Feb. 14 Brings Valentines to Some Catalogers

It couldn’t have looked worse for Valentine’s Day gift sales. In early February, the economy was still lagging, while the potential for war with Iraq loomed large. Worse yet, on Feb. 7 the national terror alert was raised from yellow to orange — the second-highest level in the color-coded system.

But instead of being a bust, Valentine’s Day was a real beauty for many marketers, as consumers reacted to the fear and uncertainty by spending on their loved ones.

“This was our best Valentine’s Day ever,” exclaims Jeff Badler, president of New York-based jewelry and accessories marketer Maurice Badler and son of the namesake founder. The company’s Valentine’s Day sales increased by double digits — particularly impressive since Maurice Badler drops a catalog only once a year, in October, and then just to requesters. “Sales were strong in all categories,” Badler says, adding that sales of items costing less than $10,000 were particularly brisk.

It was Christmas in February for other jewelry catalogers as well. “Usually, we see a bump at Christmas but nothing like this,” says Wayne Stone, marketing director for Rockville, MD-based discount jeweler Alan Furman & Co. The company reports a 7% bump in sales on flat circulation of 20,000. Stone credits the investment in listings on search engines such as Yahoo!, Excite, and Google with much of the sales increase.

“We were selling a lot of big-ticket items, such as our Rolex men’s President’s Watches, which sell for $10,000-$30,000,” Stone says. The company’s niche is discounting luxury brands such as Breitling, Cartier, and Tag Heuer; a Rolex that typically retails for $19,500 would sell for $15,000 at Furman.

Online advertising on major search engines such as Yahoo! and Google, as well as e-mail alerts to customers, also helped Mandeville, LA-based Internet/retail marketer Orleans Jewels double its Valentine’s sales, says owner Joseph DeGrado.

When potential customers type in the word “fake” or “faux” on search engines Yahoo! and Google, Orleans Jewels comes up high on the list of matching Websites, DeGrado explains, which helped goose sales. The costume-jewelry specialist has two stores in New Orleans; it stopped mailing its catalog in 2000 because of rising costs.

Sweet results

Valentine’s Day is a sweet holiday for the candy catalogers, and this year was no exception. Chicago-based Fannie May, one of the chocolate companies owned by Archibald Candies, reported 11% growth in Valentine’s sales from 2002, even though catalog circulation was flat. Like Orleans Jewels’s DeGrado, Archibald marketing/communications manager Johnna Purcell credits search engine advertising, along with an e-mail campaign, with the increase.

Burlington, VT-based Lake Champlain Chocolates’ overall Valentine’s sales increased 35% from last year, says direct marketing coordinator Chris Middings. The company, which has catalog circulation of less than 10,000, mailed its Valentine’s flier in early January to 30% more homes than it did in 2002, but only to customers and requesters.

While women make up the majority of its customers the rest of the year, Lake Champlain’s Valentine’s sales are dominated by male purchasers willing to spend an average of $125; female shoppers spent an average of just $38. The company, which has a price range of $8-$45, plans to put these findings to good use when merchandising next year’s Valentine’s product line.

Adding lower-priced items to its merchandise mix led to a boost in average order size for St. Louis-based Bissinger’s French Confections. Although total sales rose just 2%, Dana James, senior vice president of catalog and Internet, says customers added lower-priced items, such as the $12 Young at Heart gift box, to their orders. The company’s average price point is $26; its average order value for Valentine’s Day was $70, up $1.50 from last year.

Bissinger’s increased its Valentine catalog circulation 10%-12% from its 2002 drop for the holiday, mailing to house file names in early January. Though she would not release exact figures, James attributes the company’s Valentine sales growth to its Web sales, which increased 10% from 2002. The catalog and Website account for 65% of Bissinger’s $6.5 million in sales; its five stores, four in St. Louis and one in Minneapolis, account for the rest.

Adding smaller, less-expensive items to its product line — such as its Cookie Cluster, which comes with three cookies tied together along with a teddy bear and sells for less than $10 — appears to have helped Columbus, OH-based Web/print catalog company Cookie Bouquets as well. The food gifts mailer enjoyed a 29% increase in Valentine’s sales, says owner Dinene Clark. Web sales increased 45%, while its print catalog response increased by 60%. Cookie Bouquets had increased its circulation 20% and revamped its catalog with larger graphics and easier-to-read layouts.

