Small Catalogs Step Up to the Service Plate

In the midst of a down economy and rampant belt tightening, you may suspect that providing superior customer service is hardly a priority for small catalogers. But because many smaller marketers compete with larger — and deeper-pocketed — companies, they’ve learned how best to allocate their limited resources.

For Mary Going, owner of hot-sauce catalog Firegirl, paying an outside fulfillment company to handle order shipments makes the most sense. With about 400 orders a month and less than $100,000 in annual sales, Freeport, ME-based Firegirl is so small that Going says maintaining a warehouse did not make sense. She does take all the incoming orders herself, however.

But like most other small mailers, Columbus, OH-based Twins Help maintains its own warehouse. The three-year old catalog, which sells products for the parents of twins, has a 1,200-sq-ft. warehouse, says co-owner John Zimmerman. Twins Help processes about 30 orders a day and fulfills them within 24 hours, just like most larger catalogers.

“When there are three people taking all inquiries and orders as well as packing them, we don’t need a computer to let us know what is in stock — or when it will be replenished, for that matter,” Zimmerman says.

At food mailer Zingerman’s, time is of the essence when it comes to fulfilling and shipping, since many items are perishable. This means that the catalog’s 10-15 operations people (depending on the season) must ensure that all orders are out the door in a Federal Express package within 24 hours. While Ann Arbor, MI-based Zingerman’s has standard methods of packing items such as cheese, breads, and brownies, the company allows for special perks such as throwing in a personalized note from the phone rep, says catalog director Mo Frechette.

Worth the wait?

But other small catalogers say that selling products within a small, distinctive niche allows them more leeway when it comes to fulfilling orders. Or as Gael Stirler, president of Chivalry Sports, says, “When you sell proprietary clothing that is made inhouse, customers don’t mind waiting four weeks.” The Tucson, AZ-based Chivalry Sports sells Renaissance-inspired apparel and gifts, targeting attendees of historical fairs and the like.

Puttin’ on the Dog owner Betty Foster agrees with Stirler. Foster’s Stone Mountain, GA-based catalog, which sells gifts for dog lovers, keeps in stock items adorned with the most popular breeds. The top dozen or so breeds account for the majority of the 120 orders the catalog receives each day. But products embossed with the image of a less-popular dog breed aren’t kept in stock and therefore can take days, if not weeks, to fulfill. But Foster says her audience of dog enthusiasts don’t mind waiting — so long as they know why they have to wait, and when they might expect their order.

Speed vs. service

Foster and Stirler agree that communication about stock and order status is key. But the need to communicate with customers goes beyond informing them of fulfillment delays. At Zingerman’s, Frechette tells his CSRs to spend as much time as necessary with a customer in order to build a relationship.

In some instances, Frechette says, a customer is indecisive or reluctant to try a certain product. “I empower our employees to make their own decisions, and I find that many of them will send samples to these customers to help them with future orders,” he says. “Many large companies think that faster means more efficient, but we think that developing a conversation and really listening is more efficient.”

Indeed, Stirler has Chivalry Sports’ customer service reps (CSRs) model the clothing line so that they can better advise customers about fit and help them customize pieces. And Puttin’ on the Dog’s CSRs are required to have an extensive knowledge of all American Kennel Club (AKC) breeds to be able to answer customer questions. The training pays off: Repeat customers often request specific CSRs who have shown particular knowledge of a specific breed.

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