It’s our birthday! We turn the Big 2-5 this year, and anytime you celebrate an important anniversary, it’s a time for looking back and reflecting on your history. We decided to take this opportunity to revisit some of our readers’ histories. We checked in on some of the catalog companies that have appeared in our pages during the past quarter century to review where they came from, what’s happened along the way, and where they think they’re going. (We were particularly curious about what they were like in the ’80s when we were just stating out.) We thank them for sharing their stories, and here’s to the next 25 years!
Acatalog of BMW parts and accessories? Sounds like the brainchild of a bunch of yuppies. But according to cofounder/co-owner Mark Ruddy, Bavarian Autosport was started by “three hippies who liked to work on cars.” Ruddy says the trio tinkered with cars and catalogs all day because they didn’t want to work. Ironically, Bavarian Autosport has become so big that 34 years later, they don’t have to work.
Company founded: 1974 by Mark Ruddy, Peter Robart Ruddy, and David Wasson. The company began promoting the Stratham, NH-based auto parts and accessories business by advertising nationally in enthusiast magazines in the late ’70s.
First catalog mailed: 1983
Catalog then: The company mailed 10,000 copies of the catalog, created on a Smith-Corona typewriter on Mark Ruddy’s kitchen table. The first Bavarian Autosport catalog resembled the blue books used for university exams: It was basically a listing and description of BMW parts, with the prices in the back of the book. The company added some black-and-white photography a few years later.
Catalog today: The now four-color, glossy Bavarian Autosport catalog is almost as flashy as the cars it sells parts for. It currently mails 3 million copies a year, which director of marketing Jay McNamee says includes a big book twice a year, and two 16-pagers. The company also produces Fast Times, an eight-page, quarterly tech newsletter.
Secret to its success: Merchandising. McNamee says accessories, which include upgrades, helped fuel the merchant’s growth. Accessories now make up 88 of the 132 pages; sales are pretty much split evenly between accessories and replacement parts. “When the economy is strong, accessories take the lead,” McNamee says. “When the economy is weak, we sell more replacement parts.”
Down the road: There’s room for new growth in the BMW parts business, thanks to the automaker’s introduction of the Mini Cooper in the U.S. five years ago. “Once a significant number of new Minis age beyond the manufacturer’s warranty, we expect that will become a large enough market to merit its own catalog and Website,” McNamee says.
“But at the moment we can’t justify it. So for now, we’ll just keep on keepin’ on.”
— Tim Parry
If you were a mail order gifts buyer in the ’70s, or the ’60s, or the ’50s… chances are you received the Miles Kimball catalog. The Oshkosh, WI-based merchant today mails more than 120 million pieces a year, says Miles Kimball president/CEO Stan Krangel. It has a lot more competition now: “The catalog space is crowded with many companies, some selling many of the same products. It is becoming hard to distinguish among the brands.”
Company founded: In 1935, by Miles Kimball.
Catalog 25 years ago: The focus was pretty much the same: value-oriented general and gift merchandise. But the 12-month buyer file was about 500,000 in 1983, compared to about 1.5 million today, says Krangel.
Catalog today: Covers have been more promotional, “and we reverted back to the covers from our early years recently to display original art that was painted for our company in the 1980s and 1990s,” Krangel notes. The average order today is $37; although it was obviously lower in 1983, “it is probably the same adjusted for inflation.”
Changing hands: The Kimball family sold to Torstar in 1980 and management acquired the company in 1997. Current owner, home products manufacturer Blyth, purchased Miles Kimball in 2002, Krangel says. Miles Kimball has made a few deals of its own: It bought photo accessories mailer Exposures in 1992 and lower-end gift book Walter Drake in 2004.
Defining moment: “The year 2000 was a critical year for our company,” Krangel says. “We had problems with our product lines and when we consolidated our shipping from 11 locations to our current location in Oshkosh, the stress on the business was significant. It took us a year to recover.”
Biggest challenge: “Evolving our brands to be relevant to the changing demographics,” Krangel says. “Brands must have “a compelling reason to be,” a unique selling proposition that will set them apart.” Many older brands have passed on because they could or would not change, he notes.
What’s more, he says, it’s hard to target the “senior” market. “The 50-year-olds today are more active in their lives and have different needs than the 50-year-olds back in 1983. We need to be changing our products and services to appeal to this evolving audience.” For example, Krangel refers to the ’60s TV series, The Beverly Hillbillies, in which the character Granny was about 60. “Today the 60-year-old is Goldie Hawn! What a difference!”
— Jim Tierney
Cuddledown’s roots are in Maine, but the idea for the business was actually hatched in Europe. Ellen Manson of Yarmouth, ME, went on a European vacation and brought back down comforters to sell. She mailed the first Cuddledown catalog in 1973.
Catalog in 1983: Then known as Cuddledown of Maine, the total house file was about 40,000 and the average order around $100, says president Chris Bradley. “The catalog was 36 pages and had a casual, family feel to it, with a photo of the owner and family on the opening spread. We printed only one version of the catalog each year.”
