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Catalogue Cornucopia

21 minute read

Look, no legwork! The insidious magic of shopping by mail and phone

Dearest Kids:

Hot news!

This year Xmas is going to be on the mailman. During the entire holiday stampede, we do not intend to stick one toe out of the house to buy anything. (Well, maybe the odd beaker of Beefeater, says Father.) Has doddering senility finally overtaken your parents? By no means. We have, rather, been enveloped by Efficiency, Luxury and Modernity. We have succumbed to the Mail-Order Catalogue, which in our youth was something that farmers used.

We have, in short, yielded to the telephone, the credit card and those sumptuous new Catalogues. Take your own Christmas presents. This year, for a change, they will be a) delivered on time, b) gorgeously gift-wrapped and c) exchangeable (it says here) if you don’t like them.

We have also entrusted our entire yuletide banquet to the mail-order people. The menu, selected during countless toll-free calls to every imaginable part of the U.S.A., will be, we venture, Lucullan but not decadent (pricewise).

Saks Fifth Avenue has kindly consented to provide the beluga caviar (4 oz. for $88). Pepperidge Farm has prepared Father’s favorite hot Bing Cherry Soup with Burgundy (in a selection of eight cans for $18.95). Hampton Farms has, especially for us, smoked a 9-lb. young torn turkey over hickory embers (only $29.95). English plum pudding ($12) is on its way from Altman’s. The wines, all from good old Sherry-Lehmann ‘s catalogue, will go from Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut (about $20) with the caviar, to Chateau d’Yquern ($90) with the pud.

Here’s to the best holiday ever! God bless RFD and U.P.S.!

Your Loving Parents

Caviar and Yquem are a minuscule part of the mail-order industry, which caters to every conceivable need of the American buyer except finding parking space, spending hours to find the objects he seeks and quite possibly dealing with surly salesclerks in jampacked retail stores. Those catalogues, offering everything from $29 anoraks to $4 Zippo lighters, have become a major factor in the U.S. economy. As subtly and sneakily as a falling nightgown strap from the Victoria’s Secret lingerie catalogue, they have exerted a refreshing influence on American consumers and their style.

More than 5 billion of those catalogues will be mailed in 1982, according to the Direct Mail/Marketing Association. The average American household receives 40 catalogues a year. No wonder the U.S. Postal Service expects to post a $400 million profit this year. Mail orders will generate close to $40 billion in consumer sales, mostly from catalogues. Last year the food category alone accounted for some $465 million in purchases. While the business represents only about 4% of the $1 trillion in sales rung up by U.S. retailers, it is growing by about 15% yearly, five times as fast as over-the-counter retail sales. By 1990, mail sales are expected to account for 20% of all general merchandise sold in the U.S. To an ever increasing number of consumers with neither time nor heart for legwork shopping, thumbing through the catalogues can not only save time and money but be rewarding as well.

The best and the glossiest of the catalogues today look more like coffee-table books than anything as utilitarian as advertising, and they are far better read. (No longer does anyone call these artful artifacts junk mail.) Their makers enlist some of the world’s fanciest models to animate their laces and tweeds, boots and blue jeans, at a cost of $2,000-plus per bod per day. (Sears, Roebuck has even used Cheryl Tiegs as a cover girl.) Their photographers, including such luminaries as Victor Skrebneski and Alex Chatelain, command daily fees of $3,000 and more. A big, elegant specialty firm like Horchow’s has a year-round staff of more than 100 buyers to roam the world and fill the pages with a cornucopia of objects that may range from the unique to the useful but always murmur the suggestion of comfort, chic and class.

There have long been the big all-purpose books, like Sears, Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward, that deposit a cross-section of the economy in the living room and can take care of every domestic need. The new wave involves far thinner works with fancier fare, specialized offerings that focus with almost microscopic accuracy on the needs of pet lovers, woodcarvers, fond parents, alpinists, anglers, horticulturists, computer buffs, flyers and collectors of everything recondite from antique musical instruments and classic autos to Judaica and museum reproductions.

