Slow postal delivery in some areas, but no systemwide problems

More than halfway through the fall/holiday mailing season, a number of the catalogers and printers contacted by Catalog Age have complained of slight lags in response or of slow catalog delivery in some portions of the country.

Catalog delivery “has been off at times – though nothing overly disastrous,” says David Hauser, executive vice president of Hicksville, NY-based mail tracking service and list firm The Hauser Group. Among the catalogs tracked by Hauser, average delivery time from bulk mail centers (BMCs) during the third quarter was up a day and a half from last year, to 6.8 days from 5.2 days. But that’s still a day better than during the third quarter of 1997, when the average delivery time from BMCs was nearly 8 days.

Likewise, the average delivery time from sectional center facilities (SCFs) was 5.1 days during the third quarter of this year – nearly a day longer than last year’s 4.3 days, but significantly faster than the 7.4 days in ’97. And 94.5% of the catalogs tracked by Hauser reached their destination, compared to 96.8% last year and 92.5% in ’97.

Hauser says that catalog mail volume overall has been up 10%-15% over last year, and that this year’s decline in performance may be due in part to a lack of postal staff. When mailers get good response to spring/ summer books, they often increase holiday circulation at the last minute. As such, “it’s a hard thing to project,” Hauser says. The higher volume “may have caught the USPS by surprise.”

Trouble spots

Gadgets marketer Comtrad Industries, for one, has felt the fallout of the increased volume. Shardul Pandya, catalog director for the Midlothian, VA-based company, says he’s noticed a three- to five-day lag in response throughout the season.

“All through last year and into the first few months of this year, we got an increase in sales calls about 5-8 days after the mail date,” Pandya says. “But over the past few months, we haven’t seemed to get that pop for at least 8-11 days.” Thirty percent of Comtrad’s sales are from its catalog. The $60 million company estimated that its total holiday circulation would be up 8%-9% over last year.

Other catalogers say that the slowdowns are occurring only in specific locales. “In the New York area, delivery has been fine,” says Kevin O’Halloran, vice president of direct marketing for New York-based jewelry and gifts cataloger/retailer Tiffany & Co. “I’m getting my decoys on time, which is strange, because New York is often a problem area. But I’ve heard it’s been slow in some other areas, although there’s no real pattern to it.”

Joe Schick, director of postal affairs at Pewaukee, WI-based catalog printer Quad/Graphics, has also noticed inconsistent catalog delivery times, with delivery in Atlanta and the San Francisco/Oakland region particularly sluggish. “We’ve seen some extended delivery delays there of 10-15 days,” he says. “But the Postal Service is well aware of the problems.” In fact, the USPS has admitted that delivery delays have hit Florida as well.

The Postal Service also says that it needs more part-time postal workers for the holiday season or more overtime hours in certain regions. “I think it’s getting better, but we’re not completely there,” says Pat Mendonca, manager of operations support for the USPS. “There’s been a big focus on costs and on looking at the next postal rate case, so there’s been a big push to make sure people spend money wisely, and it’s been difficult to manage resources for the mail volume. We don’t want any more expense than necessary.”

Smooth sailing for some

Not all catalogers have complaints about delivery. “We’ve had two drops, and I’ve been astonished at the results: Catalogs are arriving on time,” says Jim Zimmerman, president/co-owner of $1 million-plus Los Angeles-based pottery cataloger Cottura. “As far as we can tell, our catalogs have hit their three-day window.” Cottura increased its fall/holiday circulation this year 25%.

The $275 million Bear Creek Corp., which mails the Harry and David (food), Jackson & Perkins (horticultural products), and Northwest Express (apparel and gifts) catalogs, has also had good luck with delivery. “We’ve had no problems with our catalogs making their delivery windows,” says Nancy Tait, executive vice president, sales and marketing. “I’ve even gone back and checked.” The cataloger’s overall circulation is 10% higher this holiday season than last.

Clarence Banks, manager of postal and logistics analysis for Chicago-based printer R.R. Donnelley, says he sees no delivery problems that “I can put my finger on. After Columbus Day, we started to see a day or two lag in delivery time compared to Postal Service guidelines, which call for two-day delivery to sectional center facilities. So we adjusted our schedules by a couple of days to compensate, which we normally do during the holiday season to cover ourselves. And I think that has paid off.”

And even those that have suffered delivery delays praise the Postal Service’s response. “When mailers reported problems two years ago, the USPS wouldn’t admit to it,” recalls Quad/ Graphics’ Schick. “This year, the Postal Service came to us before we got complaints from our clients.”

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