The product selection was narrow — down comforters and pillows that Cuddledown manufactured, and some sleepwear and flannel sheets imported from Europe. “Local friends modeled the sleepwear and underwear, and some vendor photography was used,” Bradley notes.
Catalog today: Compared to Cuddledown of yesteryear, the feel of the book is more sophisticated and the fashion has a wider appeal, Bradley says. “There’s deeper product selection with fewer products from the U.S., fewer from Europe, and more from Asia.” The majority of the products are exclusive, and — sorry, friends and family — the models today are professional.
“Our total house file is 890,000 and our average order is $230,” Bradley says. “We print five seasonal versions of the book each year and it runs between 68 and 80 pages.”
Defining moment: “Certainly 9/11 was a defining moment,” he says. “Related to that timeframe was the push from all retailers and brands to more promotional marketing. We resisted free shipping and putting products on sale, but in the post-9/11 world a certain amount of promotion is necessary.”
Looking ahead: “Obviously the Internet, as well as high postage and paper costs, have changed our future — declining circulation from many catalogs, as well as the current string of business failures, is sparking what looks to me like a downward spiral in overall catalog volume that will be difficult for any single brand to fight,” Bradley says. “With declining overall volume comes a decline in the universe of names available to rent.”
Even though half of Cuddledown’s orders now come through its Website, “our catalog drives that business so we will need to find ways to expand the number of names we can mail profitably. Great merchandise and effective marketing have always been the key to this business, and that will never change.”
King Arthur Flour
While King Arthur Flour dates back to 1790, King Arthur Flour’s Baker’s Catalogue has been around only 18 years. “The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Catalogue first edition was published in September 1990; the ‘ue’ on the end of ‘catalog’ was to carry through the King Arthur, English feeling,” says the Norwich, VT-based book’s vice president/general manager Karen Colberg. King Arthur Flour today mails about 6 million catalogs a year.
Catalog founded: 1990, when Frank and Brinna Sands purchased the mailing list of Breadbasket, a catalog based in Bellevue, WA. “As I recall, the mailing list was about 10,000 names,” Colberg says.
Catalog then: The 32-page black-and-white book measured 5 1/4″ × 8 1/2″. It was a “basic, homegrown” presentation, Colberg says.
Catalog today: King Arthur Flour Baker’s Catalogue has grown up to a regal, full-size, four-color, 56-page book that mails 13 times a year. Colberg says the 12-month house-file is 210,000; the average order is $60; and the response rate is 5% to 6%.
Defining moments: “We made a profit for the first time after seven years, which was delayed due to overinvesting in the mailing list used to launch the catalog,” Colberg explains. “Ever since, we’re ever-vigilant about taking a breakeven philosophy toward prospecting.
King Arthur Flour’s foray into four-color in 1992, and to a full-size format in 1995, were also key events. And the introduction of baking mixes in 1996 was “a huge step for a flour company, with major fears that it would cannibalize flour sales,” Colberg says. Instead, it has added a whole new customer segment. “Our core scratch bakers use our mixes as well — which is a wonderful validation of the taste and quality.”
Looking ahead: The continued and growing interest in wholesome, all-natural and organic food should be good for business, she says. “People want to know what they’re eating, where it’s coming from, and be assured it is pure and natural. That has always been our goal — to offer wholesome, pure and natural mixes, and ingredients.”
Bullock & Jones
If you were working that Miami Vice pastel T-shirt with the blazer look in the ’80s — or ever — you might not be familiar with men’s clothier Bullock & Jones. The San Bruno, CA-based merchant doesn’t try to keep up with fashion fads, rather it sells timeless classics to 40- to 75-year-old men. “We’re not in the trendy clothing business,” says Eric Goodwill, the merchant’s president/CEO. “Our customer is over 40, so he’s not a guy who’s really chasing fashion, but he doesn’t want to look he’s like wearing old stuff.”
Company founded: In 1853 as a store in San Francisco by haberdashers Frank J. Bullock and John Luther. The pair capitalized on making gentlemen of gold miners who had newfound wealth.
First catalog mailed: 1982. The cover of the first catalog — a holiday book mailed to 100,000 names — was the epitome of the 1982 boardroom: gray flannel.
What happened to it: The business was sold by Goodwill’s father, Sidney Goodwill, to department store chain Saks in 1998; the family bought it back in 2001, after Saks had shuttered its Union Square storefront.
Defining moment: More of a movement than a moment — office dress codes went from corporate to casual in the mid 1990s. It forced Bullock & Jones to shift its merchandising focus to include more casual wear that was both current and timeless, and with an emphasis on luxury fabrics and tailoring.
What’s in store: Not stores, at least for the time being. Bullock & Jones did return to retail briefly a few years ago with a scaled-down Union Square location. But the company decided there was better money to be made in the direct business. Goodwill feels the company has a niche product that can survive in the age of catalogs.
Jewelry and gifts merchant Ross-Simons has been around for more than half a century, and in that time it’s circulated more than 1 billion catalogs. The Cranston, RI-based company’s bread-and-butter used to be bread-and-butter plates — and other tableware a bride-to-be might register for. But these days, Ross-Simons is all about bringing on the bling; its core focus is jewelry now.
