Holiday prospects

Patricia Woodruff is the mail order director of Thanksgiving Coffee Co., a Fort Bragg, CA-based catalog of organic and gourmet coffee and tea. Annual sales, about $600,000; annual circulation, about 150,000.

I’m not planning on doing any prospecting this holiday season. Last year I probably did less than 20% of my prospecting for the year during the holidays. I try to concentrate the prospecting in the first quarter, because with any luck those customers we gain in the first quarter will pay for themselves by the time fall comes around.

If I had to choose between adding a customer to our list in February or in November, I would choose February, because I am fairly certain the customer will buy each month. More than 85% of our customers buy their coffee from us on a monthly basis. So if I chose November over February for prospecting, I would lose nine months’ of business that year. By the fourth quarter for the holiday mailing, I’m not so much interested in prospecting as in ensuring that the customers we’ve acquired throughout the year receive our holiday attention.

Jean Smith is vice president/ chief financial officer of Wild Women Enterprises, a Dighton, MA-based catalog of feminist women’s apparel, music, and books. Annual sales, $110,000; annual circulation, 40,000.

We don’t increase the circulation for the gift-giving season. We collect a lot of names between our spring and fall books because we are a vendor at craft fairs and women’s conferences.

We haven’t ever rented lists-we haven’t needed to yet, for the amount that we can afford to mail. We advertise in publications, and we have a Website from which people can request a catalog. We’ve already spent five or six times as much money advertising the catalog this year than we did all of last year because we’re trying to reach a broader market. For the most part, our clothes appeal to women age 30 and up, but we do have things that appeal to younger women so we’re now advertising in magazines such as Teen Voices and New Perspectives.

Another way we generate names is asking our customers to fill in the name of another person they think might be interested in the catalog. Also, we’ve started sharing lists with other women-oriented catalogs.

Debbie Ducommun is owner of the Rat-a-log, a Chico, CA-based catalog of accessories for pet rats. Annual sales, $100,000; annual circulation, 4,000.

We won’t be prospecting for more customers during the holiday because we don’t need more business at that time of the year. We do a good 80% of our business right before Christmas, because our merchandise is good for gifts. There’s a finite amount of business we can handle. It’s a home business, just my husband and I, and we’re not interested in hiring employees.

Prior to this year, we mailed exclusively to people who receive the newsletter I publish, “The Rat Report.” In January we started advertising in The Great Directory of Undiscovered Catalogs and The Best Catalogs in the World, published by Publisher’s Inquiry Service. Before that, we averaged one order a day. Now we’re getting an average of six orders a day. This is about all we can handle now.

Robyn Roberts is president of Blue River Trading Co., a Fort Lauderdale, FL-based catalog of southwestern apparel and furnishings. Annual sales, more than $5 million; annual circulation, n/a.

We always increase circulation around the holidays because we do 48% of our business during the fall/holiday season. Last year we doubled circulation before the holidays, and this year we’re increasing our circulation 60%.

We are prospecting less than we did last year because doubling our circulation was a stretch for us in terms of fulfillment and cash flow. When you double circulation, you also double warehouse space needs for merchandise, the customer service people you need, everything-it’s a domino effect. But no one in the catalog business wants to stay small for long because of the economies of scale. We made the circulationleap so that we could stay in business.

A lot of our prospects come from the Abacus consumer co-op database, and since we’re changing our merchandise mix a little to include more apparel, I think we’ll now be able to use rental lists that haven’t been profitable in the past.

Robert Jackson is vice president of finance and administration at Simply Southwest, an Albuquerque, NM-based catalog of southwestern women’s apparel, jewelry, and home decor. Annual sales, $9 million-$10 million; annual circulation, more than 5 million.

We do our heaviest prospecting in the fall because we mail more books overall then, so we have a higher revenue flow to cover the prospecting.

Our high season runs from August through January. We put out a spring book and a fall book. We’ll do our heaviest prospecting with rented lists with the first drop of the fall book, in August, and then taper off as we get closer to the holidays. Since prospecting may not be as productive as mailing to the house list, we try to shore up our fall results by prospecting less toward the end of the season.

We try to strike a balance between the risk of prospecting and the necessity of it. We’re not doing any more or less prospecting than we did last year. We try to stay consistent.

Are you increasing your prospecting for the upcoming holidays? Why (or why not)? While many larger catalogs step up their prospecting during the holiday season, we were surprised to hear that half of the small catalogers we talked to this month aren’t doing so this year-even though all the catalogers interviewed do the bulk of their business during the holidays. One cataloger simply has not thought of mailing more heavily during the holidays, while another does not want to tax its fulfillment arm any further in the fourth quarter. As a two-person company, notes one cataloger, “there’s a finite amount of business we can handle.” Other reasons small catalogers cite for not increasing prospecting include the financial risk involved and potential cash flow problems.

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