a paper catalog when shopping is increasingly shifting online, one odd fact of modern life is that consumers can't, or don't want to, shake their catalog habit. In fact, there was an increase in the number of catalogs mailed to consumers in 2013, the first jump since the recession pressured many retailers to cut back.

For J.C. Penney, the return of its catalog comes after the retailer discontinued its "Big Book" in 2010. The retailer told The Wall Street Journal that the new catalog, a slimmed-down 120-page book, will be sent to select customers in March with the goal of inspiring online buying. The link between printed catalogs and online buying has been noted by a number of primarily online merchants, such as Athleta and Bonobos, which rely on mailing out paper catalogs to draw consumers to their websites.

For J.C. Penney, it discovered that some shoppers left after it stopped printing the Big Book.

"We lost a lot of customers," chief executive Mike Ullman told The Journal.

The retailer isn't bringing back the Big Book, according to a spokeswoman. Instead, it will be a more robust version of the types of mailers it used to send out before 2012. "Customers, particularly when it comes to looking at home merchandise, still like flipping through a traditional print piece" and then order online, she wrote in an email.

Interestingly, it was Ullman who made the decision to cut the Big Book in 2010, when he was in his first go-around as Penney's CEO. Ullman told the Journal that he thought those catalog customers would simply shift to online buying, but it didn't play out the way he expected.

Then, Ullman was pushed out as CEO in 2011, replaced by former Apple executive Ron Johnson. Under Johnson's leadership, Penney abandoned many of the features that its shoppers liked, such as sales and coupons. After sales and profits plunged, Johnson was fired and Ullman was brought back in 2013.

The J.C. Penney catalog was a behemoth that many consumers grew up with, thumbing their way through hundreds of pages of jean jackets and remote-controlled rockets. They were so beloved that some fans have created sites to commemorate their favorite catalogs (Atari, anyone?).

Still, the new catalog will be a shadow of its former glory, given that the original Big Books often exceeded 1,000 pages. Penney began printing catalogs in 1963, jumping into a retailing strategy that had been dominated by the Sears catalog, which started in the late 19th century. According to Sears Archives, that retailer stopped printing its general merchandise catalog in 1993, but now produces smaller catalogs focusing on specific departments, such as toys and tools.

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