SALES ROUNDUP: FALLING UPWARD

Nov 01, 1999 10:30 PM  By

Fall sales reports point to a green holiday season

Heading into the holiday season, a number of catalogers have cut back on prospecting in favor of mailing deeper into their house files (see “Holiday refinements,” October issue). And so far at least, the strategy seems to be working.

Unlike last year, when a number of catalogers reported a painfully slow start to fall sales, most of the mailers contacted by Catalog Age are exceeding expectations and celebrating double-digit sales growth.

New York-based apparel and home goods mailer Brylane, whose titles include Chadwick’s of Boston, Lerner New York, and Lane Bryant, reports that it is benefiting from an overhauled circulation plan. Sales are running about “10% ahead of budget,” says the company’s president/CEO, Peter Canzone, even though Brylane is circulating 7%-8% fewer books this year than last.

Likewise, at $275 million Bear Creek Corp. in Medford, OR, which mails the food catalog Harry and David, gifts book Northwest Express, and plants catalog Jackson & Perkins, fall sales are “slightly above plan, with double-digit increases over last year for Harry and David and Jackson & Perkins,” says Nancy Tait, executive vice president, sales and marketing. She credits “improved circulation planning and continued efforts to better target our mailings” for the uptick. “Our productivity per catalog is up over last year in all three businesses, in both response rates and sales per catalog.”

But savvier circulation management can’t claim all the credit for the strong sales. As Kenneth Gassman, an analyst with Richmond, VA-based Davenport and Co., puts it, “When you combine the economic indicators and the overall consumer confidence, it figures to be a good Christmas.” In fact, the National Retail Federation estimates that consumers will spend $13.5 billion-$14 billion on catalog merchandise this holiday season, up 8%-12% from $12.5 billion in 1998.

“Despite a couple of hiccups in the stock market, business is still strong, and consumers are still spending, regardless of the channel,” says Peter Howard, vice president of marketing for $205 million jewelry, tabletop, and home decor cataloger Ross-Simons. “People have a lot of discretionary income now. Our jewelry sales are up, and on the home side, china is still a big item during the holidays.” Early holiday sales for the Cranston, RI-based mailer are on plan, he says, “and we had a pretty aggressive plan going into the season.”

Oshkosh, WI-based multititle mailer Miles Kimball credits its surge in early holiday sales to a creative facelift of its core Miles Kimball gifts title, and the overall strong performance of its home decor book, Exposures Home. According to Mike Muoio, chairman/CEO of the $127 million company, sales are up 20%-25% over last year, and 10% ahead of plan.

A “gradual creative change” at gifts cataloger Charles Keath also helped boost that catalog’s fall sales, says senior vice president, brand manager Dorothy Adams. “Sales are terrific,” she enthuses. “We’re easily 15% over plan.” In addition to reworking the book’s design over the past few years, Charles Keath (one of three titles owned by Boca Raton, FL-based The Mark Group) has been “more succinct in our selection of products,” Adams says. Charles Keath also increased circulation “by double digits” and added eight pages to the fall book.

Meanwhile, fall sales at $25 million apparel and gifts mailer Faith Mountain have increased 10% over last year, despite flat circulation. President/founder Cheri Woodard says the Sperryville, VA-based cataloger increased its price points to boost revenue. Whereas the average order size last fall was $80, this year it’s up to $120, she says.

The Web factor

Last holiday season, many mailers underestimated how many consumers would be shopping online. This year, they seem determined not to get caught off-guard. In fact, several catalogers are looking to their Websites to contribute a significant portion of revenue this season.

For example, online sales at upscale gifts cataloger/retailer The Sharper Image totaled $4.9 million for all of 1998, according to Meredith Medland, director of the San Francisco-based company’s Internet division. But she expects to reap $19 million in Web sales for just the second half of 1999.

Other catalogers have more moderate Web sales expectations. For instance, Jeff Parnell, president/CEO of $10 million gifts cataloger Eximious, doesn’t expect his site to “be significant in terms of overall corporate numbers.” Nonetheless, the site, which went live in February, “is bringing in new customers. We’re very pleased with where we are.”

Additional reporting by Paul Miller

Despite the long-lasting after-effects of Hurricane Floyd, catalogers don’t appear to have any plans to suppress forthcoming catalog mailings to North Carolina, the area that was hardest-hit by the September storm.

“It did cross my mind to suppress mailings to the affected areas,” says Gerald Wilhite, president of Meinrad, IN-based religious gifts cataloger Abbey Press. “But our last big mailing was a few days before Floyd, and our next mailing – a small one – was in mid-October. But I’ll probably give it some thought when we do our next big mailing in November.”

Rome, GA-based Wall Street Creations, a cataloger of financial-related gifts, has no plans to suppress mailings to the flooded areas, according to general manager Acy Crawford. “As far as we know, sales from those areas haven’t been affected, nor has catalog delivery.”

When contacted in early October, several other catalogers couldn’t yet say what sort of effect Floyd would have on fall and early holiday sales.”There were some postal delays that may hurt some of our mailings, but it’s too early to tell,” says Jack Rosenfeld, president of multititle gifts mailer Potpourri Collections.

The same holds true for Kansas City, MO-based pet food cataloger Three Dog Bakery, says spokeswoman Kathy Plaster. “We have stores in Atlanta and Plantation, FL, but they weren’t affected,” she adds. “As for North Carolina, we contacted rescue organizers in the area and donated dog food and other items for dog owners and their dogs who were affected by the flooding.”