Anthrax Whammy

In mid-October, just as “anthrax” had become a household word, food cataloger Wolferman’s received an unmarked brown parcel at its Lenexa, KS, headquarters. “People here went crazy,” says vice president of operations Mike Ruchensky. The package was actually a shipment of gift baskets from a vendor. But the absence of identification on the box leaves Ruchensky shaking his head. “Even in our own industry we need to do a better job of marking packages.”

The Wolferman’s story illustrates how the presence of anthrax in the mail stream is a double whammy for catalogers and other direct marketers. Like other businesses, catalog companies have to reconsider their policies regarding how they receive and process mail. But unlike many other companies, they also have to reevaluate the presentation of their outgoing packages.

Anita Bizzotto, chief marketing officer of the U.S. Postal Service, says mailers should make sure any mail piece — catalog, parcel, or letter — has a return address “and should make it recognizable.” Consumers will trust mail from brands they recognize, she adds.

Even before the terrorist attacks, Hobby Builders Supply, a Doraville, GA-based cataloger of dollhouses, was using a kraft-paper packing tape embossed with its logo. “When our customers get a package they know it’s from us,” says operations manager Leta Reynolds. Since the anthrax scares, though, the cataloger has made a point of telling customers not to accept the package if the seal is broken.

To better identify its packages, as of late October, multititle mailer Knights Ltd. was considering making the logo clearer on its shipping labels. “We want to make more of a direct connection toward who is getting the package compared to where the package is going,” says Steve Kessler, vice president of special projects for the St. Louis-based cataloger, whose titles include Soft Surroundings and The Home Decorators Collection.

For packages being sent as gifts, Knights Ltd. was also considering putting the gift-giver’s name above the company logo on the shipping label. Indeed, of the 500 companies surveyed by operations consultancy F. Curtis Barry & Co. between Oct. 24 and Oct. 31, 46% said they were now sending a card or an e-mail to gift recipients in advance of shipments.

Charlottesville, VA-based gifts cataloger Gold Violin isn’t one of those companies, however. It did send e-mails to customers in advance of a November drop of 100,000 catalogs to alert them of the catalogs’ arrival. But notifying gift recipients of impending deliveries is another, more complicated matter, says chief operating officer Ann Taylor.

Gold Violin does 40% of its business during the holidays, and implementing the ability to notify gift-givers and recipients of deliveries ahead of time would require reprogramming its computer systems. Then there’s the matter of obtaining the e-mail addresses of the gift recipients. “Making those kinds of changes would take months of preplanning,” Taylor says. “It’s certainly nothing you can do well on the fly.”

Rye, NY-based gifts mailer Lillian Vernon Corp. also realized that reacting to the anthrax scare might be more complex than it had initially thought. The $246.6 million cataloger was considering switching from its generic, clear packaging tape to a reinforced tape embossed with the company’s logo, says spokesperson David Hochberg. But after speaking with its drop-shippers, Lillian Vernon decided that making the change would be an operational nightmare.

Motherwear, a Northhampton, MA-based cataloger of apparel for pregnant and nursing women, also opted not to change its packaging. “All of our packages and mailings are already clearly marked,” says spokesperson Allison Wood. Nor has Motherwear changed any of its procedures for receiving mail and returns.

But many mailers have: 48% of the respondents to the F. Curtis Barry survey have changed or are changing their returns processing policies; the same percentage have changed or are changing their mailroom procedures.

Gloves and bleach

“If you’re getting your mail from the same mail stream that was affected by anthrax, you could be at risk,” insists Jim Ray, president of Charlottesville, VA-based McFeely’s Square Drive Screws. To be on the safe side, employees at the hardware cataloger are wearing latex gloves to open their mail, discarding mail scraps in separate receptacles from other trash, and cleaning the mail areas with bleach. “If there’s any chance of contamination, I want to contain it,” Ray says.

Companies as diverse as $1.3 billion apparel and home textiles cataloger Lands’ End, $120 million apparel and gifts marketer The Mark Group, and $30 million food gifts mailer Windsor Vineyards are supplying employees with gloves for handling mail. And they have also adopted the guidelines sent by the U.S. Postal Service and the Direct Marketing Association on safe mailroom procedures.

“Starting on Oct. 13, we set up a system to prescreen all incoming mail and return items,” says Beverly Holmes, spokesperson for Dodgeville, WI-based Lands’ End. The mailer segregated a group of people trained by its operations management on the government and postal standards of mail security, though Holmes admits that the system “does somewhat slow down our ability to respond to orders and issue credits on returns.”

Fortunately for most catalogers, only a minority of orders come in via the mail. According to the 2001 Catalog Age Benchmark Report on Operations (March 15 issue) catalogers receive a mean 22% of orders through the mail.

So far, so calm

As of early November, few catalogers worried that anthrax in the mail stream would scare off customers. In fact, of the 1,000 catalogers and direct marketers surveyed by the DMA in late October, 92% said they had no plans to cut holiday circulation, because they’d seen little if any decline in response. “Of the about 50,000 calls we receive a day,” says Lands’ End’s Holmes, “only about two are from customers concerned about delivery.”

But Wolferman’s, for one, is concerned enough to shift parcels away from the Postal Service. The food cataloger already was a client of the United Parcel Service as well as of USPS. But as of November, Ruchensky says, Wolferman’s was sending about 98% of its packages via UPS.

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