Mail-Order Sales Target Special Niches in a Growing Market : Shopping: Catalogues, clubs and ads cater to people in out-of-the-way locations or those seeking non-theatrical subjects.


The great appeal of home video has always been that you can watch your favorite films in the comfort of your own home. Many enthusiasts have discovered that they don't even have to leave home to get the cassettes.

They secure them through the mail, making selections from catalogues, video clubs or ads.

Ira Mayer, editor and publisher of Entertainment Marketing Letter, reports that the home-video mail-order business is projected to gross $540 million this year, up from $450 million last year. By 1995, he predicts, it will be a $1-billion business.

To put the mail-order business in perspective, Mayer said that it constitutes 15% of the $3.6-billion home-video wholesale market.

Consumers resort to the mail-order business (which is mostly sales rather than rental) for one of three reasons: convenience, necessity or downright desperation.

Many people simply want to avoid the hassle of shopping for videos. Others live in out-of-the-way places and don't have access to well-stocked stores. And some are seeking hard-to-find movies and programs--those that are either old, not in great demand or discontinued by the manufacturer.

Contrary to popular opinion, ordering by mail doesn't mean paying more than the normal retail price for the cassette itself. There is, however, an extra charge for shipping. For example, Ed Weiss, general manager of Movies Unlimited, a Philadelphia-based mail-order firm, said that his company charges $4 for mailing costs on any size order.

Mail-order companies, Weiss added, basically operate like video stores--buying titles wholesale from video companies and making profit on retail markup. Unlike video retailers, though, many mail-order companies have huge advertising costs--including direct-mail solicitation and newspaper and magazine ads.

"In the mail-order business, you have to spend money to advertise to let people know you're available," said Bob Mack, spokesman for the rent-by-mail company Home Film Festival. "With our company, you have to rent through a catalogue. Getting customers to find out about our catalogue--through ads or whatever--costs us money."

Video clubs, which operate like record and book clubs, account for at least 60% of the mail-order business, Mayer said. "These clubs deal mainly in hit movies," he said. "A lot of their business is done with convenience buyers and people who don't have easy access to stores."

Non-theatrical videos are especially dependent on the mail-order business, because video stores fill most of their shelf space with movies. Indeed, 27% of the sales of non-theatrical videos came through mail-order last year, according to industry analyst Dick Kelly of Cambridge Associates, and he predicts that the figure will jump to 31% this year.

So if someone wants a cassette on grooming a horse or planting azaleas, he may have to resort to a mail-order catalogue.

Special Interest Video has more than 900 titles and is reportedly the largest such catalogue available, but it doesn't begin to accommodate all the non-theatrical titles on the market. According to Special Interest Video president Claire Gruppo, there are about 20,000 non-theatrical titles in existence.

"It helps for companies putting out these non-theatrical titles to get them into mail-order catalogues," Gruppo said. "For some of the real obscure titles, that's the only outlet they have. But obviously there aren't enough catalogues to handle all those titles."

One of the few rent-by-mail firms, Pennsylvania-based Home Film Festival is also well-known as a source for hard-to-find videos. But this company specializes in foreign films, which make up more than half of its 1,200-title catalogue.

What to do if you're looking for videos on a particular subject and can't find them in stores?

"All these special-interest areas have magazines geared to people who share that interest," Mayer explained. "Just find a magazine on boating or stamp-collecting or whatever it is, and the ad section in the back will have some ads for some mail-order company that stocks videos dealing with that special interest."

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