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The catalog, now a hands-on tease

With shopping done online, the pages are for showing off.

There is a scavenger hunt going on inside Saks Fifth Avenue's holiday catalog.

To entice shoppers to flip through each of the 180 pages, the luxury retailer sprinkled dozens of snowmen throughout the book. Some are outfitted in designer goods, like a red Zac Posen handbag. An eagle-eyed shopper who correctly adds up the total number of snowmen could win a 21-day Antarctic cruise.

Such are the lengths to which retailers will go to ensure that their catalogs become inspiration rather than annoyance.

As consumers increasingly flock to the Internet to buy, retailers have had to rethink the role of catalogs. Once shopping destinations of their own, catalogs have become as much about branding as buying, and an important way for retailers to connect with their customers inside their homes.

Though some people call catalogs a waste of paper (a sentiment that has led to a "do-not-mail" list for those who don't want to get them), catalogs offer retailers an opportunity to artfully arrange merchandise with flattering lighting and attractive models. And many shoppers like the tactile experience, dog-earing pages as part of their bedtime ritual.

"There is a hugely important difference between a print catalog and a Web site," said Rob Frankel, a branding consultant. "The catalog comes to you. If you have a Web site, you have to wait for them to come."

According to the trade organization, Internet sales last year jumped 29 percent, to $147 billion, representing 6 percent of all retail purchases. This year, sales are predicted to reach $175 billion. Customers are also becoming comfortable buying a wider variety of merchandise online, particularly apparel, according to the group's research.

Yet the catalog remains. Barnes & Noble mailed out millions of copies of theirs in early December. It's the only time of the year the company uses a catalog - it usually communicates with customers by e-mail.

The 100-page catalog includes old favorites -

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

- and new best-sellers, including Stephen Colbert's

I Am America (And So Can You!

). There are coffee-table books and curl-up-by-the-fire books. There are the requisite Christmas compilation CDs and even a Charlie Brown snowglobe.

But there is no phone number to call and place an order. The envelope that used to come stuffed inside the catalog for mail orders is long gone. Tom Burke, executive vice president for e-commerce, said both were phased out five years ago. Now there is only a Web address - point, click, shop.

"The Internet has obviously made a big difference," Burke said. "The number of people who would want to mail in a check and fill out an order form is infinitesimal these days."

Not everyone sees the appeal of a catalog, especially if they are not interested in a particular retailer. Lia Kvatum considers them wasteful, especially when they come from retailers she has never visited.

"I'm reminded of just what a consumer society we live in and how pointless a lot of these gifts are," said Kvatum, who lives in Silver Spring, Md. It's just the same old stuff dressed up in garland, she said.