CUSTOMER ACQUISITION: When should you prospect?

If timing is everything, certain times of the year are more fruitful for prospecting than others. But determining the best time for prospecting varies widely by product category – and even by cataloger.

“The best time to prospect is during your most profitable mailings,” contends Gina Valentino, director of marketing for Chicago-based women’s clothing cataloger Barrie Pace. At least 40% of the catalog’s annual circulation is mailed to prospects, though Valentino refuses to reveal the mailer’s annual circulation. “While timing varies from catalog to catalog, we’ve found the best time for us to prospect is the middle of spring and the middle of fall,” she says.

“Spring is usually a good time for women’s apparel catalogs to prospect,” agrees Mike Hayden, vice president of catalog list brokerage for Peterborough, NH-based list firm Millard Group. “That’s when buyers spring-clean their wardrobe, as opposed to summer and fall, when those buyers tend to purchase less.” But with the holiday gift-buying frenzy, catalogers that sell hard goods and home decor items find late fall a good time to prospect, he says.

But many apparel catalogers, such as Champaign, IL-based men’s clothing cataloger Bachrach, prospect year-round – “though we’re more aggressive during the holiday season when we try to reach gift-givers,” says Bachrach’s circulation manager, Karen Floyd. “We’re more flexible with the lists we rent. We’ll test gift-givers from women’s lists rather than only male prospects.” Bachrach’s annual circulation is around 10 million, with 10%-15% going to prospects, Floyd says.

Food and gardening

Food catalogers tend to do the bulk of their prospecting in late fall, since “many people purchase food gifts during the holidays,” says Millard’s Hayden. Steve Siriani, vice president of marketing for Eugene, OR-based food cataloger Harry and David, agrees. “Our strongest time to prospect is the holiday season,” he says. Harry and David’s annual circulation is 50 million-100 million; prospects account for more than half. “We mail 65% to prospects during the holidays, with the rest scattered in the spring and summer,” he says. The holiday prospects are the most responsive; some response rates get as high as 3%, he says.

On a smaller scale, “we prospect twice a year – right before summer and right before fall,” says Tim Eidson, president of San Luis Obispo, CA-based spicy foods cataloger Mo’ Hotta Mo’ Betta. “And we use the overruns from previous printings for prospecting, rather than printing new catalogs for prospects that might not pay off.” While he would not disclose response rates, Eidson says that the catalog’s total annual circulation is between 250,000 and 500,000, and that prospect mailings account for less than 10% of that. Burlington, VT-based Gardener’s Supply Co. concentrates its mailings to prospects during the holiday and early spring drops, but also prospects throughout the year, says catalog marketing director John White. “We prospect most heavily during mid-March, when people are planting seeds and annuals, and during bulb-planting season in late September and early October,” he says. The catalog has a total annual circulation of about 16 million, with less than half mailing to prospects.

Regardless of what they sell, most consumer catalogers agree that summer is the least effective time to prospect. “The summer months are usually dry because people are traveling or busy,” says Mike Doepke, who worked in the consumer list business prior to joining Cahner’s Business Lists as executive director of sales and marketing. “People don’t have as much time to spend leafing through catalogs.”

While the best time for consumer catalogers to prospect varies, most business-to-business catalogers can prospect successfully almost year-round. Mike Doepke, executive director of sales and marketing for Chicago-based Cahner’s Business Lists, says prospecting practices for b-to-b catalogers are “pretty consistent” throughout the year. “The revenue and order flow are steady, with a slight jump in January, due to the catalogs that are mailed out for the new year.” He adds that many b-to-b catalogers that sell consumable goods, such as office supplies, industrial supplies, and computers and accessories, prospect with each mailing.

At Madison, WI-based industrial safety products cataloger Conney Safety, “we generally prospect over the course of the entire year,” says vice president of marketing Pete Sandy. “We like to have a steady flow of new customers, and our customers need our products throughout the year.”

But just as in the consumer catalog segment, prospect mailings slow somewhat during the summer. “People just don’t spend the kind of time [in the summer] looking at the catalog as they do the rest of the year,” Sandy notes, largely because they’re out of the office more, due to summer hours or vacations.

Chad Slater, vice president of business brokerage for Greenwich, CT-based Axciom Direct Media, says that summer is indeed a slower period for many business mailers. For instance, “schools are a big b-to-b market, and they’re usually closed in the summer.”

But Slater says he also sees “a drop-off in b-to-b response during the holiday season, because people are distracted by other things going on that time of year.”

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