A Growing Number of E-Commerce Sites Are Moving Into Print

Digital-to-print seems counterintuitive. So why are they doing it?

Ask any lifestyle magazine publisher how they’re making up for declining print revenue, and chances are they’ll mention e-commerce. But while countless publishers are struggling to drive dollars via online shopping, there’s a growing number of e-commerce companies moving in the opposite direction.

In recent months, customers of online-only retailers like Rent the Runway, JackThreads and Birchbox have received catalogs—yes, those old-school, printed booklets—in their mailboxes, while flash sale site One Kings Lane has been sending out “magalogs” combining decorating tips with photographs of rooms populated by the site’s ever-changing inventory.

Ethan Trask, One Kings Lane’s vp of creative, readily admits that the concept of digital-to-print seems counterintuitive. “Putting money behind print doesn’t necessarily seem like the first thing you’d think of doing,” said Trask. “But we all love products here, we love magazines and books, so I think that bringing our brand into that physical space is really important.” Plus, he said, “It helps people become more active with our brand.”

Other e-retailers are placing bets on ad-supported magazines that prominently feature items available for purchase on their sites. Last month, luxury e-commerce site Net-a-Porter launched Porter, a bimonthly (and, at $10 an issue, pricey) fashion magazine helmed by former Harper’s Bazaar U.K. editor Lucy Yeomans. Also joining the category is Editorialist, a biannual print spinoff of the eponymous accessories-focused content-meets-commerce site founded last year by a pair of former Elle editors.

“We were making an effort to find out how we can be at all of our users’ touch points throughout their day,” said Editorialist co-founder Kate Davidson Hudson. “The big missing piece of that puzzle, ironically, was having a tangible medium to connect with them on.”

The magazine also provides a way to connect with less tech-savvy consumers—in Editorialist’s case, older women who are in the market for a $1,000 bag but might not look for it on the Web. “Obviously the younger generation is conditioned to connect online, but there is still that customer who is well-versed in the luxury space but who wants to consume their media and shop in a hard-copy format,” explained Hudson.

While customers might like the idea of having a physical piece of their favorite online brand, does it actually pay off? “There is a case to be made that print marketing still has a place,” said Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester Research. “As a lot of other marketers cut back on print marketing, there’s an opportunity to stand out more. It’s not perceived as clutter—nobody has a bad impression of magazines—and it can be a very useful way to drive traffic to your core property.”

Both One Kings Lane and Editorialist say they have seen positive results from print marketing. Following the release of One Kings Lane’s spring magalog, there was a major boost in chatter about the brand on social media. Meanwhile, Editorialist.com saw a “huge uptick” in conversion of pieces that were featured in the hard-copy magazine. “It completely blew our highest expectations,” said Hudson.