Monastery Greetings Gears Up for Holiday

Will Keller, the owner of Monastery Greetings, credits modest price points and a renewed interest in spirituality for much of his gifts catalog’s surge in sales last year. So given that 2002 holiday orders more than doubled from 2001’s, he’s bracing for a big 2003.

On the front end, the four-year-old mailer this year added 24 pages to its catalog, bringing it up to 94 pages, with 50% of the products new. On the back end, Monastery Greetings is adding staff, reconfiguring its warehouse layout, replacing outdated phone and computer systems, and improving inventory management.

The Cleveland Heights, OH-based catalog specializes in gift items made in monasteries and other religious communities. Though its core category is food — from preserves to rum-infused fruitcakes — music, books, cards, and decorative gifts now make up about half of the product mix.

To better handle its increasing volume, the cataloger is adding three employees to its two-person staff. The company is also reconfiguring its warehouse so that it can stock more items. Unlike many other mailers, Monastery Greetings prefers to keep as much merchandise as possible on hand. Because many of the items, particularly the food gifts, are handmade, lead times for some products can be as much as three to four weeks. “We need to build up inventory early, since all of the items are able to be preserved in the warehouse,” Keller explains.

In addition, Monastery Greetings is adding phone lines and upgrading the computer system with a server, for improved data backup. “At one point last year,” Keller says, “we were getting buried with orders and had to cut off holiday fulfillment after Dec. 5. While we were able to fulfill some orders that came in after that date, we could not promise delivery before the holidays.”

The cataloger also moved up its fall drop date considerably, to early August from early October, to better gauge product demand. “We’ll have more time before the holiday rush to test the waters and make adjustments,” Keller says. The company will send a follow-up mailing to its best customers and some prospects in late September.

A higher calling

Keller got the idea for the catalog 15 years ago, when he managed a divinity-school bookstore and discovered the variety of products made at monasteries. To make these items accessible to everyone, “I got the idea to put monastery products together in one catalog,” Keller says.

Keller launched the catalog and the Website simultaneously in 1999, mailing a scant 5,000 copies of a 32-page edition that sold books, foods, and other gift items made primarily by monks. Keller relied mostly on coverage in local newspapers and radio, online requesters, and word of mouth for customers. His one foray into renting names generated a 5% response rate among 15,000 recipients.

Because Keller did not have venture capital and because his vendors aren’t your typical growth-driven entrepreneurs, he realized he would need to grow slowly. The religious communities with which he works “are not equipped to deal with normal marketing channels, so I had to be sensitive to their time schedules,” explains Keller. “You simply can’t overwhelm them. It is different from working with a factory.”

This makes it difficult to rely on a few suppliers, so the cataloger sources products from more than 100 communities. “I have also become the mail-order fulfillment service for many of these monasteries within the past two years,” Keller adds.

Today, the company’s annual sales are approximately $500,000 on annual circulation of 70,000. Business is likely to get a boost next year when Monastery Greetings drops a new spring edition of the catalog. The book, which will be 72-80 pages, is set to drop in February to the house list and will include all of the recently expanded product categories along with new products.

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