When you enter the RH (formerly Restoration Hardware) megastore in New York City’s Meatpacking District, you might think it’s a place to buy furniture. Technically it is, with tens of thousands of square feet filled with dining-room sets and king-size beds and couches, upholstered in shades of gray and beige and beiger, and accessorized with plush rugs and metal-armed lamps. Or maybe you’ll mistake it for a hotel lobby, with its high ceilings, ample seating, and smiling concierge.
But on either side of the store’s broad central path, you’ll see its true spiritual, if not practical, purpose: as a temple to the high-end furniture chain’s infamous “source books.” On twin circular tables large enough for an extended family’s Thanksgiving dinner (yours for $7,995 each), eight different editions sit in neat stacks and offer inspiration tailored to ski chalets, beach getaways, or nurseries for rich babies, depending on the tome. Bathed in golden light from enormous $12,000 chandeliers, the gods of direct-mail marketing beckon enticingly from their “carbonized split bamboo” altars.
The biggest of RH’s 2019 catalogs was 730 glossy pages—from a few feet away, you might think it’s the September issue of Vogue. The company would not reveal how much it spends on the lavish compendiums, but in 2012, an industry expert estimated that they would require a multimillion-dollar budget, with each individual book costing as much as $3 to print and ship—a figure that doesn’t include the tab for photography or page design. RH’s catalogs, and its price points, were similar to Pottery Barn’s and Crate & Barrel’s until the late aughts, when the source books and opulently appointed stores began to be introduced. Both are part of what longtime Chairman and CEO Gary Friedman has described as a strategy to project abundance and turn the heads of wealthy customers; apparently, it’s worked. In 2001, the company was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. While there have been bumps along the way, RH’s sales since then have increased dramatically, and in December its stock price hit an all-time high.
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All the pageantry for catalogs might seem puzzling, given that print media and retail stores are struggling to compete with the infotainment hub of the smartphone. But although the number of catalogs mailed in America has fallen since its high of 19 billion in 2007, an estimated 11.5 billion were still sent in 2018. As retailers become ever more desperate to find ways to sell their stuff without tithing to the tech behemoths, America might be entering a golden age of the catalog.
“The rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated,” says Hamilton Davison, the executive director of the American Catalog Mailers Association, which advocates for things like favorable postage rates and tax rules. “Isn’t that what Mark Twain said?” In the late 2000s, a change in federal regulation raised mailing prices for catalogs, and as online shopping accelerated in the years afterward, a lot of companies abandoned catalogs in favor of email and social-media strategies targeting younger consumers. Those retailers included companies known for their direct-mail products, such as JCPenney, whose catalog had figured prominently in its branding since 1963 but was discontinued in 2010.
Five years later, though, the JCPenney catalog was back, in defeated recognition that the physical world still matters. “You can’t make me open your email, you can’t make me open your website, you can’t make me go to your retail store, but you can send a large-format mail piece I have to pick up,” Davison says. “It’s invasive, but it’s welcome.” Davison has a vested interest in the future of the format, of course, but his claims are borne out by research suggesting that even though catalogs typically arrive unbidden, consumers find them less presumptuous and irritating than marketing emails. “The internet is too much like work,” Davison says, while catalogs feel more like play. “The internet is great if you know what you’re looking for,” he adds, “but it’s a lousy browsing vehicle.” Instead of being followed around online for days by ads for a product you already ordered (or considered and ruled out), you can peruse catalogs at your leisure and disengage fully when you’re done. It’s so analog, it almost feels wholesome.
From September 2018: What it’s like to wallow in your own Facebook data
Around the same time that JCPenney was returning to mailboxes, catalogs began gaining favor among newer companies. “You can think about a catalog as a push versus a pull,” says Matt Krepsik, the global head of analytics for Nielsen’s marketing-effectiveness arm. “On the internet, I just have to hope that Matt discovers my website. When I send Matt a catalog, I’m reaching out to him one-to-one.”
Another benefit: Catalog-mailers can “prospect” by sending their books to whomever they choose, but most email-marketing services require retailers to gain consent from recipients. That’s partly because sending marketing emails without permission is illegal in some countries and partly because it’s against the rules of some internet- and email-service providers—businesses risk having everything they send algorithmically disregarded as spam.
Although the average catalog costs about a dollar per copy to produce and ship, compared with pennies per email, Krepsik says that they’re particularly effective at prompting large purchases (up to twice as expensive as those made by noncatalog shoppers) and luring back customers after first purchases. Higher receipts and consumer loyalty are exactly what a plucky upstart needs to become a standard-bearer—or for a long-standing business to fight back against Amazon.
