Junk Mail? The Pros and Cons of Restoration Hardware’s 17-Pound Catalog

Does anyone really need mail? (iFormBuilder)

Does anyone really need mail? (iFormBuilder)

In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld, Kramer enters a post office and tries to halt the delivery of mail to his apartment. “Certainly,” a postal worker says. “How long would you like us to hold it?” But a hiatus isn’t what Kramer has in mind. “I don’t think you get me,” he says. “I want out, permanently.”

Kramer’s dissatisfaction arises from the postal service’s too-effective delivery of a particular item: the catalog. “I got three Pottery Barn catalogs in one day,” he tells Jerry, incredulous. “That makes eight this month… I’ve been saving them up here in your apartment. And now, it’s payback time. Pottery Barn is in for a world of hurt.”

In revenge, he throws his catalogs at the doorstep of a Manhattan Pottery Barn. “Hey, you like sending out catalogs!?” he cries. “How do you like gettin’ ‘em back!?” They don’t really seem to mind. But as the journalist Amy Merrick notes in a recent blog post for the New Yorker, when it comes to high-end furniture catalogs, Pottery Barn ranks as a relatively low-level offender, especially compared to its pricier competitor, Restoration Hardware.

Though the company ships but one catalog, divvied into 13 so-called “source books,” a year, Ms. Merrick writes, collectively, they make a hefty tome—totaling 17 pounds and 3,300 pages, or more than twice the number in the six catalogs the company sent in 2003 combined. In June, disgruntled recipients in California reprised Kramer’s protest, returning 2,000 pounds’ worth of catalogs to a Restoration Hardware store.

As Businessweek has observed, Pottery Barn and other retailers do a better job of minimizing the environmental impact of catalog production and shipment, and Restoration Hardware’s macro-catalog conforms generally to the company’s lately boisterous exaggerations of style and scale. Once a mall-bound purveyor of “Mission furniture, bathroom fixtures, and novelty gifts like record players and mini Etch A Sketches,” Ms. Merrick writes, Restoration Hardware has become an extravagant faux artisan of mass-produced light fixtures and bed frames in vaguely-menacing, steampunk-reminiscent style. (One online commenter christened the look “French Country Vampire.”) Its stores have followed suit, with massive retail spaces in New York and Boston, outfitted with mostly decorative, wildly-outdated machinery.

But if the catalog’s size and cumbersome format reflect Restoration Hardware’s modern mood, they do nothing to answer the question at the heart of Ms. Merrick’s piece: “Why do we still have catalogs?” It’s a question Kramer, asked—and answered—in broader terms.

If he ceased getting mail, how would he pay his bills, receive cards and letters? “E-mail, telephones, fax machines,” Kramer says. “Fedex, telex, telegrams, holograms.” Of course, postman and perennial Seinfeld foil Newman admits, “Nobody needs mail.”

Later, a very intimidating Henry Atkins, the postmaster general, tells Kramer, “Just imagine, an army of men in wool pants running through the neighborhood handing out pottery catalogs, door to door.” Kramer guffaws, believing Mr. Atkins is in on the silliness. “Well, it’s my job,” the postal boss continues, growing threatening. “And I’m pretty damn serious about it.”

And though the scene typifies the show’s knack for pointing out the absurd and oft-elaborate mechanisms we construct to while away the hours, it also highlights a U.S. Postal Service reality that has become more dire in the years since the episode premiered. As fewer and fewer people mail first-class letters (Fedex, telex, telegrams, holograms…), Ms. Merrick points out, catalogs account for an increasingly significant portion of USPS revenues, and the organization goes out of its way to promote them.

For all the complaining that we do about “junk mail,” the funny thing is that the postal service can advertise in good faith—at least from a purely mercantile perspective. Industry trackers suggest that catalogs elicit business from 4 to 5 percent of recipients. (Ms. Merrick says 12 billion catalogs reached Americans in 2013; Kramer couldn’t be bothered with his Pottery Barn mailings, but Jerry, in the market for “one of those old-looking phones,” took one off his hands.)

Writing in 2012 for the New York Times magazine, Charles Duhigg detailed strategies of statistical surveillance and analysis that companies use to predict and harness the future behavior of consumers. The harnessing sometimes involves catalogs, which occasionally arrive at households with seemingly odd foreknowledge of pending events, like childbirth, of which even some members of the relevant households might not yet be aware.

It was around the time of the article’s publication that catalogs hawking cribs, playpens, rattles and pacifiers began arriving at my apartment, addressed to my then-girlfriend, with whom I lived. Mr. Duhigg describes how companies use purchases of things like pregnancy tests and prenatal vitamins to direct advertising toward mothers-to-be, and I grew concerned. But my girlfriend assured me there was nothing to worry about.

Both in our mid 20s, we’d recently moved to Cobble Hill, a neighborhood that is, after all, known for young families with overpriced strollers. Jenna’s age and zip code, we surmised, had triggered the sensors of baby paraphernalia peddlers. We also got catalogs from Restoration Hardware, whose marketing algorithms were evidently insufficiently astute to see that we lived in what was surely the cheapest one-bedroom apartment in the neighborhood, complete with roaches in the shower and a funeral home downstairs, and that we were in no position to spring for “deconstructed” wing chairs at $1,995 a pop.
Ms. Merrick guesses that catalogs do not have quite the talismanic potential of physical books in the age of digital reading. And I agree that it’s difficult to imagine even the most dedicated mail-order shopper of yore feeling wistful over the soft wrinkle of a catalog’s pages. Still, the Restoration Hardware catalogs proved useful. Without them we might have been unable to explain to the Etsy artisan we commissioned exactly how we wanted our coffee tables to look.