, , ,

By Liza Persson

The American department store chain J.C. Penney is bringing back its’ mail order catalogue to increase its customer engagement (Reuters, 2014). My first thought was that mail order catalogues seem so quaint these days.

My second one was: it’s smart to bring it back. Without it, a swipe of customers would be lost, because for them the purchase is just one step in a much longer process preceding and following that transaction for which having an actual, physical, mail order book is indispensable, a process far more important than the product one ends up buying.

To use the classification scheme of B.J. Babin et al. in the article Work and/or fun: measuring hedonic and utilitarian shopping value (1994); this would qualify as hedonistic shopping. The purpose isn’t rational or utilitarian; shopping is a process providing psychological self -validation, -stimulation, and -comforting. At the same time it differs from a lot of comfort shopping in that the purchase is not impulsive, not a reaction to a situational cue or an immediate internal state of needing a “pick-me-up”. Rather it is more akin to a hobby.

The process is far more important than just the purchase or the product; it may span a considerable amount of time, maybe months, from first imagining making a certain purchase, to the physical extraction of the item from its’ package. During this time, the process provides for stimulation and gratification.

The different phases flow seamlessly into one another with each adding its own “spice” and affirming the individual as being both the his/her agent and the recipient of this pleasure; mentally preparing, considering, and anticipating; meticulously planning and scouting; the physical activity of filling out an order and then eventually opening the delivery.

This literal point of delivery does not end the process. It begins again deep in the psyche of the person where it always begin; not in some objective, external demand requiring or appealing for a purchase. At the center of this instance of self-stimulation and automatic reinforcement, i.e. is a behavior by which a person can produce a favorable outcome without the involvement of another person (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). It is the self-validating experience of it being all about one’s self – in one’s own control, intimate, personal. The intimacy of having your own copy of a catalogue of possibilities in your own hands; the tactile sensation of flicking the pages; the personality of making markings at interesting items; to be enjoyed at your own personal discretion at a time and place of your own choosing. These all make having a physical mail order book impossible to replace by digital content without losing potency.

It is not about what most efficient and rationally fulfills the purpose of selecting something that fills a desire, want, or need. The process is the means to fulfill a purpose; but the purpose is to have experiences that the process is a means to the end of inducing. So, it’s smart of J.C. Penney to not cut costs by excluding this format from the ways they display their assortment of wares to people. They will most likely make more by excepting that publishing cost; especially when other companies stop issuing them.


Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Babin Barry J, William R. Darden, and Mitch Griffin (1994), “Work and/or Fun; Measuring. Hedonic and Utilitarian Shopping Value,” Journal of Consumer Research, 20 (March). 644- 656

Reuters. (2014). J.C. Penney to bring back a home Catalog: WSJ. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/20/us-jc-penney-advertising-idUSKBN0KT0AE20150120