A Year Later: Catalogers Post-9/11

Sep 01, 2002 9:30 PM  By

There’s no way to say it without sounding trite: For most Americans, life post-9/11 differs from life pre-9/11. And while the majority of us were spared the most severe consequences of the day, the terrorist attacks of last year changed how numerous catalogers do business, in both the short and the long term.

Some catalogers, such as Associated Bag Co. and Skaggs Cos., have refined their creative. Others, such as home decor wholesaler Toland, have tweaked their product lines. And some, such as Brigade Quartermasters, are modifying their marketing plan overall.

One thing is consistent among the catalogers interviewed, however: their attitude a year after the cataclysmic events. Mailers are “cautiously optimistic,” to quote Margery Myers, spokesperson for apparel cataloger/retailer Talbots, about the months ahead.

“We weathered the storm,” says Jane Klein, publications manager for travel cataloger Asia Transpacific Journeys, “and we’re soldiering on.”

The business of b-to-b

You might think that catalogers selling public-safety gear would have seen revenue grow in the months since September 2001. The rescue and recovery efforts in New York and Washington required massive purchases of apparel and gear for the professionals and volunteers involved. Then, too, many civilians decided to purchase security and survivalist gear for themselves.

Indeed, some catalogers did see an uptick in sales immediately following the terrorist attacks. “We experienced a big demand for biohazard, waste-material, and medical-related items that paramedics and police could use to retrieve key evidence or rubble,” says Scott Pietila, director of sales and marketing for Milwaukee-based Associated Bag, which sells packing goods.

Madison, WI-based Conney Safety Products “got a little spike in sales of respirators and goggles” immediately after 9/11, says vice president of marketing Mark Gross. “Then when the anthrax scares first occurred [in October, when anthrax was found in the mail stream], we saw a spike in sales of [protective] gloves.”

Although Conney sells its safety and first-aid products almost exclusively to small and midsize businesses, worried consumers tracked down the company via the Internet. “We had a lot of what I call panic sales,” Gross recalls, “and we tried to counsel customers who called and wanted to place a large order.”

But once the initial anxiety subsided, business returned to its pre-9/11 levels — and for Conney, that wasn’t great. The recession had been hurting businesses prior to September, and the increased sales of gloves for corporate mailrooms wasn’t enough to compensate for the overall decline in revenue.

Protective gloves were also a big seller for multititle mailer Skaggs Cos. The Salt Lake City-based cataloger had just launched its Postal Uniforms and Accessories book, which sells U.S. Postal Service-approved clothing and gear to postal workers, and marketing director Drew Moren says that gloves almost instantly became a popular item. “For a little while we even had some backorders,” he says.

But sales among Skaggs’s public-safety catalogs didn’t pick up until December. The increase then, however, was “sharp,” Moren says. Firefighters and rescue workers who had traveled from across the country to volunteer in New York returned home with the realization that they needed to update their equipment and be better prepared, he explains. Skaggs also gained sales by having its Fire, Rescue & E.M.S. catalog polybagged with an issue of Firehouse magazine.

Business didn’t boom for long, though. Moren says that a lot of money earmarked for public safety “was diverted to federal funds from local funds.” And Skaggs sells primarily to local sheriff and fire departments and agencies as well as to security personnel. “Local law-enforcement buyers were being a little more price-conscious, so we focused on being more cost-effective, offering more bulk sales and things like that,” Moren says.

On the other hand, the increase in federal spending has led some marketers to target government buyers. Technology solutions provider GTSI has gone so far as to relaunch its ClarITy catalog four years after it last mailed, because of a dramatic increase in the U.S. government’s demand for information technology products and services.

“The government has a major focus on using IT products and services around the world to better drive productivity and ensure reliability of the core infrastructure,” says Johnny Wilkinson, vice president of marketing for Chantilly, VA-based GTSI. “These needs were accelerated as a result of the events of 9/11.” (See “IT Marketer Reenters Catalog Business,” page 18.)

