Benchmark 1999: Merchandising

This year the Catalog Age Benchmark Report on Merchandising reveals some surprising results. For instance, catalogers are sourcing and buying earlier than in years past, perhaps hoping to avoid any dreaded Y2K pitfalls. And in what is likely a show of optimism regarding the economy, they’re buying in larger volume. Below, we dissect respondents’ candid answers to critical questions on sourcing, buying, merchandising, and product strategy.


While the U.S. remains respondents’ leading location choice for sourcing merchandise, interest in the Far East has fallen off over the past three years, particularly among consumer mailers. As a source for new products, the Far East slipped from the number-2 spot last year to number 4 this year among the consumer respondents, as Western Europe and Canada moved up in the ranks.

Meanwhile, trade shows remain the most popular place to find new products, with 76% of survey respondents rating them a “good” or a “very good” source of merchandise. But just because shows are the top choice doesn’t mean catalogers are overly thrilled with them. The percentage of respondents giving trade shows a top rating (“very good”) fell to 32% this year from 34% last year and 43% in 1997.

Slightly more of this year’s respondents have tried sourcing via the Internet than in years past – 69% of total respondents compared to 64% last year. But to use the Web isn’t necessarily to like it: Those catalogers that rate the Internet as a “fair” or “poor” merchandise source increased from 44% last year to 55% this year.


Consumer catalog respondents are not only sourcing goods earlier than last year (as shown in the chart on page 88), but they’re also buying earlier. This year consumer respondents report buying products a mean of 5 months in advance of the catalog mailing date, compared to 3.5 months last year. What’s more, they are initially buying an average 44% of projected volume, compared to 37% last year.

Respondents overall import on average 22% of their products, and these imports generate a mean 26% of dollar sales volume. Of those that import products, 35% of consumer, 44% of b-to-b, and 38% of hybrid respondents report that up to 20% of their merchandise is imported. One-quarter of respondents note that they plan to increase importing, with only 5% expecting to decrease.


The U.S. is still the most popular place to manufacture or contract to manufacture products. A whopping 92% of those surveyed have products manufactured in the U.S., up slightly from 88% last year. The Far East landed in second place (for the fifth year in a row) with 24%, and India weighed in at third with 12% of the vote. Last year, Western Europe was third, with India ranked eighth.

Respondents manufacture product a mean of 4.5 months in advance of the catalog mailing date, though 44% manufacture two to three months ahead of the mailing. Consumer catalog respondents initially manufacture a mean 52% of projected volume compared to 38% for b-to-bers and 31% for hybrids. About a quarter of all respondents plan to increase self-manufacturing in the next 12 months.

Product strategy

Fifty-two percent of consumer catalog respondents, 41% of b-to-b respondents, and 50% of hybrid respondents have expanded their merchandise niche into a new category over the past 12 months. Another 6% of consumer catalog respondents, 19% of b-to-bers, and 18% of hybrids plan to do so. Of those that have already expanded their product niche, 40% added new categories to the primary catalog, while 24% added a special selection to the primary catalog, and 35% created a spin-off.

The mean number of items per page remains steady over the last five years at about six, with 78% of respondents reporting they plan to make no changes on items per page. Only 5% plan to increase the number of items per page, and 16% plan to decrease.

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