The story of the Vermont Country Store is the opposite of the now-familiar cautionary tales of businesses too slow to cater to the desires of youth. “We were still printing a black-and-white catalog in 2000,” says Eliot Orton, one of three brothers who now own the business started by their grandfather in 1946. “We slowly migrated to color, even doing a watercolor treatment to the sketches we were doing at the time.” The store’s catalog, sent seasonally, with special editions for the holidays, is now full of color photography, but no one would mistake it for a concession to American marketers’ obsession with youth. Its comfy nightgowns, flannel bed linens, and old-school candies and baked goods are straight out of a Norman Rockwell fantasia.
Not only does the company curate its products for an older demographic, but the structure of its business, which still allows people to order by phone or send in a form with a check, could have easily become a thing of the past. A substantial number of Americans, however, still lack reliable high-speed internet or credit services, and many older people just don’t trust the internet, a suspicion that’s arguably justified. “We spent the last 30 years agonizing over whether there was a cliff, and whether the audience we were serving would evaporate and not be replaced,” Cabot Orton says. But new customers keep aging into the store’s market. You don’t have to be very old, after all, to grow tired of trying to keep up with technology—just ask any 30-something American still trying to decide whether to download TikTok. No one has to be taught how to flip through a catalog.
Even if the majority of a company’s orders are made online, as the Vermont Country Store’s now are, catalogs provide an important opportunity for businesses whose appeal goes beyond super-fast service at super-low prices. The store is a family business whose employees, from photographers to warehouse workers, all live nearby. The brothers often turn up in the catalog, modeling plaid shirts, and everyone picks up shifts answering phones during the busy holiday season. This is a company that constantly reminds you that it’s still possible to buy some of what you need from people who aren’t trying to eliminate competitors or extract every last bit of value from employees or colonize the moon. That kind of context is lost entirely when a nightgown appears in Google’s shopping tab, alongside less expensive alternatives from Walmart.
A host of internet-first start-ups, such as the makeup brand Glossier and the menswear company Bonobos, have boarded the catalog bandwagon in the past decade. These companies had thrived on direct-to-consumer websites and social-media advertising but needed new strategies to make a more complete case for their business.
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That’s especially true for a very modern subgenre of company that seeks to attract socially conscious young people with a mix of activism, philanthropy, and sales. The brand Cotopaxi, which uses recycled materials to make things like backpacks and jackets, is among them. The outdoor-gear purveyor shoots its catalogs in adventure-travel spots in conjunction with local nonprofits, including, most recently, Escuela Nueva, which provides education to indigenous people and refugees in South America. The organizations receive modest grants from Cotopaxi, as well as coverage in the company’s catalog and the rights to use the material for their own fundraising. “It’s hard to tell that story over [social media] sometimes,” says Annie Agle, Cotopaxi’s director of brand and impact. “It can feel callous; there’s not a lot of time, and you’re fighting for attention.” Catalogs, in their own way, are antiviral—they’re not easily shared, and they offer depth and explanation. If the catalogs in your mailbox have started to look more like magazines, that’s why.
Still, consumers worried about waste and climate change might bristle at receiving paper mail when they could be reached digitally. Agle says she understands that concern, but notes that upwards of 90 percent of an apparel company’s carbon footprint happens before a garment is sewn, because the manufacture and transportation of textiles is extremely expensive and wasteful. So that, she says, is where most of Cotopaxi’s efforts at waste reduction have gone.
Even if paper sent through the mail is an imperfect medium, it still might be the best way for independent businesses to avoid getting sucked into the Amazon-Google-Facebook vortex—and for internet-weary consumers to avoid seeing the whole world through the filters of the Big Three’s algorithms. “Something we talk about a lot is data-privacy issues,” Agle says. “Obviously electronic advertising is more sustainable, but it’s not necessarily better for society.”
This article appears in the March 2020 print edition with the headline “Why Restoration Hardware Sends Catalogs the Size of a Toddler.”
WordPress 5.5.2 is now available!
This security and maintenance release features 14 bug fixes in addition to 10 security fixes. Because this is a security release, it is recommended that you update your sites immediately. All versions since WordPress 3.7 have also been updated.
WordPress 5.5.2 is a short-cycle security and maintenance release. The next major release will be version 5.6.
You can download WordPress 5.5.2 by downloading from WordPress.org, or visit your Dashboard → Updates and click Update Now.
