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IT'S IN THE MAIL--a Mall Alternative : Offering Everything From Gargoyles to Caviar, Catalogues Make It Easy for Busy Consumers

November 30, 1987|MARTHA GROVES | Times Staff Writer

This is the time of year that makes Jan Hahn's mail carrier grimace because this is when the usual flow of catalogues to her South Pasadena home becomes a holiday deluge.

"I'm shopping catalogues more than ever," said Hahn, whose two small children aren't always ideal companions on long shopping trips. "I'm on a first-name basis with my UPS man. My husband calls me the catalogue queen."

Like millions of others across the country, Hahn, who figures she gets 350 catalogues a year, is increasingly turning into an armchair shopper. In 1986, the U.S. Postal Service distributed an estimated 11.8 billion catalogues, 18% more than the year before and more than double the number sent in 1981. From these glossy brochures, Americans ordered nearly $30 billion in goods--from carrousel animals to caviar. That number is expected to rise this year by 14% to more than $33 billion.

"The thing that stands out in my mind is the tremendous growing acceptance of mail order as a method of shopping for busy consumers," said Maxwell Sroge, a Chicago-based consultant who has tracked the industry since 1959.

Indeed, a recent survey of more than 165,000 readers by Consumer Reports magazine showed that nearly all shopped by mail at least once a year and that a quarter shopped from catalogues eight or more times a year.

Starting in late August and September, the real crush of Christmas gift and apparel catalogues begins. The mail-order industry, which generally rakes in 40% of its annual sales in the three months before Christmas, has seen revenue grow by 12% to 15% a year for the past five years.

With possibilities like these, it is little wonder that hundreds of newcomers are joining the ranks of longtime mail-order companies like Spiegel, J. C. Penney, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and L. L. Bean. Upscale retailers such as Bloomingdale's and Neiman-Marcus also credit mail order with helping them build prominent reputations.

The mail-order business is boffo these days thanks to a number of factors that make shopping by catalogue more reliable, enjoyable and, in some cases, necessary than in the past.

Driving the business are the huge increase in the number of women who work and who therefore have less time to shop but more money to spend; the prevalence of toll-free ordering numbers and credit cards; improved computer systems that can speedily track inventory and overnight delivery services, which make the idea of mail order more palatable for

procrastinating gift givers. (Even the term mail order is rapidly becoming obsolete, as more customers order by phone.)

To be sure, the mail-order industry sees some trouble ahead. "One of the big problems is that (companies) are simply deluging the customer with multiple catalogues," said Don E. Schultz, a marketing professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Moreover, many catalogues have started duplicating product lines, leading to resistance on the part of consumers who realize that items are not unique. Schultz also suggests that the same demographics helping to build the mail-order business might also work against it. As more households sit empty during the day, who will be there to receive packages? In addition, he noted, companies so far have failed to address the potential of immigrant populations in areas such as Los Angeles by offering bilingual catalogues.

Two other factors could weaken cataloguers' advantage, too. The U.S. Postal Commission is looking into raising the third-class mail rate by 18% to 30%. And the House Ways and Means Committee is considering a bill that would allow states to tax sales to residents by out-of-state mail-order firms.

Given these potential drawbacks, industry observers give the competitive edge to mail-order companies that offer high-quality products and good service.

At Lands' End, a fast-growing outdoor apparel cataloguer based in Dodgeville, Wis., "convenience is the big thing that most people cite," said Terry Wilson, vice president. Customers also appreciate the company's folksy approach in its catalogues, which frequently go into details about the company's history or products. A recent "magalog," as such catalogues are known, featured a pictorial on the Lands' End turtleneck.

Maine mail-order giant L. L. Bean, which introduced a toll-free number in July, 1986, this year expects as many as 70,000 calls on each of the two Mondays after Thanksgiving, according to spokesman Kilton Andrew. During the Christmas season, L. L. Bean figures that it will mail more than 3.5 million packages, racking up $300 million in sales for the October-December period alone. (Unlike most other catalogue companies, Bean covers regular mailing fees and charges only $7 for overnight service.)

These days, it's difficult to find a product that isn't featured in a catalogue. Looking for a gargoyle, a dune buggy, a lute or an accordion? Or how about a gravestone for that departed pet, or a footstool, or some barbecue gear for Uncle Harry?

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