Midyear Sales Report: How’re We Doing?

Early spring sales suggested that the worst of the recession was over for most catalogers (see “The Sweet Smell of Sales,” May issue). And as we begin the second half of the year, it seems that the earlier upward trend wasn’t a fluke: Nearly all the marketers interviewed by Catalog Age in June reported a rise in sales for the first part of the year.

“We had our biggest sales day ever on Memorial Day,” enthuses Jennifer Lind, spokesperson for outdoor gear cataloger/retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI). So far this year, the Sumner, WA-based company has seen direct sales increase over last year — “not a huge amount,” Lind says, “but an increase” — on flat circulation.

Lind believes REI is benefiting from consumers’ desire not to travel far afield. “A lot of people are doing things closer to home,” she explains. “We’ve been counter-recessionary in the past because much of what we offer has to do with connecting with nature — and that’s something people tend to turn to in stressful times.”

Edison, NJ-based Caswell-Massey, a cataloger/retailer of toiletries, has also enjoyed sales growth while keeping circulation flat. President/CEO Anne Robinson says that sales increased 12% over those for the first six months of 2001. And that increase was despite what Robinson termed a “disappointing” May. She attributes that month’s less-than-stellar numbers to “tweaking the mail drop to a week later.”

Sales at San Juan Capistrano, CA-based Swell have been on plan, says vice president of marketing Michael Goldberg. But the plan of the surfing and skateboarding gear and apparel cataloger was an aggressive one. Sales for the first six months of this year are twice what they were for the first half of 2001. Circulation nearly doubled as well, with inquiries from the company’s Website accounting for most of the new names.

Although she won’t cite specifics, Ebiza’s vice president of marketing, Michele Gilbert, says the cataloger of globally sourced gifts had “a great spring, and we are looking forward to a good fall. We’re seeing nice repeat-buying activity.”

Slightly less enthusiastic, though still “pleased with where we are compared with last year,” is Peter Rice, president of Plow & Hearth. The cataloger of rural-influenced home decor and gifts suffered some softness in the end of May. But overall, “we’re pretty comparable to last year on sales per book,” Rice says, “and we have increased our circulation fairly significantly.”

Madison, VA-based Plow & Hearth also tested a spin-off, Plow & Hearth Problem Solvers, early in the year. The 40-page catalog, which mailed in January, sells storage, cleaning, auto, and energy-saving items. Rice says he plans to mail another issue this fall, expanding its circulation to include prospects as well as house file names.

From ho-hum to uh-oh

John Dailey, chief financial officer of Medford, OR-based Bear Creek Corp., can’t muster much enthusiasm when discussing sales for the first half of the year. Not that business has been bad for the parent company of food gifts cataloger Harry and David and gardening title Jackson & Perkins. It has simply been “not exciting,” Dailey says. “Fairly steady, but it hasn’t exceeded expectations. Mother’s Day was solid for us. It kind of mirrors the economy in general — a slow, steady recovery.”

Any sort of recovery would sound good to Terri Alpert, founder/CEO of North Branford, CT-based Professional Cutlery Direct. The cataloger of high-end knives and kitchen accessories suffered a decline in sales for the first half of the year, though Alpert won’t disclose figures. “We are finding that our new customers are not as robust as our original customers,” she says. “They’re not making two and three purchases as our core buyers did.”

For the direct division of J.C. Penney, the first six months of the year have been a bit of a rollercoaster. “We see something looking good, but then a month or two later, it’s back down,” says Tom Frye, the Plano, TX-based general merchandiser’s vice president/director of planning and inventory. “Consumers are being cautious overall.”

For fall, Frye says, Penney will “have changes in our presentation of our merchandise,” though he won’t divulge specifics. Several others are also planning changes for the coming fall/holiday season, either in hopes of jump-starting sluggish sales or to capitalize on better-than-expected business.

Professional Cutlery Direct’s Alpert falls into the former classification. She’s going so far as to plan to launch a book in a niche different from that of her core business, though at press time she would not share any other information.

More modest are the plans of Caswell-Massey. The company will debut what president/CEO Robinson dubs “ready to give” prewrapped gift baskets for the holidays. The fall catalog will highlight the new product line on the inside front cover. And Robinson is bullish enough on the company’s prospects to increase circulation for the second half of the year.

Bedding and home decor cataloger The Company Store, a division of multititle mailer Hanover Direct, will also be increasing circulation. John DiFrancesco, president of La Crosse, WI-based Company Store, is boosting fall circulation of both the core title and its Company Store Kids spin-off 15% this fall.

“We’re doing a little better than we expected,” DiFrancesco says regarding business so far this year. “Our Company Store Kids books have been very successful for us, and we started to ramp it up last year with more aggressive mailings.”

Retail, rather than catalog, is where Harry and David expects to see growth. The company operates more than 100 Harry and David stores nationwide. While Bear Creek’s Dailey says the catalog side of the business is prepared for “moderated growth,” he adds that “historically, we’ve seen some really good results in stores. It’s a time when we want to capitalize on our proven double-digit sales increases.”

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