Slimmer Pickings

Aug 01, 2009 9:30 PM  By

The tall, skinny catalogs affectionately known as slim-jims are soon to be scarce, once the latest U.S. Postal Service modifications kick in on Sept. 8. The main sticking point with the new rules is the requirement for three non-perforated tabs to seal the letter-size booklets shut.

The tabs, several mailers say, make it harder for customers to open the catalogs. The seals don’t do the cover design any favors, either. As a result, some catalogers are ditching the slim-jim books.

Multititle gifts mailer Miles Kimball is shifting its Walter Drake catalog from a slim-jim to a full-size format, says vice president of marketing Vicki Updike. Walter Drake’s 96-page slim-jim catalog, which measured 5-3/8″ × 8-3/4″, is now a 56- to 64-page book with a 7″ × 10-1/2″ trim size, she says.

Walter Drake drops 12 times a year, with an annual circulation of about 40 million. In addition to Walter Drake and Miles Kimball, the company mails the Easy Comforts, Exposures, Home Marketplace, and As We Change catalogs.

The reason for the size switch? When Miles Kimball tested perforated tabs on Walter Drake, results showed the tabs suppressed response, Updike says. The tests were conducted with perforated tabs because “non-perforated, we assumed, would perform worse,” she adds.

Kitchen tools title Professional Cutlery Direct first started mailing as a slim-jim in 2000, says president Jay Alpert. It went to a full size in 2004, “after hearing so many success stories from other catalogers who made the transition.”

The cataloger did not experience the anticipated lift in response, however, so Alpert says it went back to slim-jims in 2006. But the mailer has just returned to the full size, due to the increased tabbing requirements.

Professional Cutlery Direct, which mailed its 72-page slim-jim book 16 times per year, made the switch to a 56-page full-size catalog in July. Alpert plans to stick with the larger size, “unless we see deteriorations in response rates, at which point we will consider going back to the slim-jim format.”

Smithfield Specialty Foods Group mails three of its five titles — Smithfield Collection, The Peanut Shop and Rocke’s Meating Haus — as slim-jims. The company’s Smithfield Hams and Basse’s Choice catalogs are full-size books.

The slim booklets have worked well for Smithfield Specialty Foods, says Alexa Arnold Ricketts, director of catalog marketing, and the format made sense from an economic standpoint. But because of the tabbing requirements, Smithfield will convert the slim-jims to full-size catalogs starting in the fall.

The company will consider comailing to offset the cost of mailing full-size catalogs instead of slim-jims. Smithfield is also looking at reducing the number of catalogs it mails and lowering paper weights; it may even consolidate some of the catalog brands.

“It’s gotten so complicated now,” Ricketts says. “I’m not sure what the right answer is any more, but we’ve looked at it from a loss of sales versus a loss of profit from the increased expense of the postage and tabbing.”

Smithfield doesn’t have the resources to do extensive testing with the new tabs, Ricketts says. So it’s basing its decision on information gathered from other catalogers’ experiences and the financial impact on its P&L statements. Clearly, she notes, the Postal Service’s new regulations “are designed to effectively kill the slim-jim business.”

INSIDE SKINNY

Catalogers have long had a love/hate relationship with slim-jims. Marketers love the tall, skinny booklets because they cost less to produce and mail than a full-size book. Especially after the massive postal rate hike in May 2007, which increased postage on average 20% to 40%, many marketers turned to the slim-jim.

But catalog designers and merchandisers don’t like slim-jims because of the creative limitations: It’s harder to make a product look good with the smaller format, measuring roughly 6″ × 11″, vs. a full-size book.

The Postal Service does not care for slim-jims either — it says the booklets were jamming USPS automated processing equipment because they were too fat and the tabs required to seal the pages weren’t strong enough. That’s why USPS put in stricter requirements this year.

As of May 11, machinable automated slim-jims (with two tabs, weighing 3 oz.) and machinable non-automated (nontabbed, weighing 3.3 oz.) catalogs are required to have the same physical characteristics: two tabs and a weight of no more than 3 oz.

The new weight limits alone reduce selling space by 10%, says Larry Davis, vice president of marketing for jewelry and gifts merchant Ross-Simons. But it’s the tabbing requirements coming next month that have peeved Davis and others the most. “Tabbing kills our response rates by 25% to 50%,” Davis says. “The rules requiring three tabs have destroyed the format and will end 90% of slim-jim mail,” he surmises.

Carol Wisely, a consultant for food catalog agency 5th Food Group, agrees that the slim-jim tabs could be problematic: “It looks like you have to fight to get them open.”

