A Day in the Life of Touch of Class

A typical workday for Fred Bell, president/CEO of home decor cataloger Touch of Class, means long hours at the office. His family doesn’t mind, however: They spend long workdays at the Huntingburg, IN-based company too.

How many Bells toil at Touch of Class? Bell’s wife, Carla Parke-Bell, is the chairperson. Bell’s children from a previous marriage occupy several positions as well. His eldest son, Gary, is the vice president of information systems; son Donald is the vice president of merchandise management; daughter Becky is the executive assistant. Becky’s husband, Rick MacDonald, is the facility manager. Fred’s nephew Eric is the staff commercial photographer. And of Fred’s 13 grandchildren, the eldest four have already logged time in the call center during summer vacations. The Bell family ties are so strong they would make the Corleones blush.

Touch of Class, in fact, started in the home — Bell and Parke-Bell’s home, in 1978, a few months after they married. Bell knew the catalog business from his days at apparel mailer Carroll Reed. After a few years, Touch of Class outgrew the basement of the couple’s North Conway, NH, home. In 1982 it and they moved to Huntingburg, in southern Indiana, which in keeping with the family orientation is near Carla’s hometown of Oakland City, IN. (Carla’s side of the family is in on the action as well. Her sister Donna and brother Ron have worked at Touch of Class since the early days; her nephew Jason designs products for the catalog as well as works on the Website design.)

In the past 26 years, Touch of Class has grown into a $50 million business with 180 employees. To get a feel for the life of a catalog CEO, Catalog Age spent a day in February shadowing Bell. Here’s our recap.

8:50 a.m. Bell, 66, arrives at Touch of Class’s 312,000 sq.-ft. headquarters, which includes a 250,000-sq.-ft. warehouse as well as its call center. The cataloger moved into the facility, situated on 80 acres, in July 2001.

Bell, an affable fellow with salt-and-pepper hair and moustache, is early today — he usually arrives after nine, as he tends to work late. The previous night, for instance, he left the office at 11; his wife stayed until midnight.

Once settled in his stark second-floor corner office, Bell kicks off the workday by checking his phone messages and e-mails. “The spam is certainly getting more creative,” he remarks.

9:37 a.m. Bell decides to check in on the warehouse, where he finds a flurry of activity. A container of merchandise from China has arrived at the loading dock three hours earlier than expected. A team of five distribution-center employees rush to unload about 750 items, including mirror and metal accent tables. In addition to furniture, Touch of Class sells linens, towels, and gifts. The distribution center, by the way, was built by St. Louis-based Clayco, which has also designed DCs for J. Jill Group, Coldwater Creek, and Home Decorator’s Collection.

The team carefully stages the merchandise and briefly inspects it before getting it ready for put-away in the rows and rows of floor-to-ceiling pallet racks. Rick MacDonald — who’s wearing a Michigan Wolverines T-shirt and looks like he could be on the team’s practice squad — oversees the operation. The cataloger has contracted two hours with the trucking company to unload it, “but we did it in about 20 minutes,” he boasts.

10:33 a.m. From the warehouse, Bell climbs two flights of stairs to the executive offices, where he checks in on his circulation assistant, Kerri Utterback, and two guests from the company’s list brokerage and management firm, Mokrynski & Associates: Dennis Bissig, group vice president for the Hackensack, NJ-based firm, and Susan Darling, vice president.

The guests are reviewing with Utterback which prospecting lists are performing well and which need to be replaced. Among the many lists Touch of Class rents or exchanges are Frontgate, Expressions, and Draper’s & Damon’s. Its own house file has 250,000 12-month buyers, who spend an average of $145 per order.

Bissig excuses himself to prepare for a conference call in Bell’s office. It’s time to discuss Touch of Class’s fall mailing plan, Bell explains: “We’re analyzing list segments to maximize response to the house file and rental lists. Selected segments will be optimized using cooperative database Z-24.” The mailer is also deciding on how many catalogs to drop between late July and Labor Day.

10:57 a.m. Bell returns to his office, where Bissig is waiting to begin the first-ever video conference between Touch of Class and Mokrynski. Back in Hackensack, Bissig’s boss, Don Mokrynski, as well as with Mokrynski & Associates’ senior vice president Sandy Matika; Steve Tamke, senior vice president/director of list brokerage; and senior vice president/director of list management Chris Montana, magically appear on the screen of Bell’s laptop.

“One of the biggest opportunities is in the rise of Internet shopping and how that affects prospecting, customer contact, promotional, and merchandise strategies,” barks Mokrynski via the videophone. “Internet shopping is bringing more people into the mode, and we see that as a big opportunity in Fred’s business.”

