Fall Circ Looking Up

Thanks to the improving economy and decent spring sales, most catalogers contacted in June say they intend to mail more fall and early-holiday books than they had last year. Then again, last year marketers weren’t especially aggressive with their catalog circulation plans.

“The past couple of years — especially last year — there was this uneasiness about mailing aggressively in fall,” observes Karen Crist, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Westminster, CO-based cooperative database provider NextAction, which has more than 650 catalog participants. “We’re seeing anywhere from flat circ to 25%-30% increases. Catalogers are happy with how the year’s been going.”

Many of the catalog clients of Menomonee Falls, WI-based printer Arandell Corp. fall at the more aggressive end of the spectrum. Executive vice president of sales and marketing Jim Treis says the printer’s catalog print orders for fall are up 20% from last year.

“We’re being mildly aggressive for fall,” says John Hayes, executive vice president/chief marketing officer for women’s apparel cataloger/retailer J. Jill. The Quincy, MA-based company’s first-quarter sales climbed 21% this year. But the gain came from its stores, which make up half of its business. Direct sales fell 4% for the period. The unspecified circulation increase is designed to reverse the decline — though Hayes notes that “our focus is on an integrated multichannel [strategy] to support all our channels, not just our catalog.”

At TechnoBrands, a Colonial Heights, VA-based cataloger of home and electronic items, sales for the first half of the year were up 3%-5% from last year. “We’ve identified segments and prospecting areas — specifically the co-op databases — where we could have mailed deeper last year, and we plan to hit them this fall,” says Shardul Pandya, director of catalog circulation and e-mail marketing.

The company, which at press time was planning to change its catalog title from TechnoScout to FirstStreet in July, intends to cut circ by 15% for its September catalog mailing, based on September 2003’s subpar results. But it will increase circ by 5% in October, 10% in November, and by 30%-40% in December.

The catalog division of the Discovery Channel plans a whopping 75% circ increase over three drops during the fourth quarter, according to Tom Burke, senior vice president of marketing and e-commerce. One driver of the increase is the cable-TV network’s plan to reach more members of its Discovery Passport Rewards program. The loyalty program awards customers one point for every dollar they spend in any channel. Once a customer earns 150 points, he receives a $10 reward certificate in the mail. The Silver Springs, MD-based marketer, which sells educational toys, videos, gadgets, and gifts, is also hoping that by mailing to more rented and co-op database names, it will drive traffic to its 120 stores.

“We continue to refine models to make sure we’re renting names that are more like our best customers,” Burke says, adding that the Discovery Channel catalog targets families, parents, and grandparents with income of more than $75,000. Half of Discovery’s merchandise sales come from catalog orders, with retail and online sales accounting for the remainder.

Another aggressive mailer this fall will be The Dog’s Outfitter, a Hazleton, PA-based cataloger of pet grooming supplies for veterinarians, groomers, breeders, and owners. “We had a very strong spring season,” says Greg Patterson, director of sales and marketing, “and our summer is looking very strong as well. The economy is rebounding very nicely for us.” The Dog’s Outfitter’s sales increased 12% for the first five months of 2004, Patterson says, even though the company mailed 10% fewer books in January and 10% more catalogs in April. It will mail 40% more books during the fourth quarter than it did during the same period last year.

Of the fall circ increase, 40%-45% of the books will go to house file names; the rest will be mailed to prospects, Patterson says. The Dog’s Outfitter is anxious to get its books in more hands because the fall edition will introduce 250 new products, such as clippers, beds, toys and treats, compared with 200 new items in fall 2003.

What’s more, The Dog’s Outfitter outsourced its catalog creative in April. Plover, WI-based creative agency CLI redesigned the catalog, “revamping everything from the font on the front cover to the back cover,” Patterson says.

During its spring and early summer drops the cataloger tested new types of lists, such as dog aficionado magazine subscriber lists with an emphasis on households with multiple dogs. For fall The Dog’s Outfitter will roll out mailings to some of the tested lists in larger quantities, while mailing deeper to some of the better-performing lists it has used in the past, Patterson says.

