Retailers predict catalogs will set volume record

November 01, 1994|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Thought you got a lot of mail-order catalogs last year? Just wait. Catalog retailers say the 1994 holiday season is breaking all records for mailbox clutter.

Mail-order companies, anticipating an increase in third-class postal rates that will raise their mailing costs by about 10 percent early next year, are sending out more catalogs than usual in hopes of finding new customers at a lower cost.

"Everybody wants to get lots of new names before the postage goes up," said Lillian Vernon, chief executive of her namesake catalog corporation.

"So when they mail next year, they'll be mailing to identified buyers, not just maybes," she added.

By the crudest of measures, the typical American household receives more than 100 catalogs each year, with the bulk of those coming from August through October. And many upper-income families receive even more.

But the increased number of catalogs in most mailboxes may backfire.

"I look for L.L. Bean and Land's End, and everything else just gets thrown away," said Andrea Friedman, who estimates that her Manhattan mailbox was the repository for almost 50 catalogs last week, most of which went straight into the recycling bin.

Matthew G. Flynn of Cambridge, Mass., said he had also noticed an increase in catalogs this year, even though he has asked mail-order companies to keep his name off the lists they sell. "If I didn't get these catalogs, I wouldn't miss them," he said.

While companies have complex computer models that allow them to closely focus on their regular shoppers, they still use mass mailings to prospect, as they call the search for new customers. Among large catalog retailers, Spiegel, Fingerhut, Lands' End and Hanover Direct Inc., which offers Gump's, Tweeds and Domestications catalogs, have intensified the customer search in anticipation of the postal rate increase. So have many smaller catalogers for whom the increased costs could be crippling.

Most consumers believe that the number of catalogs they receive rises each year. Yet, catalog circulation to households and businesses remained flat at roughly 13.5 billion between 1988 and 1992, according to figures compiled by the Direct Marketing Association of New York City. Assuming that the vast majority of those are sent to houses and apartments, most of the 95 million households in the country receive at least 100 catalogs a year.

But this year, the number is expected to rise sharply, perhaps as much as 10 percent.

"A lot of people in the industry are doing significantly more mailing this season," said Charlotte LaComb, a spokeswoman for Lands' End, one of the country's largest mail-order companies. "We certainly are because come January, we're going to have a postal rate increase, which will raise our cost of doing business."

For catalog companies, there has been no postage increase since 1991. But the Postal Service has proposed a 10.3 percent increase in third-class rates, those used most often in catalog mailings. The Postal Rate Commission, the federal agency that sets rates, has held hearings on the Postal Service proposals and is expected to approve an increase sometime before Thanksgiving.

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