The somewhat shaky video’s two-second delay, which often causes both parties to repeat what they just said, takes some getting used to, and the sound is prone to cutting out. But the call participants soldier on, and several of the Mokrynski contingent suggest that Touch of Class reexamine its contact strategy.

“There’s not enough attention being paid by catalogers to contact strategy,” says Tamke. “Every year more and more of the lists you’re buying are Web shoppers. You’re contacting your customers 16 or 17 times a year, and you’re e-mailing every week. There’s a big chunk of those customers that don’t need to get a 64-page catalog every few weeks…”

“I don’t know if you are doing match-backs at all, Fred,” chimes in Matika, referring to comparing Web buyers to catalog and e-mail recipients to determine how many were driven to the Web by each method.

“Not yet,” Bell responds. “But match-backs are on the agenda.”

“Matching back sales to circulation, you can see the value in lists,” says Tamke, “because if a list has 30%-40% of their buyers combo or Web-only buyers while another list has only 10%, that performance is going to be drastically different if you’re not matching back…”

The call wraps up after about 45 minutes.

Noon. Time to break bread with the family. Bell, Parke-Bell, Bell’s sons Don and Gary, and daughter Becky pile into Bell’s van, which has Indiana vanity plates reading “TOC2.” After a five-minute drive we arrive at the Fat & Sassy, a favorite Bell haunt that also happens to be across the street from the Touch of Class outlet store. Bell has the soup-and-salad combo. No dessert.

12:50 p.m. Back to work. Bell checks his e-mail again. Here’s an important one from MacDonald: a record of the previous day’s order shipments.

1:06 p.m. Bell visits with contact sales manager Jennie Blessinger in her office down the hall, right off the call center. On an average day Touch of Class receives about 2,000 calls and 200 e-mails from customers. There are nearly 40 active seats in the contact center. Blessinger says 90% of incoming calls are answered within 10 seconds. Catalog product samples in the contact center allow for easy reference should customers have questions.

Blessinger came up with a plan to help sell off excess merchandise. Dubbed U-Pick, from a viewers-choice feature on children’s TV network Nickelodeon, it allows reps to choose an item from the Web clearance site to suggestive-sell to consumers at the end of a call, “should everything go right,” she says. Agents tend to sell more of the merchandise because they have ownership of the selection, Blessinger says. It also helps that the company rewards the agents who sell the most with prizes such as time off, money, and even the merchandise they’ve selected.

1:34 p.m. Fred drops in on Parke-Bell’s office on the first floor. Parke-Bell, a bespectacled brunette who declines to give her age, is the creative and merchandising force behind Touch of Class. Sitting in front of two huge flat-panel computer monitors, her desk crowded with files and page mock-ups, she comments on the contrast between her office and Bell’s: “He probably cleaned it up because he knew you were coming.”

2:43 p.m. Another conference call — but no video this time. Bell and Bissig are conferring with Mike Clark, strategic account manager of service bureau Experian, to discuss the attributes of its Z-24 cooperative database. Touch of Class’s list sizes are down about 5%, but Bell doesn’t want to cut circulation, so he is planning to use Z-24 to enhance his lists and increase the universe of viable prospects for the fall mailing season.

3:21 p.m. Three representatives from Touch of Class’s prepress operator, Segerdahl Graphics — vice president of national accounts Brian Pell, project director Matt Roppel, and director of color Mike Herin — arrive for their annual meeting to discuss their relationship with Touch of Class. Wheeling, IL-based Segerdahl has been working with the cataloger for four years.

A key topic: In January, Parke-Bell merged Touch of Class’s layout and copy departments so that she can focus less on creative and more on developing product and importing, particularly from China. This means the folks at Segerdahl Graphics have new contacts at Touch of Class. During the meeting the Segerdahl team also recommend that the cataloger invest in new digital camera software.

5:07 p.m. Time to call it a day — Catalog Age has a plane to catch. But Bell returns to his desk to go through the mountain of payroll checks and accounts payable — a Thursday ritual. He personally signs every check, a process that requires several hours. “It helps me keep an eye on cash flow and check out our invoices,” Bell says.

At an age when most executives would think of cutting back their hours or perhaps stepping down, you get the feeling Fred Bell is just getting started: “The question is not when I’m going to retire and enjoy my family; it is working with them on the project of the day and planning our direction,” he says.

Besides, Bell adds, “Working with my wife is not being late for dinner, it is eating dinner late.” And nobody’s complaining about the working conditions: “Our working partnership is a labor of love,” he says.

Touch of Class by the Numbers
Years in business: 26
Annual sales: $50 million
Employees: 180
Annual catalog circulation: 30 million
Number of SKUs: 8,500
Number of packages shipped a year: 430,000
Average order size: $145

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