Going postal, again

Sometimes I think if I hear or read one more thing about this year’s postal rate hike, I’m going to scream. You must be getting pretty tired of it, too — especially since it’s never good news.

But with the new rates now a reality, many mailers are facing an uncertain future. And it’s not just the catalogers fearing the worst. Several industry suppliers from consultants and printers to list pros and bankers say they’re worried that this could be the Big One, the rate hike that pushes many marginal (and not so marginal) mailers over the precipice.

I know, we’ve heard this before — about 12 years ago, when postage, paper, and other costs increased at the same time to create, as we called it then, “the year of mailing dangerously.” In some ways 2007 is even worse than 1995: The rate increase this year for many is nearly double the 14% postage hike mailers faced then. The low dollar and high fuel costs are also biting into bottom lines.

But in other ways, mailers today are better off thanks to multiple marketing channels. For instance, more catalogers are now getting into retail, which not only relieves the postal and paper price pain, but stores are the only way to reach the half of the population that still refuses to shop by catalog or Internet.

And of course, the Web channel provides merchants with strategies such as search engine and e-mail marketing, as well as newer mediums like mobile marketing. As Tracy Amiral, general manager of plus-size women’s apparel cataloger Making It Big — which saw a 38% rise in fall mailing costs — says in our cover story “Fall or nothing,” if this rate increase had hit 10 years ago, it would have likely forced more businesses to go under. Catalogs remain the driver, “but there is a lot more online, affiliate, and e-mail marketing now that can help more of us survive,” Amiral says.

It’s going to be a tough year — especially for pure-play print catalogers, if such a thing even exists anymore — but multichannel merchants have a fighting chance. That’s not to say this is the end of print catalogs; it isn’t. I’ve been warned about the death of the print catalog — and the print magazine, for that matter — since the Internet first started rearing its head in the early ’90s. And so far, we’re all still here.

P.S. On a sad note, we say good-bye to our special projects manager Heather Retzlaff, who is leaving us to move to Seattle. Many of you know Heather from the Multichannnel Merchant Awards, a project she’s handled masterfully for the past three years; she’s also a terrific writer. We hate to see her go, but we wish her all the best in her new adventure in the Northwest.

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