But then Wisely never liked slim-jims. “They’re not good for food titles,” she says.

Still, slim-jims used to be a great alternative for companies trying to get into catalogs, Wisely notes. With its new revisions for the letter-size booklets, she believes the USPS is “shooting itself in the foot.”

As catalogers look to implement new mailings, says Chris Haag, director of sales for Royle Printing, “the slim-jim format will drop from that of high consideration to one of the last choices,” thanks in part to the added tabbing cost and potentially reduced response rates.

KEEPING TABS

But the new tabs may not be as big a deterrent to getting catalogs opened as some mailers fear. Haag recently spoke with a cataloger who tested a two-tab book vs. a three-tab, non-perforated book. Surprisingly, he notes, “there was no difference in response rate.”

Kitchen gardening systems marketer AeroGrow International has already tested the slim-jim with the current tabs vs. the seals going into effect in September, says J. Michael Wolfe, vice president of operations and general manager of the direct response division. “We actually saw a slight improvement in results with the new tabs.”

Why is that? For one, AeroGrow’s printer, Quad Graphics, “did a great job in helping us choose appropriate tabs that are still easy to open,” Wolfe says.

Next Page: MAILING AS A FLAT

Previous Page: INSIDE SKINNY

AeroGrow also thinks the bigger tabs may have improved delivery in that more catalogs arrived in-home. And the catalogs were delivered in better shape, no doubt thanks to the heavier tabs that kept the books shut.

AeroGrow has used a slim-jim book since September 2008. The 32-page catalog drops eight times per year with an annual circulation of around 7.5 million. Overall response rates with the slim-jim size, Wolfe says, “are fairly similar to what we had seen in our full-size book that we mailed previously.”?

Professional Cutlery Direct is another mailer that did not see a falloff in response when testing the new tabs, Alpert says. A/B split testing of the new tab requirements vs. old tab requirements showed no effect in response rates from the company’s house file and core prospect universes. “But the increased cost, plus the ugliness of the tabs, has definitely made slim-jims less attractive for mailers who are already forced to reconsider how they use their catalogs as a customer acquisition vehicles due to recent postal increases,” he notes.

MAILING AS A FLAT

Slim-jim catalogers do have a way around the dreaded tabs: They can opt to mail as a flat.

Catalogs fall within the dimensions of a letter or a flat, says Don Landis, vice president of postal affairs for catalog printer Arandell Corp. Catalogers typically make the decision whether to mail their books as letters or flats based on marketing or postage, he says.

“Even though a trim size may qualify for a letter rate, each mailer can still choose to mail that piece at the flat rate without tabs,” says Miles Kimball’s Updike. The cataloger is choosing this option for its sub-brand catalogs, which include Miles Kimball Christmas Cards, Miles Kimball Candy Shoppe, Serenity Falls, Walter Drake Christmas Cards and Sundial. These all mail as slim-jims.

Rather than switch them to a full size, Updike says, “the newer sub-brand mailings will maintain the slim-jim trim size, but will be mailed as flats to avoid using the non-perforated tabs.” The postage increase in going from letter rate to flat rate is about 17%, she adds.

For some of Miles Kimball’s titles, Updike notes, “the postage savings for the slim-jim letter rate is not enough to offset the response rate decrease” that results from the new tab requirements.

Ross-Simons’ Davis says his company plans to mail its current slim-jims as flats and pay a 30% penalty. The extra postage cost on a flat is $.05 to $.10 higher.

“We are assessing our options for 2009,” Davis says, “but yes, we will likely change much of letter-size mail to the 8″ × 10-1/2″ format so that we can comail.”

COMAILING IS KING

Comailing, in which the printer binds your catalog at the same time as that of another marketer and mails the two books together, has been a saving grace for catalogers looking to reduce their postal bills.

Since the comailed catalogs have to be the same trim size, a standard catalog format typically means you have more options to comail. That’s part of the reason Miles Kimball is moving Walter Drake from a slim-jim, because the full-size catalog format allows for comailing, Updike says. And with the comail opportunities, the company will be able to hold Walter Drake’s circulation levels “close to historic levels,” she notes.

Indeed, the ability to comail was another factor in Professional Cutlery Direct’s decision to move to a full-size book, Alpert says. “With the added comail opportunities available with full size, we are able to bring our costs down to make it comparable to a slim-jim,” he notes.

Professional Cutlery also mails the gifts and collectibles catalog Uno Alla Volta, which has always been full size. Alpert says the company will now comail the two catalogs to achieve savings.

