Holiday suprises

Jan Lajoie is president/CEO of Medford, OR-based Northwest’s Best, a catalog of handcrafted art products, furniture, and gift items from the Northwest. Annual sales, less than $5 million; annual circulation, 400,000.

We are surprised each year by the number of people who place their orders during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I don’t know if they’re ordering items that they had hoped to receive and didn’t, or if they’re placing orders because they received money for the holidays.

Some of our higher-end merchandise sold better than expected this holiday season. For example, we sold quite a few of our pottery lamps, priced at $1,700-$2,100. We also sold several totem poles, priced at $759, and a chuck wagon, which is built to scale three-quarters and costs $7,500. Some people use it as a bed in a child’s room; others use it as a lawn ornament.

All our products are made in the Northwest, which lets us offer some unusual items that other mail order companies don’t. We plan to stick with the higher-end items next year, and introduce some new ones. We also plan to design some truly Northwest-oriented gift packs, such as bath sets with all Northwest scents and flavors. And we plan to launch an interactive Website with real-time inventory, and increase our catalog circulation.

Chris Epperson is vice president of operations for Virginia Diner, a Wakefield, VA-based cataloger of peanuts and other food gifts from Virginia. Annual sales, less than $10 million; annual circulation, 250,000.

Our gift packs were a real success. Customers were able to create their own gift packs, choosing from two, three, or four cans of peanuts or other nuts to include in the packages. The number of orders we received for the gift packs really threw us a curve ball and slowed production. We had trouble getting them all packed because we didn’t have enough staff.

We also received a lot of corporate orders this year for the gift packs. And when we took corporate orders for 150-200 quantities of a particular item that we carried only in limited stock, it really created problems.

Because of what happened this year, we’ll probably add more staff next season. We’ll also probably make some computer and software changes to ease the order-entry process and packaging. And we’ll definitely offer more items for gift packs next year.

Dave Pimper is CEO/owner of Wall Street Creations, a Rome, GA-based cataloger of finance-related gifts. Annual sales, $6.5 million; annual circulation, 5 million.

In the past, we stayed away from selling items priced at less than $40. Our audience is primarily high-end male executives, so we didn’t offer many lower-priced gift items. But this year we were surprised that our sales of high-end gifts were down compared to the lower-end gifts. The lower-end novelty items sold extremely well for Christmas.

So this year, we plan to do more merchandising in the lower-end line. Our target buyer gets a kick out of less expensive, off-the-wall items that we wouldn’t have put in the catalog two or three years ago. For example, our Gun Stein, a beer mug with a pewter Colt .45 going through it, was very popular.

We are probably going to add more items on a regular basis, offering 35%-40% new items each catalog edition, as opposed to the 25%-30% new items that we offer now. If we don’t do that, our products will become stale to some of our buyers. We want our buyers to say, “Wow! I want that!” about items that we offer.

Dan Rinehart is vice president of marketing for Janesville, WI-based Rinehart Taxidermy Supply, which produces and sells taxidermy supplies and tools. Annual sales, $5 million; annual circulation, 70,000.

Our new peripheral products did well this year, items such as tanning cream used to tan hides before they’re mounted over mannequins. We also sold a lot of the high-end tools that we added to our product line.

We’re a business-to-business catalog, and I think we did well this year because of the strong economy. And whenever the economy is as strong as it was during the holidays, people have more money to spend on things they wouldn’t normally-such as taxidermy.

Any time your business has a good year, you have two choices: Pocket the money, or invest in the future. We’re investing in the future by creating new product lines. The recent increase in cash flow is making that possible.

Kim Sneed is the owner of Midland, TX-based Graham Kracker, a catalog of custom-made baby bedding and accessories. Annual sales, less than $1 million; annual circulation, 20,000.

While most of our items are not seasonal, we had one product in particular that sold very well during the holidays: the Mini Down Duvet-a 26-square-inch hypoallergenic down duvet. It wasn’t included in the catalog but was instead offered as a special when customers called to order. We also offered a selection of covers for it by phone.

We had to order more of the mini duvets, since we sold out of them. We plan to include them in our next catalog. It was a bit risky stocking an item we didn’t regularly offer, but we thought it would sell. And it did.

Since telephone upselling worked so well with the duvet, I think we’ll continue that with other items that we don’t include in our catalog but instead keep in limited stock. If the item sells well via the special offer, we’ll eventually include it in the catalog.

What were your surprise best sellers during the past holiday season?

How will they influence your plans for next year?

The catalogers we spoke to this month experienced a wide range of surprises during the holidays. For instance, one cataloger sold more higher-end merchandise than she had expected, while another was surprised by the amount of lower-end product that his customers ordered. For all the surprises, the season was a learning experience too. One cataloger learned that she’ll need to update her computer software and hire more staff to meet the high demand for customized gift packs; another used the holiday season to gauge customer interest in a new product.

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