And Kennesaw, GA-based Brigade Quartermasters has renewed its focus on the armed-forces and security markets, says director of marketing Wendy Abney. Those were the cataloger’s target markets when it was founded in 1976, “but 10 years ago, we got more into a general-population mode to promote our products to the mainstream,” Abney says. As well as selling military apparel, self-defense devices, and survival gear, the $25 million-plus Brigade Quartermasters began selling hunting videos and military-themed toys and novelties.

With its latest catalog, though, Brigade has replaced the nonfunctional items with more uniforms, boots, holsters, knives, and the like. The page count for the fall book, which began mailing early last month, is 132 pages, up from 80 pages the previous fall, and circulation increased 22%, to 450,000 catalogs. About 100,000 copies were sent to military installations and public-safety professionals. The company rented names from the subscriber files of Law Enforcement Technology, Law Enforcement Product News, and Police magazines to be sure of reaching professionals.

But while mailing to the military and the federal government may pay off for Brigade and GTSI, in the post-9/11 world, mailing to the government is more difficult, says Conney’s Gross, “because of the heightened security.” Conney has in fact backed away from mailing to the government and the military because “delivery to those zip codes was slower. The mail takes so long to get there now.”

Flag sales and flagging sales

On the consumer side, after the initial plummet in business following 9/11, many mailers responded by introducing more patriotic-themed merchandise. At Hingham, MA-based Talbots, “there was particular interest in such merchandise — for instance, flag pins — right after 9/11 and through the holidays,” says spokesperson Myers.

But Talbots didn’t increase the amount of stars-and-stripes-adorned apparel it sells, Myers says: “9/11 hasn’t changed the way we merchandise our catalog. Americana-themed merchandise has historically been part of our assortment, and we will continue to carry it in the future.”

Mandeville, LA-based Toland has increased the amount of patriotic merchandise it sells, says director of marketing Jim Jacobs. Decorative flags and rugs, which it sells to specialty retailers, are Toland’s bread and butter, but since last September, sales of its Americana products soared 1,200%.

“Before 9/11, patriotic merchandise was a small part of our business,” Jacobs says. “However, since 9/11 we’ve doubled our [patriotic] product assortment, especially flags.” Among the new items is the American Freedom Collection, which includes rugs and flags declaring “God Bless This Nation” and “Land That I Love.”

Like Talbots, Unionville, PA-based home accessories cataloger Frecklefarm saw sales of Americana products, such as wild-cherry bowls handcrafted in rural Pennsylvania, increase after September. But Robin Sherwood, owner of the three-year-old catalog, says that the trend is already ebbing. “Our more elegant lifestyle pieces [such as baby-pearl necklaces] seem to have taken over from the early spring trend of comfort buying,” she says. “People are starting to add touches of luxury to their lives. I see they also are beginning to make new plans and dream again.”

Not all catalogers, of course, could take advantage of the resurgence in patriotism by modifying their product line. Case in point: Asia Transpacific Journeys, which sells trips to Asia. Fall is traditionally the biggest season for the Boulder, CO-based company, because most vacationers travel to Asia from December through March.

“The catalog dropped the week of 9/11,” says publications manager Klein, “and there was a two-week period where it was absolutely dead. Most of our customers are seasoned travelers, though, and they came back fast. By December we were tracking at about 50% [of plan], which may seem bad, but given the economy and our sector, we thought it was hopeful.”

After New Year’s, business picked up even more. “We call it the pent-up behavior: People were really yearning for vacations,” Klein says. “We almost got back to our previous year’s numbers, though not near our growth projections.”

And the “war on terrorism” that followed 9/11 hurt sales of one of Asia Transpacific’s trips in particular. The company had introduced travel to India in 2000, and the destination was a popular one. But the bombing in Afghanistan beginning in October and the violence that overflowed into Pakistan led to little demand to visit neighboring India.

Looking on the bright side, though, “China is definitely gaining popularity,” Klein says, “because of people’s perception of it as a controlled police state.” Before 9/11, the fact that a country was a “police state” would never have been a selling point.

