Circulation PLANNING

Oct 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

Uncovering some sort of circulation trend this holiday season is like trying to wrestle an octopus. Just when you think you have it pinned down, another tentacle emerges.

For instance, of the 15 consumer mailers shown in the chart on page 24, nine (60%) are increasing holiday circulation; four (about 27%) are keeping circ flat, and two (13%) are decreasing the number of catalogs mailed. And of those that are mailing more, most are limiting their increases to 10%-15% – far below the hikes of 20% or more that were common last year.

Overall, the mood is cautious. “I don’t hear catalogers saying, `It’s the holidays, let’s mail to everyone in our house file,’” notes Tony White, chairman/ CEO of cooperative database firm Abacus Direct. “Instead, they’re mailing to their most productive buyers, who are already in the house file.”

That’s the thinking at Rome, GA-based executive gifts cataloger Wall Street Creations. “Our customers buy on average six to eight times more than our prospects, so I want to concentrate on growing our buyer file,” says CEO Dave Pimper. The $7 million cataloger is slashing circulation 28% from last holiday season, mailing about 2 million books compared to 2.8 million.

As for $45 million cataloger Paragon Gifts, part of New York holding company Wand Partners, it’s keeping holiday circulation flat. The Westerly, RI-based gifts cataloger is “looking to improve our profitability by factoring modeling and list analysis into our circulation decisions,” says Paragon’s vice president of marketing Doug Brown.

This strategy is typical of many clients of Peterborough, NH-based list firm Millard Group, says president Ben Perez. “Most of our clients are doing more refining or modeling to their lists, just being a bit more creative in general.”

The relatively low cost of marketing online is also encouraging some catalogers to rein in their circulation. Reading, PA-based sci-fi novelties cataloger 800-Trekker, for instance, is repositioning both its core title and its Brainstorms catalog as Web brands this holiday season, says president David Blaise. While the company will continue to mail catalogs as Web traffic drivers, “our circulation remains flat this holiday season compared to last year – although for 800-Trekker, we used to mail more and more during the holidays to grow the house file,” he notes.

The 800-Trekker Website went live in January 1999; by July, its sales accounted for 27% of the company’s business, Blaise says. “We found that converting our print buyers to the Web was easy, because our customers are really tech-savvy and don’t mind buying from the Web.”

Burlington,VT-based cataloger/ retailer Lake Champlain Chocolates, whose catalog business accounts for less than $1 million in sales, will not increase its prospecting this holiday season either, says director of sales Allyson Brown. The company will mail 55,000 catalogs this season, as it has for the past three years. “Most of our names come from space ads, our two stores, and our Website, which has been up since last November, and is another tool we are using to acquire customers,” Brown says.

Up, up, and away

But not all catalogers are taking a Scrooge-like approach to circulation. “Our holiday circulation plans will show an increase, as everything is generally favorable in the economy,” says Danielle Savin, director of marketing for Carlsbad, CA-based California Style, which mails casual apparel catalog Monterey Bay as well as the core women’s apparel book. The $42 million marketer is boosting fall and holiday circulation 10%, mostly by renting lists.

Downers Grove, IL-based mailer Spiegel is increasing circulation of its $587 million core brand 10%, mostly to its house file. In addition to its 300-page holiday flagship title, “we are circulating two smaller books that will drop closer to Christmas,” says spokeswoman Debbie Koopman.

The year-old Macy’s By Mail, part of Federated Department Stores, is another cataloger in growth mode. The general merchandise mailer plans to boost holiday circulation 10%-15%, says president Gary Ostrager. Macy’s will spread the additional prospecting names over two holiday catalogs: its general merchandise holiday book and a gifts-only catalog.

Several catalogers are planning much more aggressive circulation hikes than Macy’s and Spiegel. For instance, Los Angeles-based Italian ceramics cataloger/retailer Cottura will be mailing 50% more this holiday than last, says president Jim Zimmerman. All told, the marketer will mail 150,000 books this season.

Similarly, Van Nuys, CA-based Carushka, a cataloger of women’s yoga and dance apparel, is increasing its fall/holiday mailing 30%, to 350,000, says Kim Dwong, director of MIS/circulation manager. Prospects account for two-thirds of the mailing.

Seattle-based nostalgic sports apparel and memorabilia cataloger Ebbets Field Flannels is also increasing its holiday mailing 30%. Moreover, “for the first time we are breaking out of our customer base to test lists for prospecting,” says marketing manager Suzy Davenport. “We’ve never prospected, because our products are very niche-y and our customers are like needles in a haystack.” While Ebbets Field is looking at a number of sports magazine subscriber lists and sporting goods catalog buyer files, “I have the feeling that an out-of-the-ordinary list, like maybe Harry and David, is going to be the most profitable for us,” Davenport adds.