Live from ACC: So Far, So Good, Say Catalogers

San Francisco–Behind the parties and the networking, the business of the Annual Catalog Conference is business. With that in mind, CATALOG AGE queried attendees about the state of their businesses, and how they thought the rest of the year would shape up.

What did we find? No discernible trends, that’s for sure. Take Westfield, WI-based Prairie Nursery. Since January, sales are down 5% compared with last year, says president/senior ecologist Neil Diboll. Yet for its fiscal year ending June 30, the company will likely be ahead 8%-10% from the previous year. That’s because from July to December 2002, sales were up 20% from the same period of 2001.

“The reliable customer keeps us going during recessions,” Diboll says. “ Instead of going to Paris, he stays home and gardens.”

For the rest of 2003, Prairie Nursery is taking a “go slow” approach to prospecting, Diboll says. But he is adding to the number of products offered in the consumer catalog while keeping the page count at 64. The business-to-business catalog, however, is gaining an additional 12-16 pages, even though sales were flat.

Sales are close to plan for another horticulture cataloger, Santa Fe, NM-based High Country Gardens. But marketing director Ava Salman is optimistic about fall, when gardeners typically plant perennials and bulbs: She’s increasing circulation 20%, with prospects accounting for most of the increase.

“Up from last year but below plan” is how Thomas Schneider, president of Glen Arm, MD-based Ulla Popken describes catalog sales for the first six months of the year. Nonetheless, the cataloger/retailer of plus- size women’s apparel is increasing its fall circulation 10%.

Road Runner Sports has seen sales from its primary catalog of running shoes jump 9%-10% over last year’s, coinciding with a comparable circulation increase. Still, “we’ve not met our budget,” says CEO Mike Gotfredson. “But we should still meet our goal for the year.”

Gotfredson is more excited about the company’s spin-off title, Activa. The catalog of women’s fitness apparel has performed twice as well as expected. Road Runner Sports rolled out Activa in March following a “soft launch” the previous spring.

Rick McGrath, Internet partner development manager for auto supplies cataloger J.C. Whitney, says the company’s online sales so far this year are up about 20% from last year. Even so, McGrath says he “ would’ve thought we’d be doing a little better,” noting that auto supplies are “neither recession-proof nor recession-resilient. But we’re not complaining.”

So far, Salt Lake City-based Sundance is meeting expectations for 2003, says director of marketing/circulation David Brown. The main difference between this year and last for the apparel, home furnishings, and gifts marketer is in the types of merchandise that are selling well. While jewelry was the hot product category for Sundance last year, this year apparel is taking off. Brown expects that this is due to the prominent placement clothing has received in this year’s books.

Like Sundance, Geneseo, NY-based Team Cheer is meeting plan so far this year. But sales for the cataloger of cheerleading supplies are still below where they were two years ago, says marketing manager Vicki M. James. She’s optimistic about the second half of the year, largely because Team Cheer will be introducing more than 90 new items.

Colleen O’Connell, the owner of Seattle-based GaelSong, is “cautiously optimistic” about the rest of the year. Her company, which sells Gaelic-inspired gifts, had a stronger-than-expected spring on increased circulation.

O’Connell’s not the only cataloger enjoying solid sales. Fleetwood, PA-based men’s apparel cataloger Paul Fredrick is having a good year, says senior vice president of marketing Allen Abbott. “We’re benefiting from people being nervous about the economy.” Consumers who have been laid off are likely sprucing up their interview suits, while those trying to hold on to their jobs are motivated to maintain a professional look, he notes.

At multititle paper goods mailer American Stationery Co., business is “ astoundingly good, and I don’t know why,” says president Michael Bakehorn. Sales for the company, whose catalogs include American Wedding Album and Mission Announcements, are up 15% from last year on “flat to reduced mailings,” Bakehorn says. “So we’re pleased.”

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