Playing it safer

To encourage consumers to travel after 9/11, Asia Transpacific dropped its direct mailings promoting India and instead promoted less volatile destinations such as Fiji, the Cooke Islands, and Japan. In addition, the cataloger sent a letter to its best customers offering a 5% discount on trips to Bali. “We also sent letters to agents, associations, universities, and museums stating the reasons it was still safe to travel and emphasizing the cultural benefits and exotic nature of our destinations,” Klein says.

Asia Transpacific wasn’t the only cataloger to adjust its mailing and marketing plans after September. Sierra Trading Post, a Cheyenne, WY-based cataloger of discounted outdoor gear and apparel, cancelled its final two travel-products catalogs of the year, says director of fulfillment Robin Jahnke. Talbots reduced total circulation from 59 million catalogs to 57 million last year. This year, it cut circulation further; Myers expects total circulation of about 50 million books.

Although Skaggs isn’t decreasing the number of catalogs it mails, says Moren, “we’re doing a lot of scrubbing and cleaning of our database to be sure we’re getting the right catalogs to the right buyers.” The company has also brought its Website operations inhouse to gain more control, as it is determined to drive traffic to the site rather than to its call center.

Skaggs had been slated to drop its Law Enforcement catalog last September, but it opted to wait and conduct customer research to update the book to meet public-safety professionals’ post-9/11 needs. In addition to highlighting value-pricing, the catalog creative was refined. When staging action shots to show the products in use, “we’ve been a lot more sensitive to our readers and clientele,” Moren says. “We tried to create a more passive scene rather than a more aggressive scene.”

Associated Bag made a similar change. “We used to do a lot of crime scene photographs for our products that are used for law enforcement,” sales and marketing director Pietila explains. “In the past, we simulated shots around an accident. We wanted to eliminate those moving forward. So now we’ll have a lot more product shots in the catalog.”

On the front cover of its first 2002 catalog, Associated Bag ran a large photo of the U.S. flag; on the back read the phrase “United We Stand.” “That was a patriotic statement on our part,” Pietila says. “We wanted to make our statement without jumping on the marketing bandwagon to capitalize on sales.”

As part of its renewed emphasis on supplying the military, Brigade Quartermasters has adopted a new slogan: “Deliver the Goods to the Good Guys.” The company also introduced a “Take Action” logo, which Abney says was designed to show the company’s “vision of readiness, strength, and power.”

Regardless of how they’ve changed their strategies, catalogers are gradually trying to grow their businesses once again. At Colorado Springs, CO-based Taylor Corp., which mails the Current, Paper Direct, and Taymark stationery and specialty papers titles, “we have rebounded and are better than last year,” says chief financial officer Kirby Heck. “We’re in sales stabilization mode now; we’ll be back into growth mode next year.”

Conney is increasing circulation 5%. Talbots is launching a men’s apparel line. Sierra Trading Post is projecting an increase in holiday sales. At Asia Transpacific, “our projections for this year are really scaled back and tentative, but still positive,” Klein says. “The downtime when the phone wasn’t ringing helped us to put out what we feel is our best catalog yet.”

Old Glory Days

Since 9/11, the stars and stripes have appeared on an unlikely array of merchandise. To wit:

  • A cover line on the Fall/Winter 2002 edition of the Marco catalog of badges, ribbons, and promotional products for convention professionals refers to a page selling “patriotic products” — pens, neck cords, and tote bags adorned with images of the American flag.
  • Jewelry and tabletop marketer Ross-Simons and home decor cataloger Terry’s Village both offer Christmas ornaments featuring the flag. Terry’s Village also sells several decorative Santa Claus figures waving the flag.
  • For the patriotic pooch, In the Company of Dogs sells a red dog bed decorated with white stars on a field of blue.
  • Our favorite: Soitenly Stooges features a page of T-shirts displaying Betty Boop, Popeye, and of course The Three Stooges complemented by Old Glory. Nyuk nyuk nyuk, indeed.