Underwear brand Jockey launched its first apparel catalog — a slim-jim — about a year ago. The company has not yet decided if it will stick with the slim-jim size after September, says Chris Smith, vice president of catalog for the merchant. But Jockey is considering switching formats so it can comail, Smith says.

“We’ve been talking with [its printer Arandell Corp.] all along because of the most recent postal increase,” Smith says. “If the May increase was too much for us to handle, we were going to switch to a larger format in July and then join Arandell’s comail pool.”

KEEPING SLIM

Despite the postal restrictions for the booklets, several slim-jim fans have no intention of changing their trim sizes. Take cleaning supplies and home improvement products merchant QCI Direct, which mails the Home Trends, Sleep Solutions and Picket Fence catalogs. All three titles moved to the slim-jim size in 2008, which saved the cataloger about 12% in postage costs, says QCI Direct president/owner Jane Glazer.

“We love the size,” she says. “Our catalogs have always been tight on white space, and this format allows us to have fewer items per page, making it easier for the reader.”

Glazer realizes the new tabs might be a problem in September, and the company is now testing them. But she is optimistic about the tests — and the tabs.

Although there are now three tabs instead of two, she notes, “the new ones are easier to rip. Best of all, there should be fewer damaged catalogs arriving in homes. Always the optimist, I am looking at the positive attributes of the new tabbing.”

QCI Direct will mail 45 million catalogs this year. “We drop one of our titles every week,” Glazer says. “We are not a fourth-quarter gift company, so our marketing, distribution and fulfillment are consistent year round.”

The company sees no reason to change its circulation due to the new tabbing rules. As a slim-jim mailer, QCI is not in any co-op mailing pools, which Glazer says gives it greater flexibility to change circulation quantities and dates on the fly. “I realize that we are in the minority here, and most catalogs have made the switch back to full size,” she notes. “But as we know, direct mail is all about testing. So we test.”

Jim Kraft, president of exercise videos merchant Collage Video, says his company has used slim-jims for 15 years and has no intention of stopping now. “We don’t plan any changes at this point. We’ve been mailing slim-jims since 1994, so we really don’t have any history or full-size version we could test.”

Still, Collage Video is nervous that the new tabs are going to make its catalog harder to open, Kraft admits. “So when we do our first three-tab mailing (in October), we’ll be watching the results and waiting for customer complaints, and keeping up with the reports from larger mailers who are doing true A/B tests.”

But until then, Kraft says: “We’ll continue to pocket the postage savings.”

Next Page: Arandell opts out of oblong tabbing

Previous Page: MAILING AS A FLAT

Arandell opts out of oblong tabbing

SOME TYPES OF SLIM-JIMS HAVE ALREADY FALLEN OUT OF FAVOR, at least at catalog printer Arandell Corp. The company has not equipped its oblong digest line with three-tab capability because, after surveying its customer base, “there was going to be no demand for it,” says Don Landis, Arandell’s vice president of postal affairs.

Oblong digest, which is a version of the slim-jim that’s short and wide vs. tall and thin, “is a format that has lost its popularity,” Landis says. But if demand for it picks up, Arandell will reconsider investing in the technology.

Did the fact that the new three-tab requirement for slim-jim catalogs would render those books less popular contribute to Arandell’s decision? “That definitely had some bearing on our decision,” Landis adds. Plus the fact that the added cost of equipping the oblong digest line with three-tab capacity would have been approximately $150,000. — JT

some of the New slim-jim catalog Requirements
TAKING EFFECT SEPT. 8:

  • MAXIMUM HEIGHT for all machinable and automation booklets is 6″; the maximum length can vary between 9″ and 10-1/2″, depending on the booklet design.

  • MINIMUM THICKNESS for booklets is 0.009″; maximum thickness is 0.25″ regardless of size. (Thickness is measured at the spine of the mailpiece.)

  • THE CURRENT MAXIMUM WEIGHT of 3 oz. has not changed, but USPS recommends reducing the length of 3-oz. booklets to a final trim size of 9″.

  • COVER STOCK REQUIREMENTS vary, with 40-lb. minimum basis weight for folded booklet designs and 60-lb. or 70-lb. minimum basis weight for pieces longer than 9″.

  • THE BOTTOM EDGE of booklets must be a bound edge or fold unless the mailpiece is prepared as an oblong booklet. Oblong booklets must be prepared with a spine on the leading edge. Booklets with a spine on the trailing edge are nonmachinable.

  • TABS USED TO SEAL BOOKLETS MUST NOT have perforations. Generally, booklets need three 1-1/2″ tabs as closures. For larger or heavier booklets, the USPS recommends 2“ paper tabs. Glue spots or a continuous glue line may be used to seal some booklet designs.