Not Your Grandma's Catalog — A Retail Mainstay's Reinvention

Before ecommerce grew into retail's top buzz word and changed the way consumers shop and brands advertise, there was the catalog. Sears' catalog, the predecessor of today's glossy publications, featured numerous household items (even the kitchen sink!) and was a hit among consumers for decades until it was discontinued in favor of a smaller version in the early 1990s.

As the internet went mainstream, businesses began to shy away from issuing such bulky catalogs due to concerns about production costs and the environment. Instead, retailers increasingly turned to where the customers were — online.

Today though, catalogs appear to be enjoying a resurgence as brands ranging from J.Crew to Restoration Hardware to Victoria's Secret rely on the books to drum up business and market their brands.

In recent years, Kathy Grannis, the National Retail Federation's senior director of media relations, has seen a "reinvention of the catalog" as more people, particularly Millennials and those earning more than $50, 000, say they plan to use the publications to shop.

"The number, seven years ago, 10 years ago was relatively low, " Grannis said. "In recent years, we have found that more people seem to be interested in using catalogs as a channel to shop."

Last year, more than 12.5 billion catalogs were sent out to U.S. homes, according to Direct Marketing Association data. About 29 percent of Americans purchased something from a catalog in 2011.

Still, catalogs do not work for all retailers, she said.

Among retailers that have found success issuing them, some use them to promote specific products that may not be highlighted online or in stores, she added.

Others, such as home furnishings retailer Restoration Hardware, use the medium to stretch their impact of their limited store footprint.

The company's recent 992-page catalog — bigger than Vogue's September issue — sparked numerous Tweets (and phone books comparisons).

"My postman is wearing a truss. I guess the Restoration Hardware catalogue is out?" @stevebluestein wrote.

Another, @jgalep, opined, "What's with the gigantic Restoration Hardware mailers? I don't need a phonebook sized catalog. I have the internet."

But Internet shopping via tablet computers could be contributing to the increase in catalog popularity as consumers become used to flipping through them digitally again, Grannis said.

"A lot of companies today have digital versions of their catalogs that customers can get through Google catalogs, " she said. "And at any given time, you can see 200 catalogs."

As retailers' plans for the holiday season get into full swing, Grannis cited another seasonal rationale for the catalog. (Read more: The 'Fiscal Cliff'—the Grinch That Steals Christmas?)

"Especially during the holiday season, when it's a little bit harder to cut through the clutter, it makes sense to beef up the product assortment that they put in the catalog, " Grannis said.

-By Katie Little, CNBC News AssociateQuestions? Comments? Email us at Follow Katie Little on Twitter @katie_little_.