Easter Sales to Dye for

U.S. consumers were expected to spend $10.47 billion on Easter this year, according to the Washington-based National Retail Federation (NRF). And it looks like many shoppers spent a chunk of that change with catalogers.

The NRF 2004 Easter Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch in early March, found that nearly 76% of the consumers planned to celebrate Easter. Those expecting to celebrate said they would spend an average of $107.17, up from $102.76 last year. Most of the consumers surveyed (87%) said they planned to buy Easter candy, while 81% planned to purchase other food for Easter, 62% said they would buy gifts, 53% would buy greeting cards, and 42% would buy clothes. Candy may be king, but catalogers are finding that Easter is about much more than jellybeans and marshmallow chicks.

Lobster for Easter?

What used to be a “nothing” holiday a few years ago for $6 million-plus Chicago-based Lobster Gram has turned into a formidable selling period, says founder Dan Zawacki. The food cataloger’s Easter sales increased 24% from last year — double the increase that the company had planned for. The circulation stayed about the same or was “maybe a few thousand more copies,” Zawacki says. What may have had a significant effect is that Lobster Gram — which does not rent or exchange lists — mailed deeper into the house file, he says.

Lobster Gram owes the bulk of its success to the period leading up to Easter rather than to the holiday itself. For one, Zawacki says, more customers were ordering lobster dinners for Good Friday. (Catholics are required to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter; eating fish on Fridays during Lent is a longstanding tradition.)

In addition to Catholic tradition, Zawacki credits an e-mail blast that went out to customers April 5. The e-mail offered a 20% discount on the company’s romantic dinner packages, which include a long-stemmed candle with a glass candle holder. The e-mail campaign was so successful that Zawacki had to curtail the offer because Lobster Gram ran out of the South African lobster tails included in the package.

Zawacki, who reshoots the entire catalog each June, says that some of Lobster Gram’s success was also due to improved creative, including more lifestyle shots using models and more closeups of the lobster dinners. The cataloger also used a new color separator, Detroit-based ElectroGraphics, which Zawacki credits for sharper photographic reproduction.

Fellow food cataloger Zingerman’s also enjoyed “vastly improved” Easter sales, says managing partner Toni Morell. Sales at Ann Arbor, MI-based Zingerman’s were 64% ahead of plan. Morell attributes the boost largely to a 10-page Mother’s Day/Easter wrap around the 48-page catalog, which mailed in mid-March to nearly 54,000 names, most of them from the house file. Dropping the catalog several weeks before the holiday no doubt helped as well: Last year’s mailing of nearly 23,000 copies had arrived in homes just a week before Easter.

Zingerman’s also introduced for the holiday a traditional Russian Easter delicacy called a Kulich cake. Similar to the northern Italian panettone, or Christmas cake, the almond-topped Kulich cake is made with butter, eggs, rum, dried fruits, and other rich ingredients to celebrate the end of Lent. Zingerman’s sold more than 194 Kulich cakes, which were available only for April, Morell says.

To appeal to customers observing Passover, Zingerman’s also offered a $60 orange-chocolate torte, which was made with matzo meal instead of flour in keeping with Passover dietary restrictions. The company sold 20 tortes this year compared with 12 in 2003.

Morell says Easter ranks behind Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Valentine’s Day for Zingerman’s, but the holiday is definitely heating up. In fact, so many orders came in for Easter and Passover that “it’s taken us a little bit off guard,” she says.

Clifton Park, NJ-based candy cataloger Saratoga Sweets, which has two stores in New Jersey and a wholesale business as well as a consumer catalog, saw Easter catalog sales increase 15% from last year, says president/owner Mike Fitzgerald. Circulation for the January catalog drop, the mailing featuring Easter products, was up 5%-10% from last year.

Easter colors improve presentation

For Medford, OR-based Harry and David, part of $596.2 million Bear Creek Corp., Easter sales were “doing well,” says Bill Michel, senior vice president/general manager for direct marketing. Though Michel declines to share specifics he does say that the food gifts marketer had high expectations coming into the period. Spring is a particularly good time to merchandise new products because of the bright colors associated with the season, he adds: “It makes for a much better presentation to the consumer in our catalogs and on the Web.”