If you have sites that support automatic background updates, they’ve already started the update process.
Ten security issues affect WordPress versions 5.5.1 and earlier. If you haven’t yet updated to 5.5, all WordPress versions since 3.7 have also been updated to fix the following security issues:
- Props to Alex Concha of the WordPress Security Team for their work in hardening deserialization requests.
- Props to David Binovec on a fix to disable spam embeds from disabled sites on a multisite network.
- Thanks to Marc Montas from Sucuri for reporting an issue that could lead to XSS from global variables.
- Thanks to Justin Tran who reported an issue surrounding privilege escalation in XML-RPC. He also found and disclosed an issue around privilege escalation around post commenting via XML-RPC.
- Props to Omar Ganiev who reported a method where a DoS attack could lead to RCE.
- Thanks to Karim El Ouerghemmi from RIPS who disclosed a method to store XSS in post slugs.
- Thanks to Slavco for reporting, and confirmation from Karim El Ouerghemmi, a method to bypass protected meta that could lead to arbitrary file deletion.
- Thanks to Erwan LR from WPScan who responsibly disclosed a method that could lead to CSRF.
- And a special thanks to @zieladam who was integral in many of the releases and patches during this release.
Thank you to all of the reporters for privately disclosing the vulnerabilities. This gave the security team time to fix the vulnerabilities before WordPress sites could be attacked.
For more information, browse the full list of changes on Trac, or check out the version 5.5.2 HelpHub documentation page.
Thanks and props!
The 5.5.2 release was led by @whyisjake and the following release squad: @audrasjb, @davidbaumwald, @desrosj, @johnbillion, @metalandcoffee, @noisysocks @planningwrite, @sarahricker and @sergeybiryukov.
In addition to the security researchers and release squad members mentioned above, thank you to everyone who helped make WordPress 5.5.2 happen:
Aaron Jorbin, Alex Concha, Amit Dudhat, Andrey “Rarst” Savchenko, Andy Fragen, Ayesh Karunaratne, bridgetwillard, Daniel Richards, David Baumwald, Davis Shaver, dd32, Florian TIAR, Hareesh, Hugh Lashbrooke, Ian Dunn, Igor Radovanov, Jake Spurlock, Jb Audras, John Blackbourn, Jonathan Desrosiers, Jon Brown, Joy, Juliette Reinders Folmer, kellybleck, mailnew2ster, Marcus Kazmierczak, Marius L. J., Milan Dinić, Mohammad Jangda, Mukesh Panchal, Paal Joachim Romdahl, Peter Wilson, Regan Khadgi, Robert Anderson, Sergey Biryukov, Sergey Yakimov, Syed Balkhi, szaqal21, Tellyworth, Timi Wahalahti, Timothy Jacobs, Towhidul I. Chowdhury, Vinayak Anivase, and zieladam.
In exchange for a salary, office workers do a great many dreadful things: sit through meetings, make the trek to and from work each day, feign enthusiasm for their employer’s particular vision.
Come holiday season, they also—compelled by a strange mix of perceived obligation and genuine holiday spirit—sometimes exchange gifts with one another. One common, and frequently awkward, form of this yearly tradition is the Secret Santa, in which participants randomly select a co-worker’s name and then anonymously give a small gift to that person. Plenty of office workers happily channel their holiday cheer into Secret Santa, but a lot of people, even those who don’t exhibit the least bit of grinchiness otherwise, aren’t into it.
“I feel like [my co-workers] can’t really know me well enough to give me a gift that’s meaningful in any sense,” Beatrice Loayza, a 26-year-old writer who has an administrative office job during the day, told me. She said the gifts people in her office get one another tend to be unimaginative, “like a generic piece of clothing or some generic masculine or feminine gift. Everything that’s being exchanged feels a little forced.” A year or two ago, she received a foldable tote bag “in these horrible bright womanly colors” that currently sits, still unused, underneath her desk. Her Secret Santa contributions have been just as half-hearted, she said: “I go and get a bottle of wine 15 minutes before the party or something like that.”
Recently, Loayza’s Secret Santa experience almost went from mediocre to actively unpleasant. “This year, I chose [from a hat] the one person that I legitimately do not like,” she said. “In the past, there’s been times when he’s eaten my lunch.” To get out of this predicament, she pretended to have drawn her own name, which under the rules of Secret Santa necessitates the selection of another name.
