Small Catalogs Forum: Firing Up a Catalog Business

With Firefighters Bookstore, Peggy Glenn has tapped into a hot market niche: books for firefighters. Since mailing its first 16-page catalog in 1990, the Huntington Beach, CA-based company has grown to a $1.3 million business.

It helped that Glenn had written a fire-safety-related book in 1982 with her ex-husband, who was a fire investigator. She went on to write another in 1994. It was her early efforts to market those two books to the fire service that opened her vision to the need for a one-stop source for books for that market.

“I knew a fair bit about fire services,” Glenn says, “and having been a self-publisher of my books on how to run a successful home-based business, I thought I’d put together a list of books, source them, and make it easier for individual firefighters.”

Firefighters Bookstore actually started as a sale sheet offering just 25 products in 1988. The current 120-page book sells 2,700 items, with prices ranging from $1.25 for a children’s book up to $3,500 for a set of fire training videos. And the product line has expanded to include fire-service-related toys, games, greeting cards, software, and calendars.

Glenn mailed 1 million catalogs in 2002 “and will mail 20% more in 2003 if business keeps going well,” she says. Firefighters Bookstore’s sales increased in the wake of 2001’s Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with no subsequent drop-off, Glenn adds.

“We’re more than 20% ahead of last year, because there’s been such an emphasis in fire service in all levels, from federal military bases down to small fire departments,” she says. “There’s continuous emphasis on training and professionalism, and we have books on those areas. In my 13 years of doing this, my customers have achieved success in their own careers, and they’re now in positions of decision-making and authority in their fire departments and training departments.”

Firefighters Bookstore built its house file of 150,000 names by advertising in national fire-service magazines, exhibiting at fire-training conferences, and mailing catalogs to organizers of conferences that Glenn is unable to attend. While the average order size from consumers is $100, the average order from fire departments and other business-to-business customers, who typically place orders for multiple copies of items, is $2,000.

What percentage of her customers are individuals as opposed to institutions and organizations? Glenn says she has no idea. “I’m probably one of the least savvy catalog owners out there, and I don’t worry about the numbers. I worry about taking care of my customers,” she says. “The numbers seem to take care of themselves.”

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