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No Trees Were Harmed in the Making of This (Digital) Catalog

No Trees Were Harmed in the Making of This (Digital) Catalog . / Credit: Catalog Spree iPad screen shot courtesy of Catalog Spree

America began its love affair with shopping catalogs in 1882 when Montgomery Ward published the first mail-order catalog. It's been gangbusters ever since. Today it's estimated that more than 19 billion catalogs are published in this country each year, felling 30 million trees — 5 percent of the paper used for all purposes — in the process.  Startup Catalog Spree thinks there's a better way to sate the country's appetite for consumption and save some forests to boot: bring the consumer to the catalog.

Catalog Spree is an iPad app and companion website that aggregates hundreds of catalogs presenting wares from retailers across the shopping spectrum. Participating merchants range from department stores such as Nordstrom, Gumps and JC Penney to specialty retailers such as Coldwater Creek, Hammacher Schlemmer and Wine Enthusiast.  The catalogs link directly to each retailer's e-commerce site.

The value proposition for both consumers and retailers is compelling. Consumers can browse their beloved catalogs and enjoy online shopping without cluttering their households with reams of catalogs crying to be recycled. They can turn pages with a swipe of the finger, pinch and zoom to magnify goods, bookmark items, select them as "faves" — like tearing a page out of a catalog — and ask friends to comment on items.

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 For retailers, Catalog Spree offers a low-cost way to reach vast numbers of devoted shoppers without the expense of paper, printing and postage. The app and website currently reach an audience of several hundred thousand, said Joaquin Ruiz, Catalog Spree's CEO, a figure he feels will be in the millions by the 2012 Christmas shopping season.

And Catalog Spree does sport impressive audience demographics and usage. The audience is primarily female (68 percent) in their mid-20s to 54. The average time a user spends in one app sitting is at least 20 minutes, Ruiz told BusinessNewsDaily, and goes up to 35 minutes on weekends and near holidays.

The biggest shopping category is women's apparel and shoes (60 percent), followed by gifts, specialty food and candies. On the verboten list of goods that Catalog Spree will not present is pornography, although merchandise with a tastefully sensual twist is fine. Other outcast categories are weaponry and B2B.

There is no up-front cost for the retailers, Ruiz said.

"They already have the electronic files," he said. "We get paid by performance. Most people just pay us for traffic."

The only other thing they need to provide Catalog Spree is linkage to their e-commerce sites.

Catalog Spree was originally launched as an iPad app with catalogs from seven retailers in 2010, even before Apple's revolutionary table device was officially on the market, Ruiz said.

The catalogs are now also available though a dedicated Catalog Spree website and additional apps for the iPhone and Kindle Fire are under development, Ruiz said.

"We knew the iPad was going to revolutionize commerce," he said. "I call this the fourth channel. I predict that mobile commerce will be larger than e-commerce by 2020. Basically, what we built is the Pandora for retail. We’re the highest rated shopping app in iPad-dom."

The other three channels, Ruiz explained, are physical catalogs, online sales and bricks-and-mortar commerce.

"We're in the crossroads of three different things—shopping, entertainment and social sharing," he said.

Originally, Ruiz anticipated having 40 retailers by the end of last year; the actual tally has now more than quadrupled his initial conservative estimate.

Though Catalog Spree presents goods from a number of marquee names in American retailing, the app and website are not the exclusive province of big-name marketers. Small, family-owned retailers with catalogs that are as slender as six pages are also welcomed.

"We want the long tail," Ruiz said.

One such retailer is Hamilton Jewelers, a third generation family-owned-and-operated jeweler that was started in downtown Trenton, N.J., a century ago. Today it has a retail presence in New Jersey (Red Bank, Lawrenceville and Princeton) and Florida (Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens.

The luxury jeweler did its own digital catalog, but it wasn't successful, said Donna Bouchard, a company VP.

"Then we started with Catalog Spree," Bouchard told BusinessNewsDaily. "The best part for us is gaining exposure on a national basis alongside some of these mega-brands. We tweaked our print piece and adapted it to an e-commerce format."

The current catalog is 32 pages, she said.

"We've noticed a tremendous increase in traffic we can track," she said. "Traffic increased 25 percent and we've seen a healthy increase in sales as well."

Catalog Spree's performance-based fee structure was an added inducement.

"We're only paying for things that actually happen," she said.

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

Ned Smith
Ned Smith

Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and has a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.