Holiday catalog shopping is booming More shoppers using catalogs for the holidays

November 19, 1993|By ANDREW LECKEY | ANDREW LECKEY,Tribune Media Services

The holiday catalog shopping season is under way, with more than 10,000 different colorful books aggressively competing for your attention.

As anyone with a mailbox knows, this is big business.

It's also growing at a 10 percent annual clip. About 102 million Americans, more than half the country's adults, shopped by catalog last year. Purchases totaled $52 billion.

Increasingly, catalog companies offer you the ability to ship items right up until Christmas through use of express delivery services. However, the supply of all popular gift items may not last that long, so it makes sense to order sooner rather than later.

This year, turtlenecks, cashmere sweaters and authentic British bobby whistles are in demand at Land's End, while Harrington's of Vermont is busy shipping traditional smoked hams and Canadian bacon.

The Virtual Reality Stuntmaster, which connects to Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis to immerse you in a video game in which the character moves as you move, is hot at Hammacher Schlemmer. So are autographed baseballs.

"We'll average 100,000 phone calls a day between now and Christmas, a rush that begins in early November and peaks the Monday after Thanksgiving," says Beverly Holmes, a spokeswoman for Land's End, based in Dodgeville, Wis.

Shoppers are ordering earlier this year than in 1992, when the presidential election and concerns over Somalia postponed buying decisions until late in the holiday season, she said.

"More holiday orders these days are received in time to ship for Thanksgiving," said Peter Klinkenberg, owner and president of Harrington's of Vermont, based in Richmond, Vt.

His advice to customers is that they make sure every name, address and ZIP code in each order is correct.

"Our business has doubled in the past four years, with about 85 percent of our orders coming over the phone and the rest by mail," related Denise Keane-Gillette, vice president with Hammacher Schlemmer in Chicago.

She strongly advises ordering through the toll-free phone number, rather than by mail, because this makes it easier to find out information such as stock availability, delivery time and any special options that are available.

Be a smart consumer.

"Be sure to read the catalog and order form, so that you know the company's return policy, guarantees, warranties and shipping charges up front," says Debora Zizmor, a spokeswoman for the Direct Marketing Association, the trade group for the mail-order industry, who notes that a number of catalogs are offering deferred billing, discounts or gifts with purchases to provide added value in this competitive year.

Even if you order by telephone, write down exactly what you ordered for your own records.

Whenever a problem arises, first talk to the company's customer service representatives, which these days aren't just telephone operators but are also trained to help, she said.

The Federal Trade Commission's mail-order rule requires a merchant to ship merchandise within the time promised, or if it didn't specify a time, within 30 days. If the firm can't meet the revised shipping date, it must send the consumer a second notice. Unless the consumer expressly consents to a second delay, it must then cancel the order and issue a prompt refund.

However, the mail-order rule currently applies only to items purchased by mail and not by telephone. Not until next March will the rule be extended to phone orders as well, making this the last holiday season before that important change goes into effect.

"I generally won't be sympathetic to a consumer who hasn't first contacted the catalog company to try to work out problems before contacting our office," warned Elaine Kolish, assistant deputy director of enforcement in the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

If the company doesn't come through, it makes more sense to work through your local Better Business Bureau, your credit card issuer, your state attorney general's office or the Direct Marketing Association, she advised. They have more flexibility in helping resolve specific problems, while the FTC looks for patterns in practices or problems.

Contact the Mail Order Action Line of the Direct Marketing Association at 1101 17th St. N.W., Suite 705, Washington, D.C. 20036-4704.

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