And why do so few of these dazzling catalogues afford an index? Because, dear consumer, you will be forced to read them page by page, item by item, lest you miss the quintessential Christmas gift for Aunt Susie—or yourself. Big and small, plain and fancy, the catalogues skimmed randomly seem like an incantatory litany of affluence: bulletproof vests and see-through lingerie, blackout candles and Waterford chandeliers, buffalo steaks, Texas chili and Italian cheese, Taos Indian drums, underwater cameras, solid-fuel rockets, night-vision goggles, woks, socks, building blocks, coffee roasters, toasters, coasters, cashmere sweaters, G strings, food processors, wine vinegar, wine racks and wine-flavored toothpaste, pineapple peelers, electronic potato parers, pear trees, frozen pheasants, silver stirrups, golden everything, robot chess partners, posters, potholders, the world’s plumpest peanuts, jelly beans, ice cream machines, pushbutton card shufflers, 30 types of angel fish, fat-farm vacations, exquisite tools, 2,250-ft. balls of twine, doormats, decanters and dark glasses for dogs.

Nevertheless, the cunning craftsmen of catalogue sell have essentially captured markets and imaginations by concentrating on what used to be called good goods. To be sure, Sportpages will sell you a $7,000 royal red golf cart with a Rolls-Roycean grille. But the same catalogue also offers a personalized pet collar for $15. Along with high fashion Bloomingdale well signed $12.50 watches and $4.50 cotton placemats. For a mere $40, Tiffany offers a handsome terra cotta bowl for working cooks. Next to its $1,095 one-third scale gas-powered Corvette, the best buy at Hammacher Schlemmer just might be a $9.95 carpenter’s level.

The audience for all this mail-order magic is out there, and eager. A large part of it consists of working women: of 18 million jobs added to the U.S. economy between 1972 and 1981, some 12 million have gone to females. They thus have considerably less time available for shopping; and, particularly in the growing number of two-income families, more cash. Employed or not, women still do most of the shopping in the U.S.

The recession has forced many stores to cut back their inventories and sales personnel. Even the best stores often run out of goods. Long lines at the cash counters are as common as caterpillars. Says Texas Catalogue King Roger Horchow: “Working women particularly find it’s faster and easier to flip through five to ten catalogues than go to five to ten stores.” Betty Bearden, 35, founder-president of Atlanta-based Papillon (estimated 1982 sales: $8 million), observes, “The copy alongside the products in our catalogues can tell you more about them than a salesclerk, if you are lucky enough to run into a salesclerk, much less one who knows anything about the product.”

People who make most of their major purchases from catalogues are often formidably well organized, and have to be. Chicagoan Toni Smith, for example, is an executive recruiter who is constantly on the road. She does all her Christmas shopping in a single day. “I cull out the most interesting catalogues beforehand,” says Smith. “Then I do comparison shopping from one to another.” From the ease of gift shopping she has learned to buy almost everything she needs by mail.

Some buffs, like Los Angeles Psychologist Barbara Griffiths, even see mail-order shopping as a way of curbing impulse buying. After ordering a $180 suit from a catalogue, she mused: “If I had bought the suit in a store, I would probably have bought other items, like a blouse or shoes or a purse. Somehow, the catalogue satisfies that same need to buy without turning me on to buy things that I really don’t need.” Businesswoman Sheridan Coles, who runs a 24-hour telephone answering service in Phoenix, knows only “roughly” where the city’s shopping centers are located. Says she: “If someone in this town would deliver groceries, I’d order those by catalogue too.”

By no means is catalogue shopping risk-free, nor is it necessarily a substitute for the old-fashioned touch-feel-try experience of buying in a store. Many consumer complaints concern the failure of some mail-order companies to notify customers promptly if items ordered cannot be delivered within a reasonable period; even more maddeningly, the cataloguers’ computers can make alphabet soup of a simple order. Most expensive things from jewelry and furs to high-style fabrics and all fitted clothing demand personal, tactile, in-store selection. There are still some salesclerks around who can advise customers, lead them to real bargains or steer them away from lemons. Big-ticket appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners can often be bought less expensively at a local store than through a catalogue.

Still, if the best businesses are those that deliver the biggest profits, mail-order marketing may be the ultimate form of retailing. No other kind of merchandising—from mom-and-pop shops to giant discount centers—requires such low overhead or has the potential for such high returns. Bob Stone, chairman of Stone & Adler, a Chicago-based direct-mail advertising agency, points out: “Catalogue marketing is an attractive business because there is no high rent to pay, you operate from a warehouse instead of prime real estate, and you do not have any of the costs of salesclerks and bulging inventories.” Two years ago, Henri Bendel, the chic Manhattan mostly-for-women store, explored the possibility of opening branches across the country. After research turned up myriad problems, Bendel decided this year to expand its business with a catalogue instead.

