A Day in the Life of a Catalog Merchant

Aug 15, 2004 9:30 PM  By

We all know that cataloging is a merchandise-driven business and that finding fresh product is an ongoing concern for catalog merchandisers. As a source for new product, trade shows still rule: According to the 2004 Catalog Age Benchmark Report on Merchandising (May issue), trade shows tied with manufacturers’ reps as the top source for new products.

But what happens once a catalog merchant hits the trade show floor? To get a good idea of how one goes about working a product show, Catalog Age played merchant for a day. We tagged along with Margaret Hartnett, the catalog marketing manager for Lenexa, KS-based food mailer Wolferman’s when she covered the Fancy Food Show in New York in late June.

Founded in 1888, Wolferman’s sells its own signature English muffins and other food gifts, primarily gift baskets. In fact, most sales placed in the Wolferman’s catalog and Website are for gift baskets, about half of which contain English muffins, so Hartnett came to the show to hunt for baskets and ancillary items to include in them.

9:15 a.m.: We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. Hartnett arrives at the bustling Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on New York’s West Side with her trusty marketing assistant, Elizabeth Ryan. It’s the 50th Summer Fancy Food Show, and Wolferman’s is on the prowl for items to include in its spring and fall 2005 catalogs. Hartnett is armed with a detailed plan for her day’s journey through this show of more than 2,100 exhibitors. “We look for private label,” Hartnett explains, as Wolferman’s is not only a catalog marketer, but also a brand. Her goal is to find appropriate, quality products to put the Wolferman’s name on so that the company can include them in its gift baskets.

The first stop is Honey Acres, which produces an assortment of spreads and jams. The Wolferman’s catalog has carried some Honey Acres items in the past, so at the booth Hartnett is warmly greeted by Honey Acres’ rep Eugene Brueggeman. Hartnett explains that she needs to take into consideration the size of the company’s jars and is particularly interested in its “no-mess containers.” Honey Acres’ booth is sandwiched between those of two vendors selling low-carbohydrate food — not exactly food gift basket fare. “We’re the low-carb alternative,” Brueggeman jokes.

9:30 a.m.: Across the way, Hartnett and Ryan stop briefly at the booth of Coe & Dru, a manufacturer of gift baskets and other metal, paper, wire, plastic, and wicker containers. Wolferman’s, which sells more than 100,000 baskets a year, works with at least 10 basket suppliers, but it’s always looking for something new and different.

A few minutes later, the beaded baskets at Andrea Baskets’ booth catch Hartnett’s eye. But she is dubious about using the baskets for food gifts. “These are more for cosmetics baskets,” Hartnett says.

But she remains intrigued by Andrea’s offerings. “We’re seeing some unique color combinations in the baskets,” Hartnett notes, “such as springy green and blue and orange, as well as some interesting trims and apple baskets in spring colors.” Hartnett is interested in Andrea’s metal Halloween baskets and buckets, but she doesn’t yet request samples.

10 a.m.: Time for a meet-and-greet with a Wolferman’s vendor. Hartnett heads for the booth of Wald Imports, an importer of boxes. “We placed our first order with Wald for wooden planter boxes in April,” she says, “and now’s a chance for us to meet them.” Hartnett waits patiently for the owner, Lou Wald, to finish with another client before introducing herself.

Hartnett is drawn to Wald’s colored baskets, which might work well for Wolferman’s gift packages next spring. The metal planter baskets are also a possibility, but Hartnett is looking mainly for lighter-weight baskets, because the heavier ones cost too much to ship. When she finds a colorful light metal basket, she hands it over to Ryan, who jots down the SKU number.

Lou Wald and his associate, Doug Sippy, continue to show Hartnett and Ryan around their booth. Although the Wolferman’s team requests a few samples of baskets, it would likely ask to have any product customized before ordering it. “Most of the time,” Hartnett says, “we have to get vendors to adjust the sizing of baskets to fit our products. Our food items are big and don’t fit in a lot of baskets.”

11 a.m.: Hartnett and Ryan have an appointment with Chris Fluchel of St. Louis-based A.R. & Associates, a manufacturer’s rep firm that Wolferman’s works with. Hartnett says she gets a lot out of having reps such as Fluchel play the middleman role with vendors: “Reps can expedite our orders, make sure samples are sent to us, and give us merchandising ideas.” They’re meeting at the booth of First Colony Coffee & Tea Co., a vendor that Hartnett is going to chat with first.

Hartnett and Ryan sit down with First Colony president/CEO Charlie Cortellini and regional sales director Kathy Helmbacker at a table in First Colony’s booth. Cortellini describes to Hartnett and Ryan the details of coffee packaging, such as the purpose of the valves on soft coffee packages (they let out the gas of the coffee beans without allowing air to come in), and other elements related to the products’ portability.