Company founded: 1952, by Sidney and Lillian Ross as a small jewelry and china company in Providence, RI. The catalog, first mailed in 1981, was started by Darrell Ross, son of the founders and president/CEO of the company today.
Catalog then: Back then the book was 50-50: The front half of the book was jewelry and the back was wedding china and crystal, says vice president of marketing Lawrence Davis.
Catalog today: These days, “the catalog is almost entirely jewelry,” he says. And it’s in the mail a lot: “We used to mail once a year. Now we have 12 titles mailing 40 times a year.” The company’s annual mail volume exceeds 40 million catalogs.
Defining moment: The shift in American demographics and lifestyles was a significant merchandising evolution, Davis says. “Newlyweds have opted for a more casual bridal registry — they don’t want the formal table settings.” Ross-Simons is going after the bridal market, but now with engagement rings and certified diamonds at competitive prices.
Looking ahead: “Every year we see more and more of our business shifting to the Web,” Davis says. But the catalog remains a critical component of the company’s contact strategy, he says, and figuring out how to keep mailing them is an ongoing struggle. “The evolving book size vis-a-vis the cost of postage — moving into slim-jims and then away from slim-jims — is a major creative concern.”
Do you remember when floppy diskettes, data cartridges, and pin-feed computer paper were considered “high-tech” items? United Stationers does. Because the company has been around since the turn of the last century, it’s no doubt seen its share of new things get old.
Company founded: In the early 1900s, originally as Utility Supply Co. Utility was originally an “industrial loft stationer” that later also operated several retail stores in downtown Chicago, says Jeff Kressmann, director of communications and events.
First catalog published: 1935. The 262-page tome used black line drawings to show the products. “Competitors in the market had previously produced catalogs, most notably P.F. Pettibone & Co. Catalog, published in 1891, and Horder’s, whose first book appeared in 1917,” Kressmann says. These served as models for the Utility book, which distinguished itself by offering more and diverse office furniture items.
Catalog in 1983: The catalog included more than 20,000 items in 680 pages. In addition to traditional calendars and diaries, filing supplies, and writing instruments, it also had sections of copier supplies, data supplies, and word processing supplies, as well as the aforementioned “high-tech” computer items. Many products in the catalog then looked very similar to how they look today, Kressmann notes.
Catalog today: Selling 27,000 items in 1,592 pages, United Stationers today not only includes office supplies, furniture, and technology products, but also janitorial/sanitation products and break room supplies. The company prints roughly 20 million catalogs and fliers annually. Sales hit $4.6 billion in 2007.
Defining moments: United Stationers developed a wholesale side in the 1950s and 1960s, and sold off the retail/industrial supply part of the business. It bought its first computer system in 1967, and went public in 1981.
Looking ahead: United Stationers plans to keep printing catalogs as long as the marketplace wants them, Kressmann says. “Although a considerable portion of office products are today purchased online, research shows that office products consumers continue to rely on catalogs as an important sourced of product information and purchase decision.”
Music for Little People
Looking for something different in children’s albums? So was composer Leib Ostrow, who founded Music for Little People 23 years ago as an alternative source for tunes for tots.
Catalog then: First mailed in 1985, the original catalog was two-color, printed on one large piece of paper that folded to save on binding charges, Ostrow says. “It was all hand-drawn, and we were selling cassette tapes and musical instruments,” he recalls. “We sent out 10,000 catalogs, mostly to the HearthSong list, and we received over a 10% response rate.”
Defining moment: Starting its own record label, in 1989, and working with artists such as Los Lobos, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Michelle Shocked. The Music for Little People record label has won more than 140 awards, and received three Grammy nominations.
What’s in store: After certain assets of the company were sold this past March to children’s publisher Trudy Corp. Ostrow signed a three-year agreement with the firm to manage Music for Little People and Trudy’s Soundprints direct businesses. He plans to do some cross-promotional work with Soundprints to help grow the music title’s house file.
Ostrow says there is definitely a plan for a fall/winter catalog, and possibly a second book based on children’s exploration of nature.
What started out as a Washington-based fountain pen repair shop eventually became a store selling new writing instruments, including the “revolutionary” ballpoint pen, and today a thriving catalog/Web business called Fahrney’s Pens.
Company founded: In 1929 by Earl Fahrney. Jon and Corrine Sullivan bought the business from Fahrney in 1971 and started the catalog in 1975.
Today the Upper Marlboro, MD-based multichannel business is run by the Sullivan’s son, Chris.
Catalog today: The company mails 2 million catalogs a year, in a total of 12 drops a year, says director of marketing Kim Graham. The average price point is $150 to $200; the average order is around $275. Fahrney’s is selling to more women these days, but Graham says 65% of customers are men.
Fahrney’s Pens, which launched its Website in 2002, still has a store in downtown Washington — in the same neighborhood where Earl Fahrney opened his shop. In promoting the business, Graham says, “we’re finding that radio has worked really well for us,” since the traffic in the DC area tends to keep consumers trapped in their cars.
— Patrick Barnard