Fall looking good

Coming off a relatively positive spring season, catalogers are gearing up to end the last fall/holiday season of the ’90s on a high note-and mailing more catalogs and pages as a result. Most catalogers contacted by Catalog Age report mailings for fall will increase up to 15%, and even more mailers expect sales to increase, thanks to additional merchandise and improved targeting. “I wouldn’t be increasing circulation if I didn’t think sales would hold up,” says Jack Rosenfeld, president of multititle gifts cataloger Potpourri Collection, which plans a 10% increase in fall mailings and a 20% sales rise.

“People are ready to spend money and I don’t see any signs of it slowing down this fall,” says Bill Williams, president/CEO of Bear Creek, the $365 million parent company of the Harry and David, Jackson & Perkins, and Northwest Express catalogs. In particular, he says, the gifts, food, and home categories show positive signs.

Williams says that Bear Creek, which does almost 70% of its business during fall/holiday, plans to increase circulation of the Harry and David food and gifts catalog in the “double digits,” and will up circulation of flowers catalog Jackson & Perkins in the “high single digits.” As a result, the company expects double-digit sales growth for both books, he says.

Based on a 10% boost in spring sales over last year, food gifts cataloger American Spoon Foods will increase its fall circulation nearly 10%, for a total of about 260,000 catalogs, according to president Justin Rashid. “The economy’s very good, and people are pretty free with their cash, so it bodes well for fall,” he says. The Petoskey, MI-based cataloger, which also has six western Michigan stores, will mail most of its fall books to its customer file, including one-time customers to “revive them.” Rashid also anticipates that the company’s Website business will double, to nearly 12% of total sales during fall/holiday.

This fall, U.S. Cavalry, a military supplies catalog, expects to mail 15% more books, for a total of 4 million catalogs, according to president Randy Acton. U.S. Cavalry is concentrating heavily on Y2K-oriented products, such as emergency and food kits, to help boost sales. In addition, the $31.5 million Radcliffe, KY-based catalog plans to increase the number of gift items-such as models of children-oriented military vehicles-in the catalog and on the Website, even though gifts contribute less than 10% of overall sales. “Because of the millennium, people will probably be in a more celebratory mood; we expect the fall/holiday season to produce a 15% increase in sales,” Acton says.

Although religious products catalog Abbey Press plans to increase its total fall circulation less than 5%, the $30 million-plus Meinrad, IN-based cataloger expects a 7% increase in sales. “We’re optimistic about fall sales based on a 10% spring sales increase, but not so optimistic that we’re sticking our neck out any further,” says CEO Gerald Wilhite.

Gifts cataloger Miles Kimball is also planning moderate fall circulation increases of 5%-7%. But by refining its merchandise mix and targeting its mailings through the use of selective binding, the Oshkosh, WI-based mailer expects double-digit sales increases, says president Mike Muoio.

By contrast, Rome, GA-based finance-related gifts catalog Wall Street Creations will decrease its fall circulation 25% and will cut its holiday catalog mailings 30%. While the $6 million cataloger saw an increase in customers to 75,000, and profitabiilty rose 55% last year, fall is typically “our weakest season,” says president/CEO Dave Pimper.

The apparel question… And then there’s apparel. Although market research firm The NPD Group says that apparel catalogs continued to post solid gains in 1998, with a 7.4% sales boost on top of a 13.1% jump in 1997, some catalogers are hesitant to take any big chances this fall. In fact, some apparel mailers, such as Lands’ End, Norm Thompson, and Bear Creek’s Northwest Express, are planning to reduce catalog circulation and page counts.

“Apparel in general has had difficulty this whole decade, from dressy to casual,” says Bear Creek’s Williams. In fact, other research from NPD shows that overall apparel industry expansion has been held in check by spending decreases among a core group of female shoppers, ages 25-40. “These are the customers whose incomes are growing and whose wardrobes should be growing also,” says NPD vice president Peter Simon.

In contrast to the increases for its other titles, Bear Creek is planning a double-digit decrease in fall mailings of its apparel book. “The Northwest Express casual lifestyle business has been soft since last fall,” Williams says. He notes that the cataloger will eliminate one mailing for this fall. And Northwest Express will retool its merchandise mix by scaling back on its men’s apparel and increasing its stronger categories such as women’s accessories and shoes.

But other catalogers are more bullish on apparel. Fingerhut’s successful test of 100 apparel pages in its new Spring Big Book, for example, convinced the cataloger not only to add 150 pages of apparel to its fall book (representing nearly 20% of merchandise), but also to spin off a Fingerhut- branded apparel catalog this fall.

“I can understand the slowdown in circulation for a mature apparel business, because in general the category hasn’t been that strong,” says Dick Tate, president of Fingerhut’s catalog division. “But apparel is a new opportunity for us and for our customers.”

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