[Read: The rise of the remote-work holiday party]
Loayza has participated in her workplace’s Secret Santa exchange, somewhat grudgingly, for five years running. “Because there’s this pseudo-family small-office intimacy to it, it’s very glaring if someone were not to participate,” she told me.
She is not alone in her disenchantment. According to a survey published last month by the British job-listings platform Jobsite, 20 percent of workers in the U.K. would prefer not to have office celebrations, including Secret Santas and gatherings honoring an employee’s promotion or birthday, if they involve financial contributions from employees. Millennials in particular seemed to dislike these festivities, with 73 percent of them reporting that they had at some point spent more than they could afford to on such events, compared with 58 percent of workers overall.
And many people feel they can’t opt out of office-sponsored “fun,” whether it’s organized by the company or by a few jolly employees. “How can you say no to what your company is asking you to do?” wrote Sam Warren, a professor of organization studies and human-resource management at the University of Portsmouth, in an email. “Would it affect your [job] prospects? What does it say about your attitude to being a team player, or your relationship with your co-workers? How can you say no to FUN?”
Warren has studied the dynamics of fun at workplaces, and when employees enjoy themselves with co-workers, she noted, it can make them less stressed and more loyal to their employer. But what management considers to be enjoyable can sometimes make labor uneasy. “Often employees have a ‘work self’ and a ‘personal self’ and it’s uncomfortable to mix the two,” she wrote. “Modern-day work cultures encourage a blurring of boundaries that asks a lot of some employees who would prefer to keep things separate—particularly introverts.”
Last year, The Cut documented several Secret Santa horror stories—one woman said her boss gave her a book of sex tips—and they are indeed awful, but what I heard from those I interviewed were anecdotes of viciously mundane gifting. Kishan Purohit, a 29-year-old consultant in Mumbai, has participated in seven or eight office Secret Santas, and the least inspiring gift he got was a coffee mug with a trite motivational quote on it. “It said ‘Seize the day’ or something,” which he had no use for, not least because “I usually seize my day always.” He gave it away.
In his first years in an office setting, he didn’t mind gift exchanges, but they started to grate on him as he got trapped in a cycle of receiving meaningless paraphernalia (like the mug) and giving boxes of chocolates to near-strangers (“a safe bet”). Several of the Secret Santas Purohit has been involved in were enormous, with 100 people or more giving one another gifts. (Multiple times, the person he was assigned to buy a gift for was someone he’d never interacted with.) He’d rather the company organize a dinner or a community-service event, but Secret Santa persists and, out of fear of being seen as a party pooper, so does Purohit’s participation in it.
Some of the distaste that Rob, a 37-year-old working at a tech company in Amsterdam, has for Secret Santa is also tied to a disappointing gift. One year, “everyone got quite nice, thoughtful gifts, and what I got was a metal sign that said, if I remember correctly, Yeah sure, I’ll solve your problem—just as soon as I’ve solved everyone else’s,” he told me. “I remember thinking, God damn, is this is the impression that people have of me, that I would find this funny?” To make matters worse, there was a policy against pinning things up in Rob’s office. (Perhaps it was intended as home decor?) “It went in the trash,” he said. (Rob requested to be identified only by his first name, because he doesn’t want to hurt his relationships with his co-workers.)
Another grievance of his is that some people adhere to the stated rules and others don’t, completely ignoring spending limits or trying to swap names so that they can get a gift for one of their friends. “Despite the 15-euro limit, at least one person received a Lego set that cost around 100 euros. My desk mate received a paperback book on Christianity—so, a mixed bag,” he told me.
Rob has had it with Secret Santas, and after years of participating in these “theoretically optional” activities, he’s finally opting out now that he feels like he’s established himself socially at work. “I’m just going to let the deadline pass, and if anybody says anything, I’m just going to say I forgot,” he told me.
The times Rob actually enjoyed exchanging gifts with co-workers were when he and some work friends set up their own small Secret Santa. “It was the work equivalent of the WhatsApp group that springs off from the WhatsApp group that excludes the two really annoying people,” he said.
Indeed, “The research on fun at work shows that self-authored fun (fun things people do by themselves) are the only activities that people genuinely find enjoyable,” said Warren, the business-school professor.
One twist, though, is that workers sometimes make their own fun from within the confines of their employer’s prescribed framework. “Often the ‘laughable’ fun program, which people see as a superficial management gimmick, becomes an object of ridicule and self-authored fun itself—so the end result is the same,” Warren said. But if the best part of office Secret Santa is making fun of it, well, that says it all.