Northvale, NJ-based Glendale Industries, which sells military-themed products such as flags, pistol holders, and uniform accessories for parades, memorials, and other special observances through its Parade Store catalog and Website, has seen sales increase since the war in Iraq began. President Wendy Lazar plans to mail 8%-10% more books for its fall mailing in late July.

Like The Dog’s Outfitter, Glendale has modified its creative and merchandise selection, though not to the same degree. To improve readability Glendale has replaced its index with a table of contents; the company is also adding 50-60 new products, many of them engraved items. Glendale bought an engraving machine during the past year and hired an inhouse engraver to personalize such items as buckles and paperweights.

New Brighton, MN-based educational toys cataloger MindWare plans to increase its fall circulation this year by more than 20%. The company is basing its mail plan on sales gains of more than 20% for the first half of the year. MindWare is “concentrating on those customers with above-average order sizes,” says CEO Martin Smith, though it is ramping up its prospecting for fall as well.

Figuring out the Web

For many catalogers, prospecting is no longer limited to renting or exchanging postal addresses. “People are starting to figure out prospecting on the Web,” says Steve Tamke, senior vice president of list brokerage for Hackensack, NJ-based list firm Mokrynski & Associates. “The biggest area now is paid search, where you buy key words from places like Google and Overture. The other way is affiliate marketing, which continues to grow in popularity among catalogers.”

Some mailers have substantially altered their mailing plans based on a greater understanding of where inquiries are coming from. For instance, Musician’s Friend, a Medford, OR-based cataloger of musical instruments and accessories, plans to increase its fall mailings by 5%-7% because its 12-month buyer file has built up “a lot quicker than we thought,” says senior director of marketing Michael Eisenberg. “We’re using both the Internet and print media to get more new customers, and it seems to be paying big dividends for us.”

Although advertising in such magazines as Guitar Musician and Guitar Player is nothing new for Musician’s Friend, “we’ve gotten more sophisticated in measuring the impact of those ads and in tracking them all the way through conversion,” Eisenberg says. The cataloger is using two match-back tools — one outsourced to an unnamed list compiler, the other built into Musician’s Friend’s in-house database — that run the transaction file against its mail plan.

While Musician’s Friend is spending the same amount of money overall on prospecting as it did last year, it’s channeling more funds into attracting and converting prospects who request catalogs from magazine space ads or the Internet. For Musician’s Friend, at least, “these prospects buy more frequently and stay in our file longer than list rental prospects,” Eisenberg says.

The experiences of catalogers such as Musician’s Friend could be why some say fall list orders aren’t as high as might be expected. Bill LaPierre, vice president of catalog brokerage for Peterborough, NH-based list firm Millard Group, says that about half of his catalog clients are “doing well” so far this year, while the other half “are struggling with merchandise and creative.” Those doing well are increasing their fall circulation 5%-10% on average, “not blowing the doors off,” LaPierre says. The others, he says, are keeping their fall circulation flat.

And Tamke of Mokrynski says that although most of his clients had enjoyed strong sales since December, many of their fall list orders are up only “a couple of percentage points.”

One cataloger that is cutting back its overall circulation is Portland, OR-based Norm Thompson. The multititle apparel, home products, and gifts cataloger mailed 7% fewer books during the spring/summer season this year and will mail 21% fewer books overall for fall/holiday, says senior vice president of merchandising and marketing Craig Dewey. All the circ cuts are coming from the company’s namesake title, however. Its faster-growing Solutions and Sahalie by Early Winters books increased their circ. (Norm Thompson began transitioning its Early Winters title in May to Sahalie by Early Winters; Sahalie refers to a Chinook Indian expression meaning “a high, lofty place.”)

Since modifying its circulation, the $215 million company has seen response and dollars per book increase 19%; overall sales are up 10%, Dewey says.

While it cuts back on Norm Thompson, the company’s success with Solutions and Sahalie by Early Winters “continue to enable us to grow the total company demand,” Dewey says. “In a growth strategy, we are more generous with those assumptions. In a profit strategy, we raise the bar on these factors, and the cut-offs for any particular list raise as well, so we mail fewer names from any given file.” — Additional reporting by Margery Weinstein


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