1-800 BIRTHDAY Sees Sales Triple With New Call Center, Personal Touch

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When marketing executive Brian Jersey forgot his sister's birthday for the third year in a row, he decided to create a birthday reminder and gift service, dubbed 1-800 BIRTHDAY.


The company, which debuted three years ago and is growing rapidly, offers more than 100 gifts, including gourmet food, personalized teddy bears, flowers, gag gifts, balloons and birthday-grams delivered by professional singers. 1-800 BIRTHDAY, Norwalk, CT, maintains a database of birthdays, called the Birthday Bank, for its customers and calls or e-mails to remind them of birthdays just around the corner.


Although Jersey declined to disclose sales figures, he said he has been fielding acquisition offers from major companies after increasing last year's fourth-quarter sales 375 percent over the third quarter and 1,300 percent over fourth-quarter 1996.


But Jersey's brainchild is not for sale. Instead, he is focused on growing even bigger through an advertising budget that is six times larger than last year's.


"This is a service whose time has come," said Jersey, who had previous stints at American Express and Prodigy. "I felt there was a terrific opportunity to build a classic, really, a consummate, direct marketing business model, because birthdays are easy to forget -- so we can help. And they happen every year -- so we are serving our customers year after year."


This quarter, a 1-800 BIRTHDAY promotion will appear on 35 million credit card statements issued by large and small financial institutions -- with more credit card promotions planned for the rest of the year.


The company is launching a 60-second commercial that will air on national cable networks and will continue to use radio advertising in the New York area. Radio spots have proved especially successful from live endorsements by disc jockeys like Howard Stern and Don Imus.


Jersey will continue sending gift recipients postcards with 1-800 BIRTHDAY discounts and will keep targeting customers who placed the order by sending them thank-you notes handwritten by their operator.


"I guarantee that there is not a company out there that is in the gift business or the flower business that is sending a hand-written note from the operator who took the order that doesn't have bounce-back offer," Jersey said. "I think that's important. It's a sincere thank you, and the impact it has is dramatic."


Jersey attributes much of his rapid growth to a call center in Norwalk that he opened with $100,000 in September. He chose to leave an undisclosed third-party call center that delivered lukewarm results and train his own staff instead -- a decision that caused sales conversion rates to triple.


"They did as good a job as a third-party provider can do, but the nature of the business is that I'm one of a hundred clients. Now my operators, or gift counselors, think only about 1-800 BIRTHDAY," he said, adding that the vendor's operators often confused his company's many gifts and didn't always get the correct order information.


1-800 BIRTHDAY fields more than 2,000 calls each week, 20 percent of which culminate in sales. More than 20,000 customers and their birthday portfolios are housed in the Birthday Bank. They are sent a catalog three weeks in advance of an upcoming birthday and are called or e-mailed two weeks in advance.


Online orders at the company's Web site, www.1-800birthday.com, still are relatively small, but are doubling every week. Despite the rapid growth, Jersey doesn't expect online sales to outpace telephone orders anytime soon.


"Only 10 to 20 percent of people have functional Internet access," he said. "One hundred percent of people have access to a telephone," he said.


Although Jersey recognizes competition from established direct marketers like 1-800-FLOWERS and start-ups like 1-800 PRESENT, he remains unfazed.


"There are 5 million birthdays in the U.S. every week," he said, "so there is plenty of room for everybody."
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