Live From the Direct Media Co-op: ‘Big-Box’ Retailers, Corporate Changes Force Catalogers to Refine Focus

White Plains, NY—At list firm Direct Media’s 30th Annual Mailers Conference & Co-op here on March 25, executives from two catalogers serving diverse markets—New York-based multititle apparel mailer Brylane and the catalog division of Framingham, MA-based office products retailer Staples—struck a similar note: They need to refine, if not, redefine, their targeted audiences in order to grow in an age in which the country’s middle class is being squeezed from both above and below.

Brylane chief marketing officer Mark Friedman noted that his company’s 10 catalogs, most of which sell mid- to moderately-priced apparel and home goods, has felt the squeeze by the continued success by “big box” retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, and Target coupled with the surge over the past six to nine months by many retailers and catalogers selling luxury goods. “This has forced us to give more unique and innovative products at a good price,” he said.

Friedman equated the squeeze that Brylane has felt to a comparable squeeze that middle-income consumers have felt as of late by the existing tax structures. And to find more new customers, Brylane is focusing on a more effective multichannel strategy of Web and catalog than it has in the past. “We want to understand how much of an impact mailing catalogs is to driving her to the Internet,” he said. “We know everybody [in the catalog business] has been looking for ways to reduce pages to save paper costs. But not many have been successful doing this. So that’s a big challenge for us.”

Brylane’s original approach to building its Web business was to make navigation relatively easy. But now, the company is starting to layer in some services and features, “to give us the biggest bang for the buck, whether it be search functionality or promoting our private label credit card business,” Friedman said.

Friedman laid out the three keys to Brylane’s continued success amidst the continued squeeze from both ends:

*-prospecting using the Web and catalog co-op databases “though not all of them since there are so many [five] now,” he said

*-knowing which channel the customer wants to shop by with Brylane’s brands

*-how to carve out “our place” in the market—“she’s going to shop at retail,” Friedman said; “we need to give her reasons to shop with us”

Peter Howard, vice president of marketing for Staples Business Delivery, the catalog/Internet arm of Staples, said in his presentation that Staples’s direct arm is focusing more on SoHo businesses. Last year, he pointed out, Staples merged its direct unit’s field sales and telemarketing sales units with the corporation’s contract sales force. “Now we have a huge sales force together to allow us to focus on pure direct marketing,” he said. “We can customize our acquisition plan to find accounts more effectively.”

Staples is focusing more this year on personalized service than it has in the past, Howard said. “We have a personal rewards business program that we can use going direct or in the stores,” he said. “We have a lot of flexibility in pricing, especially in small businesses not being used by larger players.”

As for what it charges those customers, Staples is finding that price “isn’t such a factor in our stores since customers are driving to the stores as a convenience,” Howard said. “So we’ve focused on making our catalog easier to use and can deliver next-day for orders placed until 5 pm.”

By being more flexible corporate-wide, “it’s working so far,” Howard said. “We’re getting a little economic lift with customers coming back. That’s freeing up budgets a bit, and we’re really going to focus more on direct marketing to small and midsize businesses.”

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