Smoked-meats cataloger Harrington’s of Vermont also credits Easter-themed colors and creative for its rise in sales. A dramatic shot on its front cover featured its signature spiral-sliced ham propped with pastel flowers and Easter eggs. “It was a very strong Easter-themed cover — perhaps our most strongly themed Easter cover,” says direct marketing manager Carol Wisely. Harrington’s sales were up by the single digits over last year’s.

A ‘moving target’

Richmond, VT-based Harrington’s, which has six stores in the Northeast, mailed its Easter catalog in late February. Wisely would not disclose the exact circulation but says it was a less-than-5% increase from Easter 2003. “We were up even though Easter was a week earlier this year,” Wisely says.

Indeed, one of the challenges with marketing Easter products is that the date changes annually. (Many eastern Orthodox Christian churches observe Easter based on the Julian calendar; this year, Easter Sunday fell on the same date for both, as well as during the eight-day Passover holiday.)

St. Meinrad, IN-based religious-gifts cataloger Abbey Press, which mailed three titles with Easter-related products, gears its spring mail scheme around when Easter falls, says president Gerald Wilhite: “We look at the actual date and plan backward from there.”

Abbey Press’s Easter books this year dropped from mid-February through the end of March; sales were up in the “high single digits” on flat circulation, Wilhite says. Best-sellers included traditional religious goods such as crosses — the company’s largest category — along with books on Easter.

For certain, the Easter holiday is a “moving target,” says Jim Klaus, president of Richmond, VA-based kids’ apparel mailer Children’s Wear Digest. And when Easter falls earlier in the year, weather can play havoc with clothing sales. For instance, a mid-March snowstorm like the one that hit most of the East Coast this year tends to make shopping for Easter bonnets and pastel suits less of a priority for consumers. Nonetheless, Klaus says, “we were pretty much right on where we were last year” sales-wise on flat circulation. “That to me says sales were pretty strong.”

It may have helped that the company is seeing a shift away from casual clothing to more conservative, dressier looks for kids, Klaus says. Whereas T-shirts and pull-on shorts for boys had been the trend, “we do see they want to dress up more,” or at least, their parents want them to dress up more, in oxford shirts or vests for boys and dressier, longer skirts for girls. More-traditional spring colors seem to be coming back as well, he notes, citing pinks, pale yellows, and other pastels as strong colors for boys’ and girls’ Easter apparel for Children’s Wear Digest.

Candy mailer reports a goose egg

But it wasn’t a banner Easter for everybody. Mobile, AL-based Tanner’s Pecans & Candies reported that Easter sales were flat with last year’s for both the catalog and the Website. The company, which mails annually in October, had increased circulation 20%, says owner Danny Fox. The company did not sell any of the Easter-related candies featured in its catalog, which included chocolate eggs and rabbits.

That’s why Tanner’s is washing its hands of Easter-themed products — at least in its catalog. The company will continue to offer Easter items on its Website. “I don’t feel that people buy much Easter candy through catalogs,” says Fox. “They go instead to the local discount store or specialty shop.”

Then again, candy grew more than any other product category for the Sally Party & Novelty catalog. Of course, it helps that Sally, part of Colchester, CT-based multititle mailer S&S Worldwide, targets businesses as well as consumers and offers volume pricing.

The 96-year-old S&S’s other titles include S&S Christian Activities, S&S Arts & Crafts, S&S Classroom, and S&S Discount Sports; Sally and Christian Activities are the only two that sell Easter goods. For both books, which mailed in January, “we were up substantially this year,” says vice president/general counsel Adam Schwartz. “We’re still tabulating, but we’re looking for 7%-10%” growth in Easter sales from last year, on mailings that were up by 3%-4%.

In the Sally catalog, plush toys, such as stuffed bunnies, were a top-selling category. A new Easter decorating kit that included party decorations such as tinsel and baskets was another hit. A popular item in the Christian Activities catalog, which targets churches, schools, and other religious institutions, was the Angel Crafts kit, which customers used to make angel dolls.

Sales on the Websites of these two catalogs doubled from last year, thanks to the company’s use of Google Adwords, search engine optimization, and affiliate marketing with partners S&S would rather not name. The company had also reorganized its sites since the previous Easter. Instead of having a giant decorations category with 400 items, for example, categories were broken down into subcategories such as baskets, eggs, and bunnies. — Reporting by Mark Del Franco, Paul Miller, Regina Ryan, and Margery Weinstein

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