The catalog industry, which snared a record 98.6 million shoppers last year, is sure to beat that number by the time the 1991 holiday season ends.
There's a big emphasis this year on items for the home, with some companies better known for other merchandise, among them Eddie Bauer, Lands' End and Lillian Vernon, producing specialty catalogs.
"Since baby boomers are nesting, catalog shoppers are ordering more items such as home furnishings, furniture and appliances," observed Lisa Caugherty, director of the Shop at Home Information Center of the Direct Marketing Association in New York.
Catalog firms L.L. Bean and Lands' End head the list for overall customer satisfaction in virtually every category in which they offer merchandise, according to a survey in which 155,000 Consumer Reports subscribers responded. Williams-Sonoma in housewares, Crutchfield in electronics and Collin St. Bakery in food were among the other highest-rated firms.
However, some other well-known companies, among them Spiegel, Victoria's Secret and Frederick's of Hollywood, didn't fare nearly as well in overall customer satisfaction, according to Consumer Reports researcher Jacqueline Bruskin.
Since this is the busiest time of year, order items as soon as possible.
"Forty percent of business takes place in the holiday season between October and the first week of December, and three-fourths of those orders are by telephone," said Catherine Hartnett, spokesperson for L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine, founded in 1912 by a man named L.L. Bean who sent out fliers to advertise hunting boots.
Some fancy items are selling well despite recession.
"A big seller is a $159.99 automatic cappucino maker by Gaggia of Italy, a functional gift item that's convenient as well," said Marshall Marcovit, president of The Chef's Catalog, Northbrook, Ill., started up in 1979 emphasizing restaurant-quality equipment for the home chef.
Be informed before buying. Check a company's satisfaction guarantee and return policies and read all product information. Fill out the order form carefully and keep a record. If you order by fTC phone, fill out the order form in advance to make the process speedier and prevent yourself from forgetting anything.
Make a note of deadline dates for ordering certain gifts. Most companies can process orders by Dec. 15 for delivery by holiday time and most can process up to Dec. 21 using express delivery.
"If anyone wants the protection of the Federal Trade Commission's mail order rule, they'll have to place their orders by mail because telephone orders aren't yet covered," said Elaine Kolish, assistant director for the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
The mail-order rule says merchants have to ship the order within the time specified in advertisements.
If you can't resolve a problem with a company, call the local or state consumer protection office; the local Better Business Bureau; your local postmaster; the 3,600-member Direct Marketing Association; or the issuer of the credit card you used for the purchase.