Varda Chocolatier, an Elizabeth, NJ-based chocolates cataloger, increased the circulation of its four-page Valentine’s flyers, sent out six weeks before the holiday, 50% from last year’s 10,000-piece drop, says president Varda Hughes. Though Valentine’s Day sales rose only 15%, Hughes is happy with the results — particularly since customers splurged on more-expensive products such as the company’s truffles. The average Varda Valentine’s order was $65 this year, compared with $48 in 2002.

Although San Francisco-based See’s Candies sold 125,000 pounds of chocolate for Valentine’s Day 2003, overall sales for the holiday were up just 2% compared with last year, says vice president of marketing Richard Van Doren. But the company saw a 35%-36% increase in Web sales.

See’s Candies, which operates 200 stores in the western U.S., also spread the word in early January by sending out 800,000 copies of its Valentine’s catalog, the same number of books it sent out last year. As always, the company’s best-sellers were its traditional $16 one-pound and $30 two-pound heart-shape boxes of chocolate.

How flowers and frills fared

For Westbury, NY-based 1-800-Flowers.com, Valentine’s Day sales were “in line” with expectations, which called for a “solid” increase over last year’s sales, says spokesperson Ken Young. The gifts marketer had record volume of about 800,000 orders during the Valentine’s holiday shopping period of Jan. 27 through Feb. 14; more than 62% of those orders came online.

Not everyone was saying it with flowers. For $18 million-plus fresh-flower cataloger Calyx & Corolla, Valentine’s Day sales increased less than 1%, says president/CEO Andy Williams. But the cataloger wasn’t expecting a big increase in sales. Seventy-three percent of the Vero Beach, FL-based mailer’s customers are women, so Calyx & Corolla reduced its circulation by the low double digits, since most Valentine’s flower purchases are made by men, Williams says. More than 40% of orders came from the Web.

Frederick’s of Hollywood, the cataloger/retailer best known for its racy women’s apparel, is “extremely pleased” with Valentine’s Day sales, says vice president of marketing Danielle Savin. Despite a circulation cut (which Savin would not disclose), sales were up 5%. Due to shipping constraints, the Hollywood, CA-based cataloger ended its Valentine’s Day season on Feb. 11, “and sales were holding up very well up until that last minute,” Savin says.

Wine Country Gift Baskets’ sales were “about where we planned on being,” says director of marketing Patrick Ahrendt. The Fullerton, CA-based marketer relied on its Christmas catalog — the last drop of which was in early December — to drive Valentine’s Day sales. Valentine’s sales were up about the same percentage as the company’s circulation increase, which it would not disclose.

Just as with Christmas presents, it’s important that Valentine’s Day gifts arrive on the big day. Or is it? 1-800-Flowers was surprised that Valentine’s business didn’t dry up after Feb. 14. “We had a lot of deliveries over the weekend” of Feb. 15-16, Young says. “Valentine’s Day became Valentine’s Weekend.”

Indeed, San Francisco-based gifts cataloger Red Envelope received a “nice long tail” of its Valentine’s catalog orders after Feb. 14, says president/CEO Alison May. “We got an extra kick from our Valentine’s Day catalog” during the week of Feb. 17. She believes that a number of customers, preoccupied with current events, forgot to order gifts until after the holiday.

Red Envelope, which pulled $56 million in sales for its fiscal year ended March 2002, mailed 29% fewer Valentine’s catalogs than last year. But May was projecting an 8% sales increase for the holiday, since the catalogs had gone primarily to the house file. The marketer’s Valentine’s- related sales were still coming in as of Feb. 27.

Not Just for Lovers

Just as Halloween is no longer just for kids, Valentine’s Day isn’t just for lovers anymore.

Westbury, NY-based gifts marketer 1-800-Flowers.com found that 30% of its customers were buying Valentine’s Day gifts this year for their children, according to an inhouse survey the company conducted over a 10-day period in January. And indeed, says spokesperson Ken Young, such kid-friendly gifts as Bug Hugs (rose plants with a few small stuffed animals clad in ladybug outfits) were popular with customers this year.

Young can’t say whether the findings indicate an increase in sales of gifts for children from past years, “since we’ve not asked that question specifically in the past.” Still, the marketer was surprised at who so many of its Valentine’s Day gifts were going to.

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