The pseudoscience of winnowing your catalog pile.

Tell the truth: Every time a catalog arrives in the mail, don’t you feel a little like you’ve just spotted an ex-girlfriend? Catalog shopping has the unmistakable air of an old love these days, while its online cousin is the alluring new girl on the block. And yet people continue to buy from catalogs—$120 billion worth in 2001, according to the Direct Marketing Association. Why? Variety and convenience, mostly, plus a third, more ineffable factor: Ambiance.


A well-conceived catalog is more than an array of goods on offer. Through design, photography, illustration, copywriting, even paper stock, a good catalog sells more than products. It sells (forgive me) a lifestyle. A good catalog is a seduction waiting to happen.

But there is an inherent problem with catalog shopping: volume. The average American home is bombarded annually by a number of catalogs estimated in the “lots and lots.” This creates a chilling effect even worse than the observable result of a New Yorker subscription, which is that each new issue drives down the odds of any previous issue being read by the precise figure of, let’s say, 33 percent. If only there were some way to establish with scientific certainty which catalogs are worth reading! Since there isn’t, I decided to do what any fake sociologist would do. Using the barely remembered rudiments of algebra, a cruelly arbitrary rating scale, and a silly but legitimate-sounding pseudomathematical formula, I made one up.


On a scale of 1 to 5, where V equals “Variety”; C equals “Convenience”; PF equals Ambiance, or the Peterman Factor; and WKq equals the “‘Worth Keeping’ Quotient”:(V + 2C) x PF=WKq

Home Group
Plow & Hearth Country Home
Restoration Hardware
Design Within Reach
Pottery Barn
Martha by Mail
Garden & Flora:
Smith & Hawken
Jackson & Perkins
Bed & Bath:
Chambers by Williams-Sonoma
Pottery Barn Bed+Bath
Garnet Hill
Eddie Bauer Home
Gadgets & Gizmos:
The Sharper Image
Gift Group
Norm Thompson
American Express presents
Red Envelope
Clothing Group
J. Crew
The Territory Ahead
Eddie Bauer
Cooking Group
Tasteful Rewards
New Braunfels Smokehouse
Harry and David
Kitchen Goods:
Sur La Table

To see how I came up with this selection of catalogs, click here.

The Home Group
I started by attacking the Furnishings subgroup. Plow & Hearth Country Home scores PF bonus points for including the word “Hearth” in its title but loses them again for its confusing inconsistency, selling goods ranging from slipper socks to an aluminum dragonfly napkin holder (V=3, C=2, PF=2, total=14). This points up the importance of coherence in establishing a high Peterman Factor. Both Restoration Hardware (V=4, C=4, PF=5, total=60) and Design Within Reach (V=4, C=4, PF=5, total=60) score sky-high Peterman points for keeping a laser focus on their target audiences: DINKs in the former case, and in the latter, people who envy the crisp block-printing and starchy shirts of working architects. Pottery Barn (V=4, C=3, PF=3, total=30) and Martha by Mail (V=3, C=3, PF=4, total=36) occupy the broad middle of the field, offering predictably strong variety and convenience, and consistent but uninspired ambiance. (Message to Martha: Easy on the pastels, girl.)


In the Garden and Flora sub-category, where titular partnerships seem intended to foster images of a warm, companionable life, the win goes to Smith & Hawken (V=4, C=3, PF=4, total=40) over Jackson & Perkins (V=3, C=4, PF=2, total=22); Smith & Hawken’s airy design and understated copy make Jackson & Perkins look a little desperate. In Bed & Bath, top marks go to Chambers by Williams-Sonoma (V=3, C=4, PF=4, total=44) and Pottery Barn Bed+Bath (V=3, C=4, PF=4, total=44), although I’m tempted to dock the latter for its promiscuous use of the “plus” sign. Garnet Hill (V=4, C=3, PF=3, total=30) offers wide variety but loses Convenience points for the teeny type in which it prints its 800 number; Eddie Bauer Home (V=3, C=2, PF=3, total=21), with its cramped pages and hard-to-read product information, suggests a brand extension still in the process of finding itself. Maybe next year. Finally, in the Gadgets & Gizmos subgroup, The Sharper Image (V=4, C=3, PF=4, total=40) waxes Herrington (V=3, C=2, PF=2, total=14) for its sharper definition of an ideal buyer—the kind of gear-happy, cash-heavy single guy who in another era would have been the answer to the question, “What kind of man reads Playboy?”


