Perish the thought…

Oct 01, 1998 9:30 PM  By

During the holiday season, even apparel and hard goods catalogers add food baskets and fruitcakes to their product lines, to capitalize on the season of gift-giving. But for those that don’t typically sell foods, fulfilling edible items poses challenges.

“You need to be really astute in forecasting food products,” says Nancy Hensel, vice president of merchandising and marketing for Foster & Gallagher’s The Popcorn Factory catalog, which sells candy, bakery items, nuts, snacks, and of course, popcorn throughout the year. “Apparel, for instance, is very easy to warehouse, but you don’t have that luxury with food. Perishability becomes an issue.” Items such as fruits and baked goods have a limited shelf life and therefore a short delivery window to get the product from the warehouse to the customer.

Indeed, many catalogers have heard-or told-nightmare food fulfillment stories, such as the chocolates that melted in the warehouse or the “live” lobsters that arrived to the customer’s doorstep more dead than alive.

“Food fulfillment brings with it a whole host of issues,” says Todd Barr, vice president of direct marketing services for consultancy Kurt Salmon Associates in Atlanta. “It’s an area of the business filled with challenges, such as spoilage, harvest issues, and shipping perishables in inclement weather.”

Before adding any perishable food items to your merchandise mix, assess your warehousing and processing facilities-for instance, you may have to add storage lockers and refrigeration equipment. And if you plan to sell food only during the holiday season, you need to ask yourself, Barr says, “if you have the wherewithal to provide those capabilities and have that equipment sit idle for 10 months during the year.”

You also may need to rethink your packaging. Food cataloger Omaha Steaks, for one, packages all orders in Styrofoam with dry ice to ensure that steaks and desserts keep their cool, and it sends all orders via expedited courier, says director of operations Ron Eike. And you need to train your order-takers to ask customers if someone will be at the address to receive the package so that goods aren’t left to spoil.

Rather than deal with these issues, some catalogers avoid the perishable food category altogether. St. Paul, MN-based Rivertown Trading fulfills only nonperishables such as candies and canned peanuts in its Seasons and Signals titles. According to Jeff Scharlau, spokesman for the $190 million multititle gifts cataloger, Rivertown stays away from perishable items to avoid “putting a strain on our fulfillment efforts.”