For the mail-order merchant, start-up costs are relatively low; after-tax profits average 7% of sales, nearly double the profit margins enjoyed by other forms of retailing. The return on investment normally far exceeds that earned by in-store retailers. For example, Seattle’s Early Winters Ltd., which sells outdoor clothing, will open its second retail outlet this week. The company projects annual sales of some $2 million on a capital outlay of $300,000. In contrast, its $700,000 investment in the catalogue business is already yielding $13 million in annual sales. There are more advantages. For example, the loss from thefts amounts to at least 1% of department-store sales but is negligible for mail-order houses.

The promise of such returns has attracted entrepreneurs of all stripes. One does not normally think of needlepoint as a sky’s-the-limit growth field. For years the two shops that Atlanta’s Betty Bearden owned and operated plodded along with modest sales from a reliable but limited clientele. Meanwhile, however, her catalogue, Papillon, which she began in 1970 at the same time she opened her first store, wound up boosting sales 50 times over. This year Bearden expects to sell $6 million to $8 million worth of needlepoint and other merchandise through her catalogue, and has closed the two stores. Says she: “There’s just a limit to what you are going to sell in two needlepoint shops in a year.”

Cataloguing’s biggest boost has come from the computer. Back in 1872, when Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago produced the nation’s first catalogue, success depended upon the instincts of the mail-order merchant and the skill of his copywriters. It still does, but in-house computer data banks are now making the job far easier. Many big department-store chains, such as Neiman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, have computers at work compiling information on the shopping habits of their customers so that the stores can prepare catalogues that zero in on what customers want. The stores prepare more catalogues each year and mail them selectively. Sears, which had $3.6 billion in catalogue sales last year, has 19 specialty catalogues of its own, ranging from western wear to toys. Says Barry Marchessault, director of catalogue marketing for Bloomingdale’s department stores: “You have right in one computer the buying habits of all your customers. You know who buys what, housewares versus clothing, for example, and you can then send your customer only those catalogues that he or she really wants. With a walk-in customer in a store you obviously cannot do that.”

American Express Co., which last year sold about $30 million worth of merchandise by cataloguing, is using its computer to separate shoppers into four different Christmas catalogue mailing-list groups, each based upon the types of merchandise that the shoppers have already bought. Beginning in August, the company started mailing out a total of 3.5 million Christmas-gift catalogues, in four different versions, to people in the respective groups. Richard Hodgson, a catalogue-marketing consultant based in Westtown, Pa., estimates that the use of such techniques can raise a typical 2% response rate per catalogue mailing to about 10%, boosting profits in the process.

As well, most shop-at-home customers can place orders by telephone, often 24 hours a day, simply by dialing toll-free “800” area-code numbers. Such purchases are typically charged to credit cards, without which the business could never have taken off as it has. So many purchases are made by phone that “mailorder” has become a misnomer. And only a smidgen of the merchandise is even delivered by mail. United Parcel Service handles an estimated 90% of all mail-order package deliveries in the country. Since 1977 its annual shipping volume has grown by 35%; it now stands at a whopping 1.6 billion parcels delivered.

Producing and distributing four-color glossy catalogues on coated paper is a costly undertaking. But many manufacturers are understandably eager to have their wares promoted in the publications of prestigious department-store chains. Thus they stand ready to help defray expenses, often by paying what amounts to steep advertising rates to have their goods shown in the catalogues.

Mailing-list brokers may suggest any of thousands of combinations of consumers. One popular strategy is to target mailings to households living in zip-code areas where the U.S. census has determined that high-income, free-spending families reside, such as New York City’s fashionable Upper East Side (10021) or the ultra-upscale retirement community of Naples, Fla. (33940). The Census Bureau sells nationwide tabulations for as much as $250,000 each. Says Dallas’ Horchow, whose mailing list has grown from 48,000 to 1.5 million names: “Without a solid list, a mail-order company just doesn’t have a chance.”

Ironically, one of the biggest single dangers for a start-up catalogue business is failure to prepare for the orders that can come flooding in. Warns Jerome Pickholz, president of Ogilvy & Mather Direct Response Inc.: “You just can’t send out a catalogue and think, presto, you’re a millionaire.” Experts estimate that as many as half of all new catalogue ventures fail within two years.

Administrative problems can multiply overnight. If a product sells out too quickly, the catalogue company could wind up being swamped with unfilled orders. But if a piece of merchandise fails to move at all, the company could face an even worse squeeze because the goods cannot be discounted.

