U.S. catalogers storm the desert

Nov 01, 1999 10:30 PM  By

The Middle East might seem an unlikely market for general merchandiser Spiegel to test. But Scott Weiler, director of business development and promotion for the Downers Grove, IL-based catalog, doesn’t think so. “There’s a growing demand for American goods and styles in these countries. It sounded promising.”

To reach prospects, in August Spiegel partnered with Middle East Marketing Service (MEMS), a division of United Arab Emirates-based express shipper Aramex. MEMSdistributes catalogs to proprietary lists and services customers through catalog centers in cities throughout the region.

Spiegel doesn’t produce a special catalog for the Mideast, using overruns of its regular big books instead. The cataloger receives the orders and payment from MEMS and ships the merchandise to Aramex’s facility at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York; Aramex then processes the packages as overnight shipments. Neither Weiler nor MEMS managing director Yousef Ghandour would comment on their financial arrangement.

Uncovering consumers

According to Ghandour, catalog shopping offers consumers in the Middle East convenience and access to current styles unavailable in local stores. The trick for catalogers is finding those consumers.

In fact, the difficulty in finding names has kept even large mailers like $1.37 billion Lands’ End, whose export sales include 180 countries, from targeting the region. “We do have customers in the Middle East that we mail catalogs to, but we don’t prospect there,” says spokeswoman Debbie Runde. Any new business there comes from word-of-mouth and the Internet.

For its part, MEMS sends catalogs to the membership lists of social clubs, among other sources. Neither Spiegel’s Weiler nor Brian MacPherson, a spokesman for fellow MEMS partner J.C. Penney, was aware of another purveyor of Mideastern lists.

J.C. Penney, a $3.93 billion marketer with licensed retailers in several Middle Eastern countries, chose to team up with MEMS three years ago to begin mailing into Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. MacPherson describes his company’s circulation in the region as “a few thousand, but generally when MEMS places a book, we’ll get a buy out of it.” The Plano, TX-based cataloger plans to use MEMS to expand its Middle East program into two or three more countries.

MEMS mails approximately 60,000 catalogs throughout the region, but sales agents are also part of its strategy, especially in countries such as Saudi Arabia, which forbids women from driving and lingering in shops. The agents – all of whom are women – bring catalogs to their customers, take orders, and deliver the products. “Women feel more comfortable talking to them than to the men in stores,” Ghandour says.