Holiday hearty for most

Today’s cynical consumers are romantics at heart, if this year’s Valentine’s Day sales are any indication. Most catalogers, particular food gifts mailers, saw a nice lift in February sales thanks to the holiday.

The 18 food catalogers that Tony Cox, president of Richardson, TX-based consultancy Catalog Solutions, works with were up an average of 18% in sales over last year’s Valentine’s Day, with the holiday’s selling period defined as the six weeks between Jan. 1 and Feb. 11. Circulation on average was up 12% for these companies.

Chicago-based seafood merchant Lobster Gram enjoyed a 20% increase in Valentine’s Day sales on circulation that also increased 20%. The company used its pre-Valentine’s Day e-mail marketing campaign to promote two online-only offers, says creative director Nancy Batio. One was the $109 Sweetheart Special, which included two lobster tails, two filet mignons, shrimp, clam chowder, and the company’s chocolate mousse Cupid’s Cake. The other was the $75 Cupid’s Combo, which included two lobster tails, two crabcakes, and the Cupid Cake.

“This was the first time we did special custom packages available online only,” says Batio. Sales were also spurred by 30-second commercials of its products that appeared nationally during the Live With Regis & Kelly talk show on ABC every day during the week leading up to Valentine’s Day.

Lobster Gram’s average order value (AOV) of $126.87 was 1% lower than last year’s Valentine’s Day AOV of $128.63, Batio says, because of the popularity of the more modestly priced Cupid’s Combo.

Wine.com, a San Francisco-based mailer of gift baskets, experienced a 40% increase in year-over-year Valentine’s Day sales. This year the company introduced a 16-page Valentine’s catalog, which it mailed to about 190,000 house file names, says chairman Chris Kitze. The closest mailing to Valentine’s Day last year had been the holiday ’03 drop. Mailed to best buyers, the new catalog drove Web orders; about 90% of its Valentine’s Day orders came through the site.

Two weeks before the holiday, Wine.com sent an e-mail blast offering free shipping only to best buyers. Kitze considers special e-mail offers of free shipping an effective promotional tool, but one that needs to be done in moderation. “We generally don’t do free shipping for everybody,” he says. “You’ve got to be careful. It’s like crack. You get addicted to it, and there goes your [profit] margin.”

New York-based Chelsea Market Baskets also credits much of its Valentine’s Day success to an e-mail marketing campaign. The gift basket purveyor’s sales for the holiday were up 40% from last year on flat catalog circulation. The company e-mailed approximately 15,000 customers an offer that included free shipping on all orders placed at least two weeks prior to the holiday, says owner David Porat.

St. Louis-based candy merchant Bissinger’s, which enjoyed a 9% sales increase over last year on flat circulation, this year changed the format of its holiday book. For the past few years it mailed a 32-page digest-size Valentine’s catalog. This year it opted for a 24-page, 7-1/2″ × 10-1/2″ catalog “for a different look,” says Dana James, senior vice president, catalog and Internet.

Sales at Norfolk, VA-based desserts and baked goods merchant Rowena’s were up 30% on a 10% rise in circulation. What’s more, the average order increased from $20 to $30. The marketer also tweaked its print catalog for 2005, adding a six-page outer wrap to the book, says owner Rowena Fullinwider. Fifty percent of the catalog featured holiday-specific merchandise.

Mail order sales for Valentine’s Day increased 65% at Brookfield, CT-based Bridgewater Chocolate, says owner Andrew Blauner. For the first time, the five-year-old chocolatier mailed 15,000 copies of a 16-page catalog specifically for Valentine’s Day to its house file. The holiday represents about 15% of the company’s total revenue, which Blauner says is less than $5 million a year. Bridgewater last year tweaked its catalog to make it more “mail order friendly,” Blauner says. For one, it’s listing prices next to each product instead of using a price list.

It wasn’t just the candy catalogers that had a sweet holiday. Charlie White, vice president of marketing at Cranston, RI-based jewelry and tabletop gifts marketer Ross-Simons, says Valentine’s Day sales were “significantly above plan — in the double digits” on flat circulation. The average order for the holiday improved 14% to more than $200. This year, Ross-Simons mailed a fashion preview catalog in the Valentine’s Day period, which was designed with lower product density and “more evocative” models, says White.

Another jewelry mailer, Allenhurst, NJ-based Heavenly Treasures, reported flat Valentine’s Day sales. But that’s not too bad, since the company cut its circulation 10%, says vice president Michael Ades. The cataloger moved much of its circulation away from Valentine’s Day to coincide with other holidays, Ades says.

On the flowers front, Downers Grove, IL-based FTD Group reported that its consumer sales for the Valentine’s Day season were up about 19% from last year. San Diego-based fresh flowers marketer ProFlowers.com would not reveal its Valentine’s Day sales but says that the number of floral shipments increased 22% from last year.

Not so sweet…

Sales for New York-based gift baskets merchant Manhattan Fruitier were up just 2%-3% from Valentine’s Day 2004 on a circulation increase of about 25%. “We were planning on a 20% increase,” says owner Jehv Gold. Manhattan Fruitier was also disappointed that an e-mail marketing campaign to more than 13,000 names did not spur more Valentine’s sales. The first blast was sent a week before the holiday, and the second was sent Feb. 9.

Chandler, AZ-based baked goods cataloger Fairytale Brownies also reported a lackluster holiday. Its sales increased 16% over the previous Valentine’s Day, but it had raised its circulation for the holiday by 54%, says co-owner Eileen Spitalny. Similarly, average order values for Valentine’s Day jumped from $58 last year to $90 this go-around, but that’s because it instituted a 7%-10% price increase in September. The company, which added a catalog drop for Valentine’s Day, won’t repeat the strategy next year. “It is not cost-effective for us to drop two catalogs before this holiday,” Spitalny says.
Additional reporting by Mark Del Franco, John Fischer, and Heather Retzlaff

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