Helmbacker offers a brand of coffee that Colony represents — Giradelli — but no go; Wolferman’s is not interested in name brands unless the vendor is willing to slap the Wolferman’s logo over the brand name, and Colony can’t do that for Giradelli, Southern Comfort, or any of its other branded coffees or teas except its own proprietary lines.

Hartnett describes the varieties of coffee that Wolferman’s currently carries in its catalogs, and Helmbacker suggests other flavors, such as Colony’s top seller, hazelnut. Hartnett inquires about special holiday blends, such as sugar-and-spice and eggnog flavors. Colony’s harvest café and butterscotch pumpkin-pie coffee might be contenders for the fall 2005 catalog. The topic then turns to teas, and the meeting ends with Hartnett requesting pricing details on a few items.

11:30 a.m.: Because Hartnett is developing a gift box of chocolate novelties such as chocolate-covered grahams, Fluchel directs her to the Long Grove Confectionary Co. booth. “We often come up with art concepts like holiday-plaid, ‘winter lodge,’ creamy white, and regular chocolate-covered Rice Krispy Treats on sticks — all hand-decorated,” Hartnett says. “But this year we’re looking for more-colorful chocolates that will pop out on the catalog page.”

Hartnett is also looking at Long Grove’s array of character chocolates for the four-page insert of Halloween products Wolferman’s plans to run in the fall 2005 catalog. “These are what Long Grove does well,” she says. Ryan places a few orders for samples, and Hartnett tells Long Grove rep Nick Quartana that she’ll be in touch.

11:45 a.m.: Hartnett and Ryan visit more of Fluchel’s clients, including Joseph Schmidt Confections. Hartnett takes a liking to a nutcracker-shape chocolate and asks Schmidt’s director of national sales, Stephen Hendley, if his company could produce a smaller version of it. Indeed, Hendley can. Ryan takes note of this and requests samples and brochures, and they move on.

The next stop is the Wythe-Will Distributing Co. booth to check out some peanut brittle offered there. Peanut brittle isn’t a huge item for the cataloger, but since Wythe-Will can put the Wolferman’s name on the package, Hartnett will consider offering it.

Noon: Next to Wythe-Will is Elsa’s Story of Israel, a booth selling baked goods. Hartnett wants to see if Wolferman’s would be able to put its own label on a few items from Elsa’s line of cookies and crackers. As lit turns out Wythe-Will distributes Elsa’s Story’s products in the U.S., and sales manager B.J. Joyner is happy to discuss packaging some Elsa’s items in gift tins for Wolferman’s. Elsa’s cookies and crackers, he boasts, can remain fresh for up to 10 months.

12:30 p.m.: Fluchel has gone his separate way, and Ryan is on her way back to their hotel to pick up catalog page layouts. Hartnett wants to review the layouts over lunch to see where some of the products they’ve viewed this morning would fit in. Also, “we want to show some vendors our layouts as a courtesy,” Hartnett says. “I thought some of them would enjoy seeing their products in our catalog — it gives them more credibility to show their products in our catalog.”

12:45 p.m.: Roaming on her own, Hartnett comes upon Can Creations, another vendor of gift baskets. She likes the unusual shapes and colorful designs of the baskets, as well as their light weight. She asks Diane Pike, a Can Creations rep, if the vendor can provide private-label products and custom-size gift boxes for Wolferman’s. Pike is not sure and will have to get back to her after the show.

1 p.m.: Hartnett meets up with Ryan, who has returned with the catalog pages, at the Javits cafeteria for lunch. Both order salads to nibble on as they review the pages and discuss where some of the items they’ve seen this morning might fit best.

2:15 p.m.: The afternoon is not quite as structured as the morning. Hartnett and Ryan continue to visit booths that catch their interest and to stop to see specific vendors. “Half of the reason we go to shows like this,” Hartnett says, “is to get ideas. I like the idea of the packaging some vendors had and have adapted their packages for us.” At the booth of Willow Specialties, another Wolferman’s vendor, Hartnett and Ryan view some of Willow’s new gift baskets and request samples.

3:30 p.m.: The Grafton Village Cheese Co. booth is up next. “We bought from Grafton years ago,” Hartnett says. “But we haven’t offered cheeses in a long time, because we’re not really set up to ship product that’s that perishable.” Nevertheless, she says, Wolferman’s is looking into including cheeses again: “We do so many sweet toppings that sometimes it’s nice to have a savory option.” Hartnett discusses the perishability problem with Grafton plant manager Brian Joslyn, and they agree that they’ll be in touch at some point after the show.

4 p.m.: After walking nearly three miles, passing booth after booth of such delicacies as regional olive oils, exotic salsas, truffle butters, and handmade chocolates, Catalog Age is ready to call it a day. Hartnett and Ryan, however, will end up spending a few more hours at the show, mostly talking shop with current Wolferman’s vendors. Despite all the samples the exhibitors put out, both Hartnett and Ryan taste very few items as a rule, so when the show is over they’re ready for dinner. What do the two end up eating after spending the day at the Fancy Food Show? Chinese food.