Lessons from Christmases past

Rosalie Blood is vice president/general manager of Delray Beach, FL-based Blood’s Hammock Groves, a cataloger/retailer of fresh oranges, grapefruit, and citrus-themed gift baskets. Annual sales, less than $10 million; annual circulation, 55,000.

The biggest change we’ve made this holiday season is to add more products. For example, a lot of our customers asked us for gift packages that don’t have candy in them, so this year we’re offering packages with flavored coffee and tea as substitutes.

Customers have also asked us about marmalade. We’ve always had marmalade in our deluxe gift baskets, but it wasn’t our own brand, which we sell at our retail store. Last year customers were telling us, “You make marmalade, so I’d prefer to have yours.” It costs more, but they don’t seem to mind. So this year we’re no longer using commercial brands. Not many fruit shippers make their own marmalade on the premises like we do, and our customers like that. We’ve been in business since 1949, and our customers are always telling us what they like and don’t like. So we listen.

Jerry Brown is the president of Musicmaker’s Kits, a Stillwater, MN-based mailer of construction plans and materials for wooden instruments. Annual sales, less than $1 million; annual circulation, 25,000.

A couple of years ago, in 1995, we had a real blah holiday season. Although I always tell people that the economy doesn’t have a lot of impact on a small business like ours, I remember reading in Catalog Age that other mailers were also disappointed in holiday sales that year.

So that year a national trend definitely applied to our business, leaving us with excess inventory. To get rid of it, we put together a sale catalog for April 1996. Bingo. We hit just at the right time. We did almost 30% more in sales that April than we had in December. In previous years we’d never topped December sales.

Sales have been back to normal since then, but we now set aside part of our annual budget to get us through a slow holiday season. We’re small enough that we can respond quickly and mail another catalog. Our lesson was that you can’t predict anything in this business.

Elaine Sullivan is general manager of the Black Dog catalog, the Martha’s Vineyard, MA-based collection of locally made gifts and branded apparel. Annual sales, less than $10 million; annual circulation, approximately 900,000.

We learned that we have to upgrade our software. What we have now is too slow, too inefficient, and too old-we’ve had it for six years. Our system is the ’57 Chevy of software-it works, but not like the new ones. We need to be more responsive to our customers. We need better order tracking, and we especially need real-time shipment verification.

We haven’t gotten many complaints, but we’re internally frustrated. We’ve delayed this decision as long as possible, and we’ve taxed the old system beyond its capacity. So we’re buying a whole new system. We haven’t signed the deal yet, but we’re close, and we’ll be ready by the holiday season. At least I hope we will. Of course we’ll keep the old system in place until the new one is up and running smoothly.

Frank Lukovits is president of Weather Affects, a Tyngsboro, MA-based catalog of weather forecasting and monitoring equipment and weather-related gifts. Annual sales, about $1 million; annual circulation, about 1 million.

This year we’re trying to add more gift-related items. Last year’s sales were great, but we noticed that gifts, like hats and T-shirts, moved a lot faster than some of our other merchandise. But without question our number-one request was for more personal protection devices, such as weather radios and early warning systems. Of course, these aren’t typically gift items-most customers buy them for themselves-but we do sell more around the holidays. With last year’s severe weather and interest in the El Nino effect, people are concerned they won’t have enough warning from the news or the National Weather Service in case of an emergency.

So our biggest challenge is finding these types of items, but we will be carrying a lot more of them in this year’s holiday catalog. We’ll also be mailing about 450,000 catalogs this holiday season; last year we mailed less than half that many.

Jonathan Simon owns Kempton, PA-based Jonathan’s Wild Cherry Spoons, a wholesaler/cataloger/retailer of handmade wooden kitchen utensils. Annual sales, $800,000; annual circulation, 8,000.

