It’s a digital age, but the printed circular is still delivering customers to many lumberyards and hardware stores, drawing shoppers in a way that email and social media can’t quite match.

Fran Monk, marketing director, Lumbermens Merchandising Corp.
Fran Monk, marketing director, Lumbermens Merchandising Corp.

Circulars don’t work for all retailers, but several continue to use them. Lumber and building materials co-op Do it Best Corp. is one company that believes a majority of home improvement shoppers check weekly sales flyers before making a purchase.

“Any conception out there that somehow print circulars are out of vogue, I think, at this point is just flat out wrong,” says Do it Best’s retail marketing manager Rich Lynch.

Lynch and others working for LBM buying co-ops and distributors stress that circulars should be used as one of several ways to communicate with customers—not the only way. And in time, some think that Web-based marketing tools will ease printed circulars out the door.


Circulars have two big strengths, says Kenneth R. Beauvais, president and CEO of HDW, hardware and building supply distributor in the mid-South. First, they can accurately represent the depth of product lines a store carries. A modest printed circular of eight pages has far more real estate for listing products and services than a newspaper ad, or a post on Twitter or Facebook. Second, circulars can show competitive pricing of smaller retail outlets compared with the big-box stores.

“We think that [comparing pricing] is extremely important, too, to be able to demonstrate that [smaller retailers] have these items,” Beauvais says. “A customer might be thinking, ‘Gosh, their pricing is pretty good. Maybe we ought to go take a look at our local store rather than driving 45 miles.’”

But circulars can do more than just list products that are on sale that particular month, Lynch says. “There’s a time and a place for circular advertising to be more about storytelling, to be more about image, to be more about reputation, to be more about essence than it is about just selling a four-pack of light bulbs for 99 cents,” he says.
Circulars are effective at showing homeowners creative possibilities for their homes, says Fran Monk, marketing director for LMC, a not-for-profit buying cooperative with more than 1,300 member locations across the country.
“You’re painting a picture for the homeowner,” she says. “Digital works, but flyers kind of motivate the consumer to get a little bit more serious about taking some action.”

Dick Snyder, president of Circulars Unlimited, which produces custom circulars for more than 850 retailers, says that this ability to create a “lifestyle image” makes print the most dependable, most productive form of advertising available.


But printed circulars have their limitations. Compared with a website, they don’t have the room to list product details, Beauvais says. And you can’t insert a hyperlink in a circular to let a consumer jump to Web-based content, such as a how-to video. Printed circulars can also be pricey.

Jimmy Horne, HDW’s vice president for corporate communications, says that a “bottom of the floor” circular can be printed for roughly 15 cents per copy and inserted into a local newspaper for between 6 cents and 10 cents a pop. But direct mail circulars are costly, at 50 cents to 60 cents per copy, not including printing costs.

The postal service now has a program that allows ZIP codes to be subdivided into individual routes, making direct mail less expensive. That helps, but he adds, “Print is always going to be the most expensive thing.”

Another potential threat, Monk says, is getting customers revved up to shop at special sales events without having longer store hours to accommodate them. “I always discourage any dealers who are considering doing flyers but don’t have the hours to support it,” she says. “These days, the time to shop isn’t going to be 8 to 5. It’s going to be in the evenings or on Saturdays or Sundays.”

Distribution executives believe that printed circulars must be part of the advertising mix—not the whole thing. “All by itself?” Beauvais asks, regarding print circulars. “Used to be it was OK, but in this day and age, it’s just part of the equation.”

Chris Cleaver, co-owner of a Cleaver Farm & Home in Chanute, Kan., recognizes that some customers rely on printed circulars. And, while he’ll continue to send them, he’s not a big fan. “It’s expensive, but we do it because people look for those True Value ads,” he says. “Is it the most effective way of advertising? I don’t know. But it brings people into the store for those items.”

Cleaver has tried using customized circulars but didn’t see much of a kick in sales. So he’s sticking with stock True Value circulars. Despite some drawbacks, the 36-year-old thinks Facebook may be the most effective means of reaching customers, and in time he says he could see printed circulars dying off. “I think people my age ... we don’t [rely on printed advertising]. And I don’t think we ever will.”

Even print industry veteran Horne can imagine a day when circulars fade in importance. “Yes,” he says, “and I hate it. My background is in the printing industry. [Circulars] are never going to be 100% gone, but 20 years from now? Think about it.”