Sophisticated marketing techniques were far over the horizon when Aaron Montgomery Ward pasted up his first catalogue in Chicago. He knew exactly where his market was: only about 27% of Americans lived in cities a century ago. And despite our nostalgia for the country general store, the 19th century retailer charged excessive prices and carried a narrow selection of goods.

Ward developed the consumer protection policy that is still the key to the success of mailorder. Ward pledged: “We guarantee all our goods. If any of them are not satisfactory after due inspection, we will take them back. . . and refund the money paid for them.” Richard Sears began his catalogue in 1888, and only a few years later was mailing millions of the “Consumer’s Guides.” Some of the goods promoted in the print-crammed folios look good today. How about a parlor organ for $38.95?

The pioneer merchandise houses were actually led by seed companies and, curiously enough, sporting-goods retailers. Their prosperous successors in the fitness era are such companies as Seattle’s Eddie Bauer and Orvis, in Manchester, Vt. The most famous of all came along in 1912 when Leon Leonwood Bean started selling his rubber-bottomed hunting shoes from a Main Street address in Freeport, Me.

Today millions of pilgrims flock to Freeport to visit L.L. Bean’s one and only retail outlet. To the catalogue faithful it is a shrine to a Yankee mystique woven from images of integrity, good value and handcrafted quality. Bean’s merchandise is not necessarily expensive ($18 for its best button-down striped Oxford-cloth shirts), and it is not elegant. Over the years a kind of reverse chic has attached itself to its sturdy Yankee clothes and shoes: its $40 woodsman’s pants, “all wool and a yard wide,” say, or the $73 sheepskin-lined boots that look as if they were created for a logger. They were.

Bean does its thorough best to live up to the image, though its store today has become as much a 24-hour tourist attraction as a merchandise outlet. The current store, renovated from the previous one, is only five years old, but antlers of moose bagged by the Bean family hang on the walls, every sign is handcrafted of modest pine, and the salespeople radiate the oldtime assumptions about value for the dollar.

However, half a mile beyond the railroad overpass, there is a sprawling group of modern buildings that are Bean’s real headquarters and a monument to modern mailorder. In the manufacturing section the classic Bean boot is made; appropriately, the spot is marked by a 7-ft.-high wooden model, unlaced, looking comfortable and rugged, a reminder of how this rich enterprise got its start. Near by is a vast hangar containing more than 300,000 sq. ft. of shelves, caverns, bins and front-end-loaded pallets—the shipping warehouse.

The command deck of Bean is the second floor of the administrative area, a telephone complex that would make a bookie drool. Nearly 200 phones are banked there, manned by 300 operators, 365 days a year, 24 hours each day. The flow of the soft Maine drawl, flat and slightly nasal, never stops. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, an expected 16,000 calls will be fielded. There are computer terminals handy, but the operators still fill some requests themselves: those spare buttons you need are in nearby drawers, and the motherly woman who answers the phone pops them into an envelope. The result: a $120 million-a-year business.

The human touch is essential to Bean, but its managers are doubtless aware to the second of how much time the button plucking costs. At Talbots in Hingham, Mass., operators consult a computer terminal that flashes all the facts about every item—size, fabric content, stock. A printout also reminds employees that 3.2% of their callers hang up out of impatience and spurs them on by reporting that orders are being processed at a 3-min. clip. (They will be delivered by U.P.S. in five days.)

A Talbots receptionist, Barbara Tong, wearing a Talbots shirt dress right off the rack, thinks of herself as a Talbots customer, “the woman who looks for classic quality.” Says Tong: “We’ve all been Talbotized around here.”

Along with good stock, speed and efficiency, catalogue businesses depend on elusive factors like image. The instructions in the L.L. Bean catalogue about how to trace your foot to determine its size are not only precise, but also seem like passwords opening up a simpler, more self-reliant era. The excesses that lead the line for Neiman-Marcus and Sakowitz proclaim that, in these precincts at least, a man can still become Midas.

Most catalogues try to refresh their images with each issue. Lillian Katz, the proprietor of Lillian Vernon, a $65 million gift house, travels the world to find new merchandise to fill her 35 million catalogues. Still, her selection is always redolent of a narrow-aisled, copiously stocked gift shoppe. Hibiscus-scented drawer lining paper, hand-crocheted (“in their native China”) toy panda bears, a superdiscreet toilet-bowl brush, personalized items ranging from Christmas tree ornaments to stick shifts; Katz has chosen them all according to one successful guideline: she knows someone who would like to own them.

