Olympics and Elections

Conventional wisdom and anecdotal evidence indicate that catalog response and sales decline during the two weeks of the Olympic Games and for the week or two prior to the presidential election. That’s why Columbus, GA-based W.C. Bradley Co. is delaying a late October mailing of its Grill Lover’s Catalog. Circulation manager Lynn Wright says it will mail the catalog of barbecue-related products to arrive in homes Nov. 8, less than a week after the Nov. 2 election.

“Mail and shopping in themselves have entertainment value that must compete with the Olympics and elections,” says John Lenser, president of San Rafael, CA-based consulting and list firm Lenser. “We recommend that a mailer simply avoids mailing into any known period of distraction.”

Yet only a few of the catalogers contacted say they plan to adjust their mailings to avoid arriving in homes during the Olympics (Aug. 13-28) or in late October (prior to Election Day).

Not that avoiding those weeks should be difficult, according to Lenser senior consulting partner Bill Nicolai. “Most mailers don’t have in-home dates more than once every three weeks, so it should be a pretty easy window to avoid,” he says.

“Perhaps something that acknowledges what’s on the consumer’s mind, such as a special Election Day sale, might be worth a try,” Nicolai continues. “But my advice based on many years’ experience with mailing catalogs going back to the Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter race in 1976 is to mail around the election rather than try to compete with it for the consumers’ attention.”

He also advises trying to get into homes almost immediately after the election. “Two days after the election is over, it’s forgotten,” Nicolai says, “and pent-up consumer buying emerges.”

Although it won’t reveal its exact plans, L.L. Bean is taking the Olympics and the presidential election into consideration in its mailing strategy this year. Both events “do have an impact on what’s happening in our customers’ lives,” says spokesperson Rich Donaldson. “If Election Day falls on a scheduled in-home day, we want to be tuned in to that in advance to make contingency plans.” But while the events “certainly factor into the planning process, we wouldn’t be inclined to rearrange our entire seasonal mailing strategy around them,” he adds.

Freeport, ME-based Bean saw a drop in consumer demand during the “hanging chad” controversy of the 2000 election, Donaldson says. On the other hand, Bean’s sales haven’t been hurt by the Olympic Games since, perhaps, 1980, when the U.S. hockey team pulled off its “miracle” victory over the Soviet Union to win a gold medal.

To avoid taking a sales hit during the election season, religious-gifts cataloger Abbey Press plans to mail 18 times from late June to mid-December, rather than the 14 times it mailed for the same period last year, and the fewer than a dozen drops it mailed during the 2000 election season. This way, says Abbey Press CEO Gerald Wilhite, “we won’t have one large mailing that would be highly susceptible. We’ll take a few books out of each drop and add a few more mailings — some mailings will be down 10%-15%.”

Most of the mailings will be after, rather than before, the election, adds Wilhite: “We see more business going closer to the end of the year than in October anyway.”

The St. Meinrad, IN-based cataloger learned the hard way how an election can depress response and sales. “Presidential election seasons have not been the best years for us,” Wilhite says. “Our business has been better when there isn’t an election, and we have more trouble in meeting our sales goals, budgets, and plans during election years. But for the first time ever, I feel like I have a strategy that is more than ‘hope for the best.’”

Like Bean’s Donaldson, Wilhite is less concerned about the Olympics being a distraction. As consultant Katie Muldoon, president of Tequesta, FL-based consultancy Muldoon & Baer, points out, the Olympics “have not had much impact in recent years.”

Whereas “the world seems to stop and Americans are engrossed” by presidential elections, the Olympics “are a little tougher to predict,” says Gina Valentino, vice president/general manager for Shawnee Mission, KS-based consulting firm J. Schmid & Associates. Nonetheless, “you don’t really want to mail the week of the opening ceremonies, because generally the focus is on the entertainment, patriotism, and nationalism,” Valentino says, though she adds that the Winter Games usually depress response more than the Summer Games.

No worries

Some catalogers discount the effect of either event. Children’s Wear Digest president Jim Klaus, for one, says he’s never seen an appreciable sales decline coinciding with the Olympics or an election. So the Richmond, VA-based children’s apparel cataloger is not altering its mailing schedule.

“We mail every three weeks,” Klaus says. “So we can’t take one out of the mail, because it would have a domino effect on the other mailings. And particularly during the Olympics — that’s when customers want to buy back-to-school clothes from us, and they’re not going to delay the purchase of their children’s clothes.”

Tracy Lamb, director of marketing for Delray Beach, FL-based “reading tools” cataloger Levenger, is also skeptical about the effects of the election and the Olympics on consumer spending. “It’s just an assumption that there’s a distraction factor, but I can’t prove it,” she says.

Levenger has no plans to make any changes to its mailing schedule around the election. And the Olympics “didn’t even come up in our discussion,” Lamb says. “We don’t think it’ll be an issue.” Because Levenger mails catalogs on a monthly basis, “if you change or shift one, it’s going to affect the other,” she says. “So you try to keep it consistent in terms of the cadence.”

The Enfield, CT-based catalog division of toy manufacturer Lego is taking a wait-and-see approach to its fall mailing plans. So far, Lego intends to mail catalogs in September, October, and November, says vice president Steve Hawco.

“Customers might put off buying and pay more attention to the election if it’s very close and heated,” Hawco says. “We can’t change press dates, but we can change our drop dates” up to three weeks before the scheduled mail date. “So we’ll have to see how the election heats up.”

Kiefer Catalog Is an Olympics Fan

At least one cataloger is hoping that consumers become completely engrossed in the Olympics this summer. Zion, IL-based swimwear cataloger Kiefer Sports Group — an Olympics supplier — believes the Games could boost its business.

“It’s a good thing for us to drop catalogs during the Olympics,” says director of marketing Robin Blank. “Our catalog is only reaffirming what they see and enjoy in the Olympics. So we try to have photos and information from the Olympics in the catalog.”

To capitalize on the interest generated in its Olympics swimsuits, Kiefer will mail at least twice during the event, Blank says. Kiefer plans to use its standard catalog to prospect during the Olympics, but it might also use other promotions, such as press releases and e-mail campaigns.

The company’s relationship with the Olympics predates the launch of its catalog in 1946. Founder Adolph Kiefer won a gold medal for the U.S. swim team in the 1936 Olympic Games.

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