Last year I put a lot of effort and a lot of money into the catalog. I wanted to make it a more artistic, more esthetic piece, but I was disappointed in the sales. I felt as if I would have done just as well if I hadn’t tried anything different. In the past I’ve had two big jumps in sales: one when I added an 800-number, and the other when I went from a black-and-white catalog to four-color. But creating a more artistic catalog didn’t get us enough new accounts to justify spending $10,000. Now my intention is to add inserts to show new products.

I have been receiving direct customer feedback about the Internet. I don’t think established businesses are paying enough attention to the Internet. I’ve been thinking seriously about setting up a Website, but until recently I felt that any money I spent there would be wasted. Now people are asking me how they can find me online. As a wholesaler, I sell my products through a few sites, but within the next year and a half I want to become more active. I’m developing my own site, but I won’t be ready for the holidays this year. I should be, but I’m still learning. To increase your business you can develop either your marketing strategy or new products, and I guess I prefer products.

John McCauley is president of Columbus, OH-based gourmet food and gift basket cataloger, Sugarbush. Annual sales, less than $10 million; annual circulation, 300,000.

The biggest thing we’ve learned? Keep it simple. The more complicated you make it for your customers to order, the harder it is on you. People want simplicity. We’ve been in business since 1981, and we’ve tried different things over the years. We tried to offer an order form that enabled customers to personalize their gift orders, and it was a total flop. People just didn’t want to spend that kind of time ordering.

Variety is also important. You can’t rely on one kind of product. You have to give your customers choices while making it easy for them to buy. We’re adding more products this year, and more pages. Last year’s holiday season was excellent, but we’re expecting even more from this year.

Kevin Kardasz is general manager of Marietta, OH-based Rossi Pasta, a catalog of gourmet pasta, sauces, and accessories. Annual sales, less than $10 million; annual circulation, 100,000.

Last year we found that customers ordered much later in the year for holiday delivery. They’re pushing the ordering deadline right up to the last minute. People assume that you’re going to be able to ship immediately-fortunately we can. We haven’t noticed any decrease in business early in the holiday season, though. Just a crazy rush the last week before Christmas.

Last year we tried to supplement catalog sales with more retail locations. We opened seven temporary stores [kiosks] around the country, but the tight retail employment market really hurt us. Temps in major cities were so hard to find that we sent employees from the small town where we’re located to live in those cities for the holiday season, even though we don’t have managers to spare. Some of the stores were very successful, but overall it’s too difficult to run them. So we’re opening only two this year.

Denise Russell is president of the Everett, WA-based Speak-to-Me catalog of “talking” products for the visually impaired. Annual sales, less than $10 million; annual circulation, less than 1 million.

For one thing, I’m trying to get the catalog out sooner this year. Last year it mailed in late September and early October, and I think we missed out on potential customers. We offer our catalog in four formats: in print, on our Website, on about 500 computer disks, and on 3,500 audiotapes for the visually impaired. So when I update the catalog, I have to do it four separate times. Nonetheless, this year I plan to have it mailed by September 1. People are already shopping for Christmas, so I really need to be out there. We’re also mailing a supplement in November-a collection of last-minute gift ideas and other items people might like to know about before the holidays begin.

We’re also doing some co-op advertising this year. We’re in the September issues of Family Circle and McCall’s magazines, which hit the newsstands in August, and in August we noticed that catalog requests were way up already.

Of course I’m always adding new products, too. We’ve been at it for about four years, so I’m still new at this whole thing and I’m learning as I go.

What are you doing differently this holiday season based on what you learned in previous years?

Rare is the cataloger who claims to have nothing left to learn about the business. As the small catalogers we spoke with this month can attest, each edition reveals a marketing, merchandising, or creative strategy that can stand improvement. And since the holiday season brings the bulk of the year’s revenue to many mailers, implementing the right changes to holiday catalogs can make the difference between a profitable year and a disaster. Every catalog tweaks its response rates and profits differently, but our interviewees all look to the same source for advice on making their books better: their customers.

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