The Gift Group
Eziba (V=4, C=4, PF=4, total=48) and Sundance (V=4, C=4, PF=5, total=60) score high Peterman points for establishing a vaguely internationalist air. Both catalogs score high in Convenience as well, running Web URLs along with 800 numbers on every page. Older-school entrants Norm Thompson (V=2, C=3, PF=2, total=16) and Gump’s (V=3, C=3, PF=3, total=27) don’t fare as well, although Gump’s deserves some credit for keeping alive the spirit of the Polynesian restaurant in its broad selection of Pacific-themed items. The remaining entries were disturbingly polyglot: American Express Presents and Red Envelope offer up a hash of jewelry, desktop tchotchkes, and electronics, plus some items that are frankly unclassifiable (an Automatic Nail-Setting Hammer?). To recap: Variety is good, but coherence is better. American Express V=2, C=2, PF=2, total=12; Red Envelope: V=3, C=2, PF=3, total=21.


The Clothing Group
I separated the clothing catalogs into General and Travel/Sports groups, although even the four General catalogs aspire vaguely to outdoorsiness, as if wearing clothes around the house were somehow unfashionable. J. Crew achieves a near apotheosis of lifestyle in its spring catalog, which fronts four models and a yellow Lab in an old Jeep International, and its variety of goods is so wide yet so cohesive that it seems a shame to take away Convenience points for the inexplicable lack of an easily locatable 800 number. But I did. (V=5, C=3, PF=5, total=55). TheTerritory Ahead and Eddie Bauer are almost as successful in establishing a grand theme, although the former (V=3, C=2, PF=4, total=28) skimps on its “Finding Your Fit” feature. The edge goes to Eddie Bauer here: V=4, C=4, PF=4, total=48. Orvis rounds out the General sub-category with a selection of hunting-themed items for buyers who are too squeamish to actually get muddy (V=3, C=3, PF=4, total=36). This raises a philosophical question as we move to the Travel/Sports group and consider Filson’s: Does a catalog that sells real hunting goods to real hunters deserve Peterman points? Is the picture it paints one of a lifestyle or a life? In the end, Filson’s comprehensive selection of non-hunting goods, including the Filson Time Manager Day Planner, tips the balance back toward lifestyle. Big PF points here: V=4, C=3, PF=4, total=40. TravelSmith (V=3, C=3, PF=4, total=36) and Athleta (V=3, C=4, PF=4, total=44), “Where Women Gear Up,” are solid niche catalogs, offering variety, convenience, and strong adherence to organizing principles. A slight edge goes to Athleta for its cool, uncluttered design and detailed sports-bra fitting chart.


The Cooking Group
The catalogs in this category have ambiance to burn—no other group offers such immediate associations with the ideal of a warm, homey life. To level the field, I awarded four PF points across the board and jumped into the Food sub-category. Tasteful Rewards scores Convenience points for aggregating items from a half-dozen food retailers but suffers from the resulting lack of coherence. (Convenient or not, gelato and baked ham should under no circumstances be displayed on the same page: V=2, C=3, PF=4, total=32.) New Braunfels Smokehouse (V=4, C=4, PF=4, total=48) and Harry and David (V=3, C=3, PF=4, total=36) do better by keeping tight focus on their core constituencies—carnivores on the one hand, fruit-and-nut fanciers on the other—although Harry and David loses a point for an inexplicable side trip into floral goods. In the competitive Kitchen Goods group, Williams-Sonoma (V=4, C=4, PF=4, total=48) trumps Sur La Table (V=4, C=3, PF=4, total=40) with its canny inclusion of recipes, for that conscience-salving veneer of usability. Chef’s, promising “Professional Restaurant Equipment for the Home Chef,” is assessed a special Penalty Point for its cheap, Sunday-supplement paper stock (V=3, C=3, PF=4, total=36–1=35).


Restoration Hardware (Home)60
Design Within Reach (Home)60
Sundance (Gifts)60
J. Crew (Clothing)55
Eziba (Gifts) 48
Eddie Bauer (Clothing)48
New Braunfels Smokehouse (Cooking)48
Chambers by Williams-Sonoma (Home)44
Pottery Barn Bed+Bath (Home)44
Athleta (Clothing)44

Of the 10 catalogs that posted the highest Worth Keeping Quotients (see above chart), a 40 percent plurality are in the Home category. This suggests a correlation between home goods and overall desirability and perhaps offers anecdotal confirmation of the trend toward cocooning that has been widely reported by lifestyle magazines every 18 months since the late 1980s. The relatively poor showing of Cooking catalogs, however, suggests that even though we want to be snug in our homes, we are too tired or lazy to cook. Or maybe not. In any case, please feel free to consult these results as you consider the stack of catalogs in your own living room. And take a trash bag.