Selling to a captive market

Nobody said it would be easy marketing to those doing hard time – the nation’s 2 million prison inmates.

For one, some prisons do not accept second class mail for prisoners, so catalogers have to pay the higher first class postage. There are no inmate mailing lists available for prospecting, and to win state approval to market to inmates, catalogers must adhere to strict regulations regarding products – regulations that vary dramatically by state. For example, while one state may approve shoes with Velcro closures to avoid shoelaces – which can be used to hang oneself or strangle someone else – another may reject Velcro, since it can be cut away and used to conceal a weapon.

“Rules are changing, and products change, so we have to adapt,” says Stewart Modell, owner of Adams Catalog in Newport, DE. An approved vendor to inmates in 22 states, Modell expects sales to reach nearly $15 million this year.

To enhance his product offerings Modell recently developed a line of transparent toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, soap, and shaving cream, an attractive line for prison officials, since contraband can’t be concealed in the clear products. Other merchandise includes boots, magazines, sunglasses, watches, clothes, and cards.

To version…or not

Modell prints several versions of his catalog – which targets correctional facility staff as well as inmates – to comply with individual state standards. For instance, the New York version sells no blue clothing (the color of guards’ uniforms) and no apparel worth more than $50.

But an Adams Catalog competitor, Walkenhorst’s catalog, prints only one version of its book. To meet the varying state regulations, owner Stewart Walkenhorst allows prison officials to cross out taboo items or to cut and paste together their own version of the catalog. Walkenhorst’s offerings range from candy bars to TVs.

To find customers, both Walkenhorst’s and Adams mail large quantities of catalogs to prison libraries and then build their databases as orders are placed. Since inmate phone access is restricted, most orders are placed by family members or through the prison, which issues a state check to pay for the items, Modell says. Inmates pay for the items with money from work assignments or family.

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