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Catalogues are the pack mules of marketing. Remnants of a pre-modern time, they still pull heavy and important loads, even if they don't get as much attention in our digital age. Sometimes they are wildly anticipated: Ikea's annual fall catalogue, with about 200 million copies, is believed to be the world's highest-circulation publication. And a catalogue almost certainly saved Maplelea Girls, a line of seven homegrown 18-inch-tall play dolls that come packaged with their own Canadian-themed back stories and journals.

In 2004, Kathryn Gallagher Morton was about to throw in the towel on the high-end collection she'd spent more than a decade developing. Only a year after launch, sales at specialty retailers were going nowhere. "I decided to take one final chance before packing it in, and put a catalogue together," she recalls. "We sent it out with chickaDEE magazine, and the phones lit up." Today, Gallagher Morton estimates she spends about $300,000 annually on printing and distributing a total of 600,000 catalogues, by far the largest slice of her marketing budget. Last year, she says, sales were up 42 per cent.

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Catalogues are still relevant

First published in 1884, the Eaton's catalogue was known as The Wishing Book, a nod to both the inspirational and aspirational characteristics of catalogues. "The only clothes that were good enough for us were the latest styles from Eaton's catalogue," writes Roch Carrier in The Sweater, his classic story of a 10-year-old Montreal Canadiens fan who is sent a Maple Leafs jersey by mistake. "Why do you need the catalogue in this digital age?" asks MapleLea Girls founder Gallagher Morton. "You can do so many more things with a catalogue that you can't do with your computer. You can stuff it in your backpack and take it to school and share it with your friends at recess. Or you can snuggle up with Grandma on the sofa at Thanksgiving and go through it page by page and discuss the merits of each doll and each outfit.And you can take the catalogue to bed with you and put it under your pillow and dream on it."

Find your target, then hit it

How did Gallagher Morton know chickaDEE was the right call? "I didn't. All I knew is it goes into households where 1) there are guaranteed to be children, and 2) there are parents in that household who think about what kinds of things they give their child." Later, she expanded distribution to subscribers of the same publisher's Owl and Chirp magazines, which reaped more business. She's also tried mailing the catalogue with Maclean's, Chatelaine, Canadian Living and other magazines, using the market segmentation services of Environics Research Group. "It totally bombed," she reports. Even though it was going to the right neighbourhoods – and I'm sure many of our customers read those magazines – it simply wasn't targeted enough for us." These days, her customer list is large enough that she can mail the Maplelea catalogues directly to them. And starting next year, she says the company will be mailing catalogues every spring.

"We're big enough that we can do that now."

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