For catalog companies, today would normally mark the close of the biggest sales week of the year. Mail-order firms traditionally rush to fill holiday gift orders and ship them out by Dec. 10.
However, there's nothing traditional about this catalog Christmas.
Yes, this was the usual big week for catalogers. But some catalog firms can now deliver orders placed as late as Dec. 22, and many are aiming to generate even bigger sales in the two weeks remaining before Christmas with the same kind of discounts, bonuses and gimmicks commonly associated with retail stores.
Faced with profit-battering increases in the cost of postage and paper, the catalog industry is turning a new page in a bid for higher holiday sales.
"Catalogers used to compete primarily with each other, but they now believe that stores are also prime competitors," said Harry Chevan, managing editor of Catalog Age magazine.
"People in the catalog industry--particularly those selling apparel--don't believe they can compete with retailers unless they're promotional. We're seeing a lot more promotional activity this season because many apparel catalog operators are nervous about sales."
Though some catalogers are suffering from the jitters, the mail-order industry is still expected to make gains on its retail rivals this season. The nation's stores are expecting a modest 4% to 5% increase in holiday sales, compared with a projected 8% rise in yuletide catalog revenue.
Such a performance would match recent years' results. Though the mail-order business accounts for only about 4% of consumer sales, catalog sales have grown at twice the pace of retail in the last three years.
However, those rosy sales are undercut by the big surge in the cost of paper--last year's prices have more than doubled--and a 14% jump in postage costs. That has forced catalogers to get smarter about where to send their books.
Culinary products company Williams Sonoma this year eliminated about 10% of the names on its catalog mailing list--but projects a 20% increase in holiday sales. It credits meticulous pruning, said Patrick Connolly, the company's senior vice president for mail order.
"We have a statistical modeling system and statisticians," he said. "We analyze 150 pieces of information, including a record of a person's purchases and their purchase history."
The catalog industry's roll began in the 1980s, when baby boomers in dual-income households turned to mail-order as a convenient, time-saving alternative to malls. The boomers significantly boosted catalog sales, said catalog consultant William Dean, president of San Francisco-based Bruce, Dean & Co.
"Except for apparel sellers, the catalog industry will have a relatively happy holiday," he said. "If you take apparel out of the picture, catalog sales would be up 12% to 14% this holiday season."
The catalog operators with the best prospects this year, judging from early holiday sales, are those offering unique personal gift items, fitness products and goods for the home, analysts say. The high-tech consumer gadgets offered by Sharper Image, products from Williams Sonoma and exercise equipment from Hammacher Schlemmer are in great demand, analysts say.
Meanwhile, apparel catalogers are introducing big promotions. For example, Eddie Bauer is offering an array of discounts in its "In the Nick of Time December Catalog Sale." Tweeds is among those touting deferred billing. And J.C. Penney, among others, offers express delivery at no extra charge to those who order Dec. 22.
Others are using promotions to inject a bit of fun and fortune into the season. For example, consumers using the Lands' End "Last Chance" holiday catalog can win a trip to Ireland, Thailand or Australia if they submit the cleverest rewritten version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
Promotions are especially appealing to Andrea Swinton, a management consultant in Philadelphia. She plans to take advantage of the free-gift-with-purchase offers from the Victoria's Secret catalog this holiday season.
"I have to buy gifts anyway," she said. "An extra gift for a purchase is the kind of offer that influences my purchasing decisions."
Sally Worman, a Los Angeles beauty parlor owner, also responds to the promotions.
"I think they're great," she said. "They should expand their advertising of these promotions because many people aren't aware of these deals."
Worman, an avid L.L. Bean shopper, said she buys most of her casual clothing through catalogs. She also plans to buy clothing by mail for relatives this Christmas.
"I don't like to shop at stores," she said. "I don't have the patience."
It is to find more shoppers such as Worman that catalog operators are targeting their mailings. They're adding some names to their lists, eliminating others and sending specialized catalog issues to those who have made recent purchases.
For example, J.C. Penney is mailing special discount sales catalogs to consumers who have made recent purchases. The company also mails catalogs every three weeks to consumers who have made two purchases in one year.
"This kind of targeting has been very effective for us," said Julie Carlson, a J.C. Penney spokeswoman.
The refinements in mailing list research and the plunge into promotional marketing are a watershed in the long history of catalogs, which are a deeply rooted American tradition. Benjamin Franklin, America's first postmaster general, published the first U.S. catalog in 1744, offering 600 books by mail.
The modern era of catalog shopping began in 1872, when Aaron Montgomery Ward offered 163 items, most priced at about $1, through the mail.
The direct-mail industry now generates about $58 billion in sales.
Many current catalog favorites--items such as English crackers, handmade collectibles and wreaths--have been popular for decades. But other offerings get more offbeat every year.
Consider the "Roswell UFO Alien in a Chamber" offered by Sharper Image. It's touted as a full-size latex replica of an alien found near a crashed space craft in New Mexico in 1947. The price: only $1,695.
For the person who wants something different, the Whole Life Products catalog is offering a free pair of earrings made of coins from Dynastic China with every purchase of $55 or more. The Whole Life catalog has plenty to offer those looking for New Age products and alternative health remedies.
For example it sells a Far Eastern tongue cleaner, a tongue-shaped piece of metal designed to clean bacteria and breath.
"The [earring] promotion has been very effective," said Mark Kenzer, president of Pacific Spirit, the Forest Grove, Ore., company that publishes Whole Life Products. "We've had double the orders we expected."
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Biggest Catalog Companies
Half of the top 10 catalog retailers sell computer hardware. Based on 1994 sales, in billions:
J.C. Penney: $3.82
Dell Computer: $3.42
Gateway 2000: $2.60
Lands' End: $0.99
IBM Direct: $0.95
L.L. Bean: $0.85
Micro Warehouse: $0.78
Source: Catalog Age