The upscale equivalent of Lillian Vernon is Park Avenue’s Scully & Scully, which offers a boggling line of post-preppie paraphernalia. Much of it is brass, leather and porcelain English or sporty items, including novelties like a natty fox doll suited up for the hunt in a pink jacket and little riding boots ($55).

Tennessee’s Lynchburg Hardware and General Store, in the home town of Jack Daniel’s sour-mash whisky, also sells offbeat objects in a catalogue put out with a Xerox machine and a Magic Marker. Herb Fanning, one of the proprietors, writes the copy, and Eddie Swing, another proprietor, designs it. Says Employee Julie Sutton: “We put items in just because we like them, and we do it the way Eddie thinks it ought to look.” The line is long on belt buckles, window shades and pepper jellies; the most expensive offering is a $1,125 Galligher guitar, handmade to order by Don Galligher in nearby Watruce. Almost as far off the beaten path is White Flower Farm, a nursery in Litchfield, Conn., whose charm lies not only in the blossoms but also in the fresh prose of Owner Eliot Wadsworth under the pseudonym Amos Pettingill.

Food by mail, both safe and salivating, makes an immediately satisfying catalogue. A pioneering outfit is Harry and David, of Medford, Ore. In the Depression the two brothers found that they could not sell the produce from their orchards through conventional channels. The late Harry Holmes found that big-city executives were only too happy to buy their fresh apples and pears by mail. Their Fruit-of-the-Month Club and other food selections have made their successors a $110 million business. Another beneficiary of Americans’ love affair with gastronomy is 26-year-old, California-based Williams-Sonoma, whose Catalog for Cooks ranges from a $14.50 braid of garlic to La Superautomatica Italian pasta machine ($190). W-S takes pride in sending recipes with all its orders. The most mouth-watering food catalogue of all, the Pfaelzer Collection, is well named, considering the diamantine prices of the super cuts of meat it purveys. Tummy-stuffers range from 24 4-oz. filet mignons ($89.25) to hard-to-find milk-fed veal (a 4-lb. boneless loin roast for $61.95) and spring lamb (4-lb. crown rib roast for $59.95).

Products That Think is a hot catalogue that shows a strong editorial hand. This $12 million business, owned by Chicago Entrepreneur Joseph Sugarman, specializes in high-tech gadgets. “It’s hectic,” he says. “I write most of the text, and it’s a race to keep up with the latest technology.” Sugarman is offering an air telephone for use from aircraft (available in the spring), a chess robot that eliminates the effort of moving the pieces, and numerous cordless and remote-control gizmos. The clubby catalogue will soon have a magazine format, with articles and letters to the editor.

Sugarman’s field of electronics is one of the fastest-growing areas in mailorder. The next step is to make the catalogue digital. Last spring Sears, Roebuck, the biggest of all the mail-order companies, put its summer catalogue on a video disc as a test of the new technology. Sears taped some 5,500 still pictures and 17 movie sequences, though the video disc can store 54,000 pictures on each side. The TV shopper will be able to flip through the pictures on his screen and study any particular items in which he may be interested.

Eventually, marketing experts predict, the customer will be able to do his shopping entirely through the TV set. Two-way videotex technology allows viewers to peruse catalogues electronically and place their orders instantly. They are already doing this on the Qube system pioneered by Warner Amex Cable Communications in Ohio and AT&T systems in New Jersey and Florida. Predicts Warner Amex Chairman Gustave Hauser: “I’m sure that in time this will make mailed catalogues obsolete, because it’s less expensive and commands a faster response.” For many of the same reasons it was once predicted that the tube would drive out books. In retailing, the two technologies will doubtless continue to coexist.

Dearest Kids:

More hot news from your Mail-Order Yuletide Headquarters.

Be prepared for a Shock when you arrive at our house on Xmas Day. The door will be opened by a cute little fellow called JENUS. Actually he’s a robot. Hammacher Schlemmer, his sponsor, assures us that he “combines the functions of security sentinel, house cleaner and personal butler.” He not only answers doors but offers drinks as well and utters piercing shrieks in case of fire. Not bad, eh, for $7,995, when you consider he won’t have to eat or nip our liquor.

Catalogues, we love you! We love you too, kids.

Till Christmas,

Your Loving Parents

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