Making the most of the off-season

For many consumer catalogers, smoothing out the sales cycle represents a Holy Grail. If achieved, a year of even sales could spare marketers from logistical nightmares such as fickle consumer demand, inventory spikes, tight seasonal labor markets, and the annual flood of returns following the holiday season.

According to Tony Cox, president of Dallas-based consultancy Catalog Solutions, “Most consumer mailers still live and die by what they do in the last two months of the year.” But some catalogers are making progress in smoothing out their sales cycles, by concentrating on ancillary holidays, shifting their marketing focus from gift-giving to self-purchasing, or expanding their merchandise offerings.

Following the greeting-card model

“I aspire to having my sales curve look more like that of a greeting-card store,” says Tom Bazzone, chief operating officer of cataloger/ online merchant Red Envelope Gifts, “rather than the retail model, where 60%-70% of business comes in at Christmas.”

In keeping with the greeting-card model, Red Envelope is advertising online and offline around the minor holidays as well as during December. As a result, “we took more orders in the week prior to Valentine’s Day than in the week prior to Christmas,” Bazzone says. What’s more, many of those Valentine’s Day customers were first-time buyers who have since returned. “Our average daily sales volume after Valentine’s Day is about 80% greater than before,” he adds.

Red Envelope expects another sales spike come Mother’s Day, and it plans to continue the momentum by inserting special Father’s Day editions of its catalog into packages ordered for Mother’s Day.

Though Gooseberry Patch, a catalog of homespun foods and crafts, doesn’t produce holiday-specific books, “one thing we’re doing is prospecting and testing more in the spring,” says chief operating officer Liz Plotnick. “We’ve doubled our prospecting effort this spring. We’ve mailed two of the four spring books, and so far we’re on plan.”

Although some of the Delaware, OH-based cataloger’s merchandise, such as butterfly cookie cutters and picnic supplies, has seasonal themes, Plotnick says the mailer doesn’t produce entire holiday-specific catalogs. “We address holidays with spreads. We might feature hearts for Valentine’s Day, Easter bunnies, or May Day gifts, but more often we use editorial to highlight these holidays. We share tips, photos, and recipes geared toward the season.”

But Plotnick has noticed that increased spring sales haven’t necessarily smoothed out Gooseberry Patch’s sales cycle. “It seems the bigger we make spring, the bigger Christmas becomes.” The December holidays still account for about 60% of the cataloger’s overall sales.

And regardless of the season, the influence of December remains strong – one thing that always works for Gooseberry Patch. “We include Christmas merchandise all year, and it sells all year,” says Plotnick.

Encouraging self-gifting

Cox points to Omaha Steaks as another example of a cataloger that is smoothing out its sales cycles. The food gifts mailer is dropping its focus on gift-giving and instead is presenting its steaks and other gourmet foods as “indulgences” that customers deserve to give themselves.

“We can’t afford to rely on the fourth quarter to make our budget,” says Omaha Steaks spokeswoman Sharon Bargas, “so we try hard to make sure the customer knows we’re here during the other three quarters.”

Specific gift-giving holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day don’t bring Omaha Steaks many orders, but the warm-weather months do, thanks to the obvious connection between steak and barbecuing. Spring and summer “are a huge time for us,” Bargas says. “We mail direct marketing pieces for all the holidays, especially Memorial Day, Father’s Day, and Independence Day. We also change our offers and incentives to keep the message fresh.” Bargas adds that consumer response during these warm-weather holidays has increased over the past three years.

Multiple titles, multiple seasons

Upscale gadgets and tools cataloger/retailer Brookstone has always benefited from at least one of the secondary holidays. “Father’s Day has always been our second Christmas,” says Gustavo Pena, director of marketing communications for the $279 million company. “Our stores and our Brookstone catalog have always been seen as a place to buy gifts for men.”

For the rest of the year, the Nashua, NH-based company relies on its noncore catalog titles to smooth its sales curve. The Hard-to-Find Tools catalog, for instance, “is a strong summer book. One of its product categories, clean-up and winter preparation items, makes it a big third-quarter seller, when people take on projects like cleaning gutters,” Pena says.

And the company bought horticultural catalog Gardeners Eden from Williams-Sonoma in spring 1999 largely to ameliorate losses during the first three quarters of the year, and also to help attract investors who had been leery of the business’s seasonal cycles.

“Gardeners Eden proved very strong at Valentine’s Day,” Pena says. “Our cover item, a heart-shape cockscomb wreath, was a big seller. As we go into Mother’s Day, Gardeners Eden will strengthen our business.”

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